Global leaders will convene this week at the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh for another round of haggling over the global response to climate change. While the venues are different, the script remains the same: World leaders will outdo one another with dire warnings of catastrophe, agree that the “climate crisis” demands greater ambition to cut emissions, and reiterate their commitment to nonbinding targets the world is unlikely to meet.
Then, if the past is any guide, the climate conference will founder over the same intractable conflicts as always. Poor countries will demand that rich countries cut emissions first and fastest—and support programs to help the global south adapt to a warming climate. Rich countries will demand that poor countries leapfrog fossil fuels and power their development with wind and solar energy. Poor countries will agree, in principle, to do so if rich countries foot the bill and compensate the nations of the global south for damage from climate change they are not responsible for. Rich countries will commit, in principle, to do so but will fail to deliver the promised support.
This has been the basic template for global climate negotiations since they began in earnest in the mid-1990s. The yawning gap between the performative spectacle taking place in Egypt and the world as it actually operates will be all the more pronounced this year. Rich countries have embarked on a mad scramble to secure oil and gas supplies in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Poor countries face deep energy and food shortages as wealthy nations bid up the price of fossil fuels, food, and fertilizer while simultaneously cutting off aid to poor countries to develop their own fossil fuel supplies and infrastructure in the name of avoiding climate disaster.
But while politicians, United Nations functionaries, climate activists, jet-setting celebrities, and a compliant media will find creative ways to escalate the narrative of cascading catastrophes, filled with anecdotes of raging waters, oppressive heat, parched soil, and killer storms, the data tells a different and far more promising story. The world hasn’t, in recent decades, made much progress on cutting overall emissions. But it has become much more resilient to all kinds of climate extremes.
Climate adaptation—the actions that societies take to protect their populations from extreme weather, such as storms, floods, droughts, heat waves, and cold snaps—works. It includes all the things people in rich countries take for granted: well-constructed buildings that withstand disasters, dikes and dams that protect from floods, air conditioning and cold storage for food and medicines, early warning systems, well-equipped first responders, and evacuation routes along well-paved roads.
A society’s resilience to climate extremes is closely coupled, of course, with economic development. That includes access to plentiful energy, better technology, improved agriculture, and the ability to pay for better houses and infrastructure. Even a cursory look at the data makes abundantly clear that development has saved millions of lives over the past century. The average resident of Earth today is more than 90 percent less likely to die from floods, droughts, storms, or other extreme climate events today than the 1920s—and that’s almost entirely the result of a phenomenal decline in the number of people living in poverty without access to such things as safe housing, functioning infrastructure, and good institutions.
Economic growth and technological innovation have saved tens of millions of lives from climate extremes over the last century. Even as global warming heats the planet, we already know that continuing economic development and rising living standards will save countless more lives over the coming decades, especially in the global south.
Yet there will be little acknowledgement of these facts in Egypt. When negotiations turn to adaptation and resilience, the conversation will once again ignore the actual record of climate adaptation, insisting, contrary to the facts, that global vulnerability to climate extremes has radically increased in recent years.
Doing so serves the interests of rich-world governments, whose talk of a climate emergency appeases powerful domestic environmental constituencies that demand limits on further fossil fuel development in poor countries. Poor countries, in turn, marshal claims that climate change is responsible for present-day catastrophes to demand financial resources from rich countries.
But the confusion and disinformation about adaptation that will be on full display in Egypt have also set back efforts to improve climate resilience. That’s because they shift the focus away from proven development pathways, transforming a wildly successful global development project into a zero-sum conflict that pits climate mitigation against adaptation and rich countries against poor.
Why adaptation works
Climate adaptation is one of the great and underappreciated success stories of the last 100 years. The number of deaths associated with extreme weather and climate-related natural disasters has fallen by a factor of 10 over the past century. Adjusted for today’s much larger global population, this mortality has fallen even faster: by a factor of 25.
