Mitigation focus of UN climate meetings an albatross around the neck of poor countries seeking adaptation funding

Blog, Climate, Tom Harris

Developing countries must rethink their negotiating strategies before climate change conference

As they approach the November 26- December 7 Eighteenth Conference of the Parties (COP18) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Qatar, developing countries need to adjust their game plan. Their quest for financial support for climate change adaptation has largely failed, primarily because they have allowed it to be tied to the impossibly complex climate change mitigation* negotiations.

While at the 15th Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen in 2009, I asked one of the lead African negotiators what he thought of the thousands of protestors outside the Bella Center. “They are crazy!” he said. “They are protesting what might happen in half a century. My people need help right now!”

“But don’t you believe humans are causing dangerous climate change?” I inquired. He shrugged, “I don’t know. I am not a climate expert. But I do know the droughts are killing us and we need help today, not in 50 years!”

So I asked one of the African climate scientists if he thought humanity’s carbon dioxide emissions were causing dangerous global warming and other climate change. He replied quietly, “No, I do not.”

“Then why is your government supporting the mitigation negotiations?” I queried him.

“Because mitigation and adaptation negotiations are tied together and so we need to go along with the train if we are to get vitally needed adaptation funds,” the scientist explained.

This attitude was common among African scientists. Although they would not say so publicly, many did not personally support dangerous human-caused climate change theories at all. However, they went with the flow, ostensibly agreeing with the politically correct view of climate mitigation so as to increase the chance of getting what they really wanted out of the conference.

Of course, the mitigation negotiations collapsed mostly because China and the United States could not reach an agreement on acceptable targets and plans for monitoring. So, as has usually been the case at international climate change meetings, the Africans went home empty handed, with promises of adaptation funding, but nothing more.

Coming to legally binding mitigation agreements is proving to be virtually impossible even with most of the negotiators convinced that reducing emissions is needed to achieve “climate stability” (a hopelessly flawed concept). Consequently, mitigation has become the albatross around the neck of developing countries seeking adaptation funding out of the UN process. This problem will only get worse as the recession drags on and governments become increasingly resistant to restricting their economic recoveries through emissions reduction.

Developing countries must insist that adaptation negotiations, and the agreements that eventually ensue, be totally separated from the so far fruitless mitigation wars. Not only will this greatly simplify discussions, but the chances of significant climate adaptation agreements will be much enhanced. After all, in contrast to mitigation where the very foundation of the issue is under dispute by climate scientists around the world, no one doubts that climate change has very serious impacts on people not wealthy enough to properly prepare for and adapt to change.

Some will argue that developing countries must continue to play the guilt card if they want to see significant adaptation assistance from wealthy nations. Developed nations supposedly caused the climate problems of developing countries, the argument goes, so we must pay reparations for our sins. But this strategy is clearly failing. Not only do most people resent being blamed for problems a half a world away that they have never seen, but a large fraction of the public have become skeptical about the science that supposedly connects our emissions with climate problems. With this year’s record high Antarctic sea ice levels, the continuing relatively low incidence and severity of tropical cyclones across the world and the UK Met Office’s announcement that there has been no overall global warming for the past 16 years, public skepticism will remain strong in many countries, leaving their governments uncomfortable about making legally-binding mitigation commitments.

However, removing climate change adaptation negotiations from the mitigation-focused COPs will permit a fresh start. Helping poor countries adapt to climate change will then be simply an issue of foreign aid and humanitarian assistance, where it should have been from the start.


Tom Harris is Executive Director of the International Climate Science Coalition ( and an advisor to the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

*Mitigation is primarily the drive to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions in the belief that this will stop or slow down climate change.