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Climate debt, principles for adaptation finance
NewsNotes, March-April 2010
Vol. 35 No. 2

Although no definitive climate agreement came out of Copenhagen, the U.S. did announce a proposal to provide adaptation funding for affected countries. Before the plans are rolled out, it is important to outline the kinds of principles that should shape adaptation funding in such a way that the U.S. takes responsibility for its climate debt while providing adequate assistance to vulnerable communities to respond to current and future climate risks.

Maryknoll missioners report that climate change has already had a severe impact on people who have contributed least to carbon emissions. Future effects of climate change threaten to push even more people into poverty. With the increase of extreme and intense weather events, such as storms, floods and droughts, already fragile sources of income are further eroded by climate change. While women and children are the most seriously impacted, the entire balance of life on Earth is at stake.

Industrialized countries, home to about one fifth the world’s people, have grown wealthy while emitting almost three quarters of all historic greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which is shared with all life on Earth. The use of resources and atmospheric space by northern countries (with the U.S. leading the trend) contributes disproportionately to a global ecological foot print that exceeds the Earth’s capacity to regenerate by about 30 percent. If everyone on the planet lived the way that people in the U.S. lived we would require three to five planets to sustain us.

But, as we know, most people in the global south do not live even close to a U.S. lifestyle. People in less industrialized countries are living through the consequences of the amount of resources consumed and waste generated by industrialized countries like the United States. This is why the U.S. leads the long list of northern countries that have a global responsibility for freeing up environmental space and for helping to curb the adverse effects of their historical and continuing high per-person emissions on communities and countries living in poverty.

This is what is known as climate debt: a debt that industrialized countries owe to less industrialized countries. Reparation of that debt means assisting countries both through technology transfer and through funding to put in place adaptation schemes that include risk-reduction activities, sustainable land-use planning, local risk assessments, effective early warning systems, protection of environmental resources and ecosystems, and raising public awareness of climate risk. Since people living in poverty are the most vulnerable adaptation funding should also be directed towards immediate poverty alleviation in areas most negatively affected by climate.

Principles for an adaptation funding framework being discussed by NGOs and faith communities include:

  • Substantial, obligatory and automatic funding from diverse sources to generate the volume of funding needed, established on the UN principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” and respective capabilities
  • Representative governance that is democratic, transparent, and accountable to all, with civil society represented in all governance structures
  • Participatory planning that ensures the full participation of climate impacted peoples in developing actions and policies for adaptation and the shift to low-carbon economies
  • Capacity building for the development, application, transfer and dispersal of sustainable and equitable technologies, practices and processes and development of local expertise
  • Direct access for the most vulnerable so that social movements, NGOs and community-based groups and especially women have direct access to funds (in addition to government agencies)
  • Protecting rights of all people, particularly recognizing and respecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, to determine their own development path, decision-making processes, and activities related to climate change
  • Robust monitoring and evaluation by community stakeholders and relevant experts to ensure the effective use of funding and to track program performance

Climate disasters undo decades of development and reverse gains in poverty reduction. As the Millennium Development Goals languish in spite of pledges of funding, there is concern that industrialized countries will renege on commitments on development aid as well as on adaptation assistance under existing agreements.

Pressure must be put on northern governments, and the U.S. in particular, to live up to their responsibility around climate debt.

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