Well into the 20th century, annual death tolls from climate-related natural disasters numbering in the hundreds of thousands or even millions were routine. In China, the 1887 Yellow River flood killed as many as 2 million people and the 1931 Yangtze-Huai River floods as many as 4 million. Tropical cyclones in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh killed some 61,000 in 1942, 47,000 in 1965, 500,000 in 1970, 50,000 in 1977, and 140,000 in 1991. Famine across India and China regularly killed millions.
Today, deaths in China from flooding number fewer than 500 each year. Cyclones across the Indian subcontinent rarely cause even 1,000 deaths. Neither China nor India has suffered a famine in decades.
These trends long predate knowledge or concern about climate change. But even in the more recent past, for which the data is more reliable and when the effects of global warming had become clearer, the trend shows no sign of stopping. Since the 1980s, the global death rate from these hazards has dropped by 85 percent, including by 52 percent for general floods, 55 percent for heat waves, and 87 percent for storms.
Increased resilience to natural disasters of all sorts is strongly correlated with growing global wealth and improvements in infrastructure, technology, governance, and social services. As those stupendous death tolls from pre-development China and India make clear, the primary beneficiaries have been the globe’s poorest. That is especially true of recent decades, as falling poverty rates, rapid urbanization, and better communications technologies have radically improved the disaster resilience of most populations around the world.
The migration of large populations from rural regions to cities brings with it a shift from unpaved roads and houses often made of mud, which don’t hold up well to storms and flooding, to much more durable infrastructure and housing. Improved sanitation and clean drinking water reduce illness and disease in the aftermath of such events. Better irrigation and crop breeding have reduced the frequency of crop failures resulting from droughts. Refrigeration keeps food from spoiling on its way to markets, and air conditioning helps people keep cool during heat waves.
It is true that climate change can make some aspects of climate extremes worse. A flood, a heat wave, or a hurricane might be intensified by climate change. But in almost all cases, an extreme climate event would still be an extreme event without climate change—it just wouldn’t be quite as extreme. For instance, global warming likely made the high-profile heat wave that struck India in the spring of 2022 about 1 degree Celsius hotter than it would have been otherwise. Warming boosted rainfall from Hurricane Katrina by 4 to 9 percent and from Hurricane Ian by about 10 percent.
Moreover, the human and economic costs of a natural disaster are almost never determined primarily by the intensity of the climate extreme. Rather, those costs are largely determined by how many people are in harm’s way and how well adapted to the hazard those populations are. A Category 1 hurricane making landfall over Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, for instance, would almost certainly result in far greater loss of life than a much more powerful Category 5 hurricane striking Miami. Economic losses, on the other hand, would be greater in Miami, simply because Miami is so much wealthier. But the consequences of those economic losses in terms of livelihoods and human well-being would be much more serious in Port-Au-Prince.
In short, most of the costs associated with present-day climate disasters are due to natural climate variability, not climate change, and are determined by economic development and societal resilience, not the intensity of the climate hazard. For these reasons, the basic formula for adapting to climate change is the same as the formula that has allowed the world to radically reduce the human costs of climate-related disasters over the last century: more wealth, infrastructure, and technology.
How adaptation became a dirty word
Despite overwhelming evidence that humankind has become vastly more resilient to climate extremes—and knows how to further increase its resilience—international efforts to address climate change have largely ignored these facts. Instead of focusing on economic and infrastructure development to raise resilience, policymakers, experts, and activists have focused only on a much smaller set of adaptation measures that would not conflict with their single-minded effort to mitigate carbon emissions.
Al Gore, in his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance, dismissed adaptation as a “kind of laziness, an arrogant faith in our ability to react in time to save our skins.” Over much of the two decades that followed, many climate activists considered “adaptation” to be a dirty word: a form of climate denial that distracted from efforts to cut emissions and ban fossil fuels. Echoes of those claims remain today. For many environmentalists, too much talk of adapting to climate change raises the specter of moral hazard—the concern that focusing on adaptation will draw resources and attention away from efforts to cut emissions.
In 1992, when world leaders adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, they recognized the importance of climate adaptation—but only insofar as it was necessary to address climate impacts attributable to anthropogenic greenhouse emissions, ignoring the far greater risks associated with natural extremes. Defining adaptation so narrowly allowed climate advocates to conflate all kinds of natural climate extremes with anthropogenic warming in the climate discourse, exclude economic development processes from the adaptation picture, and obscure the very real trade-offs between emissions mitigation and climate adaptation—especially for poor countries.
As a result, most advocates today can acknowledge that adaptation is a critical global priority without acknowledging the elephant in the room, which is that economic development is the pathway to climate resilience and that many of the most critical development processes still require fossil fuels. Instead, climate advocates focus on a narrow set of measures to adapt to climate change that largely sidestep the issue. These include abandoning low-lying coastal regions and flood plains rather than protecting them with infrastructure; so-called natural solutions such as restoring wetlands and forests; and limited technological remedies such as early-warning systems and drought-tolerant crop varieties. The common denominator is that this narrow set of projects does not conflict in any way with the climate movement’s priority of cutting emissions.
Without question, some of these measures have merit. But they entirely ignore the proven mechanisms that have so radically improved global resilience to climate extremes. The reason for this is obvious: Development and resilience require energy—and lots of it.
Not only are most of the mechanisms that make societies resilient to climate change energy-intensive, but they also tend to be poorly suited to current low-carbon technologies, particularly renewable energy. Drought-tolerant crops are important. But so are synthetic fertilizers, which are essential to raising agricultural yields and improving food security across Africa and other low-income regions. So, too, is large-scale irrigation. But unlike seeds, synthetic fertilizer is manufactured with natural gas, and irrigation requires a continuous supply of electricity that renewable energy is ill-suited to provide.
Food security does not end on the farm. In Nigeria, 45 percent of fresh produce rots due to the lack of refrigeration. Globally, 1.3 billion tons of perishable food goes to waste each year because of lack of proper post-harvest storage, almost all of it in poor countries. Cold storage and reliable transportation are central to robust food supply chains that are resilient to drought and variations in temperature. But like irrigation and fertilizer production, cold storage is energy-intensive and therefore the preserve of rich and middle-income countries. The United States, for example, uses 50 times as much energy per capita for cold storage as Africa.
To better cope with storms and floods, poor countries need to pave roads, construct dikes, and build resilient homes, schools, and hospitals. This, too, takes plentiful energy. Resilient structures require concrete and steel, which use large amounts of energy in their manufacture. These processes require very high temperatures that can only be attained with fossil fuels. Roads require large amounts of asphalt—a product of petroleum refining.
Paved roads, furthermore, don’t do much good without vehicles. But the world is still decades away from cost-effective electric vehicles and charging infrastructure that could plausibly meet critical transportation needs in places such as sub-Saharan Africa.
In these and so many other ways, efforts to improve global resilience to climate extremes and natural disasters depend on the availability of many kinds of critical infrastructure and adaptive capabilities. Almost all of these require fossil energy. They are either difficult to electrify—such as industrial processes and transportation—which makes them poor candidates to power with renewable energy, or they require continuous power that variable energy sources such as wind and solar cannot currently provide in a cost-effective manner.
The contrast between energy-intensive, society-wide adaptation that demonstrably makes countries more resilient to climate change and the narrow set of adaptation projects that feature at U.N. climate negotiations reveals just how unserious international adaptation efforts actually are. By ignoring proven adaptation processes, climate advocates have been able to shoehorn into a narrow and limited set of adaptation measures not requiring fossil energy capacious demands for climate mitigation while simultaneously insisting that adaptation is a fool’s errand without rapid and deep emissions cuts.
The practical result has been to deemphasize adaptation, pit it against mitigation, and, unconscionably, obstruct the single most important dimension along which the world has made progress to address the problem. Today, the European Union, the Biden administration, and environmental groups based in and financed by the West advocate for blanket bans on international finance for all fossil fuel infrastructure in the name of climate mitigation. This creates no ostensible conflict with international climate adaptation commitments only because all the critical adaptation processes requiring fossil fuels-based development have literally been defined out of the international framework.
All of this, ironically, has been done in the name of saving the global poor from climate catastrophes, even as it has put countless lives at risk by not only ignoring processes that increase resilience but actively obstructing them.
What poor and developing countries should do now
Why, then, have most poor nations signed onto the international framework for climate action, even though they know that poverty and lack of economic development represent a far greater threat to the health and well-being of their populations than climate change?
The answer should be obvious. The U.N. climate framework was predicated on a grand bargain: In exchange for a global commitment to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures, rich nations would cut emissions deeply, underwrite the cost of a clean energy transition in poor countries, and finance adaptation and development to ensure that poor countries would be resilient to the impacts of warming that couldn’t be avoided.
Poor countries bought into this plan in hopes that it would lead to more development support—and out of fear that, without a seat at the table, development aid and access to Western technology and markets would be cut off. But in the 30 years since that framework was adopted, none of these promises have materialized. In Egypt, poor countries would therefore be well advised to reconsider whether continued obeisance to the current climate policy framework serves their needs and interests.
The siren song of recompense for climate damage and unrequited requests for adaptation funding haven’t gotten roads paved, houses built, or modern irrigation, water, and sewage systems installed. Instead, poor countries have inadvertently legitimized catastrophic, wildly exaggerated claims about future climate impacts and their relationship to emissions. These claims, in turn, have justified Western efforts to restrict poor countries’ development of energy resources and infrastructure—the prerequisite for climate resilience.
Over the last decade, international negotiations to address climate change have made a partial and welcome shift. Instead of attempts to negotiate a legally binding treaty to limit warming, climate summits have shifted toward voluntary and bottom-up commitments by national governments to shift their economies away from fossil fuels in ways consistent with other critical priorities, not least economic development.
But these negotiations remain saddled with arbitrary and nonbinding commitments to emissions targets and temperature thresholds, which have become the basis for restrictions by Western governments and multilateral organizations on development finance. All this is happening despite only weak evidence, at best, of a relationship between any specific temperature threshold and catastrophic climate impacts on human societies.
A complete shift of international efforts to address climate change toward a shared global effort to accelerate economic development, build resilient infrastructure, and accelerate low-carbon innovation and deployment is long overdue. Poor countries, which are directly affected, should lead the push.
There are many good reasons to attempt to limit global warming. But precisely how much the Earth warms will not be the main determinant of how climate change will impact human societies. Nor will focusing on wealth, development, infrastructure, and technology preclude a shift away from greenhouse emissions, as many activists would have us believe. To the contrary, there is very good reason to believe that economic growth and development over the rest of this century will be much less carbon-intensive than it was over the last century.
Emissions have already peaked in most rich nations and are now declining, even after one accounts for the outsourcing of carbon-intensive industries to less developed regions. Wind, solar, and even battery technologies have become much more viable technologically and economically, offering real alternatives to fossil fuels in many contexts. Europe has largely reversed its opposition to nuclear energy, dozens of new nuclear plants are under construction across Asia, and a new generation of advanced, safe, small-scale nuclear technologies finally promises to make clean nuclear energy cheaper and more accessible for poor countries, too.
These developments promise to mitigate—but won’t eliminate—global dependence on fossil fuels. Too many uses of fossil fuels remain critical, especially for developing economies. But even here, there is much promise: Africa, where the majority of the world’s population growth will occur over the rest of this century, has abundant natural gas and hydroelectric resources. That could allow Africa to leapfrog coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, even while it uses oil and gas in key sectors of its economy.
Stopping global warming will require the world to cease burning fossil fuels entirely at some point. But a wealthier, more resilient, and more equitable world will have both more time and more resources to do so. The remarkable and largely untold story of adaptation to climate extremes by development shows how.
Putting these lessons into practice, however, will require poor countries to stand up to the easy moralizing and hypocrisy of Western governments and climate advocates—and loudly reject the false constraints that international climate diplomacy has attempted to impose on their development over the last 30 years. Sharm el-Sheikh, an eco-fantasia built by the Egyptian government to cater to European tourists, would be a fitting place to do so—because, just like Sharm el-Sheikh, the U.N. climate framework was constructed to serve rich-world governments and Western environmentalists. This month, developing-world leaders couldn’t ask for a better and more symbolic place to abandon it.
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