The time to adapt to climate change is now
We have been experiencing one of the most difficult periods in modern history. The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 2 million people, sickened millions more, devastated the global economy, and erased years of progress in fighting poverty, hunger, and other diseases. The only reason this crisis is not even worse is because the world—especially its scientists and researchers—came together quickly to fight the virus. Thanks to unprecedented levels of global scientific collaboration, the COVID-19 vaccines represent the fastest humanity has ever gone from identifying a new disease to immunizing against it.
As the world works to ensure that everyone can get vaccinated, nobody wants to think about the next crisis. But unfortunately, we do not have the luxury not to. As bad as the pandemic has been, climate change will be even worse if we do not start applying the same spirit of global collaboration right now to address it. Within decades, climate change impacts could kill nearly three times as many people per year as COVID did in 2020, and its economic costs will be as bad as having a COVID-sized pandemic every 10 years.
Climate change poses two distinct challenges. First, to mitigate its worst effects in the years to come, our global civilization needs to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. Given that the world currently emits about 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases a year, this might be the toughest task humanity has ever faced. But we can accomplish it if we start working toward that goal now. In his new book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, our co-chair Bill Gates lays out a comprehensive road map for reducing global emissions to net-zero and points to where additional innovation is needed to succeed.
That will be hard enough, but reaching net zero is only half the problem. Even if the world reduces its emissions to net-zero within the 30-year timeframe, some impacts are already locked in. Global temperature averages conceal, for example, the fact that sub-Saharan Africa will be hit harder and sooner by significant warming than much of the rest of the world. So we must also help vulnerable populations adapt to the climate changes that are happening now. This is our primary climate focus at the foundation, and we believe we can play a catalytic role in accelerating these necessary adaptation efforts.
Already, on top of all the economic hardships brought by COVID, higher temperatures and changing weather patterns are affecting hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. These changes are disrupting crop and livestock systems, supercharging extreme weather events, and making it harder for families on the edge to escape poverty and starvation. Women and girls are being disproportionately affected by these climate changes.
Just imagine you are a small-scale farmer in Kenya or Nigeria or India. You have been working your two-acre farm and gradually improving your yields to feed your family. But then, because of forces completely beyond your control, you must suddenly deal with a terrible drought, or flash floods that ruin your crop, or a swarm of locusts that eat everything in sight.
This is not hypothetical. This is happening right now to families all over the world. The climate crisis is particularly cruel in this way: The people who have contributed the least to global emissions are among those already suffering the most. In places where half of employment is based on agriculture, this can also produce a systemwide economic crash, meaning even more lost incomes, poverty, and hunger.
As governments put together economic stimulus packages to rebound from COVID-19, this is the time to aggressively reduce global emissions and help vulnerable populations adapt to the changing climate. The good news is that we know the areas where action can make a difference. If we collectively focus on this crisis now, start making long-term plans for adaptation and resilience, and factor climate risk into all of our decisions, we can prevent millions of people from falling into poverty due to climate change in the next 10 years.
Here are some areas where acting decisively in 2021 could have a tremendous impact:
Whether it’s cutting greenhouse gas emissions or helping farmers adapt to changing weather, the world needs to invest now in basic research and development to generate the breakthrough innovations needed to stem the climate crisis. As soon as feasible, governments and the private sector alike should work to both rapidly ramp up investment in basic R&D and seek out and support agricultural innovations that can be transformative.
As the world leader in harnessing agricultural science for better lives, CGIAR (formerly the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) is a critical piece of the puzzle. CGIAR is currently working to accelerate climate solutions for food, land, and water systems and develop crop and livestock varieties and breeds that are more resistant to climate change’s many detrimental impacts, such as drought, disease, pests, and weeds. But even though every dollar spent on CGIAR research produces about $10 in benefits for low-income countries, current levels of investment in CGIAR agricultural research centers aren’t even half of what they need to be. More money spent on R&D can yield tremendous benefits down the road—benefits the world will never see if it doesn’t start investing now.
Digital tools for adaptation
Another promising avenue for adaptation efforts is taking full advantage of digital technologies. For example, CGIAR and many others are creating tools to help farmers adapt to unpredictable weather; they include drones and sensors that can assess water levels and phone apps that can more easily identify and track pests and diseases. Through improved early warning systems, these digital tools can help farmers in even very remote areas prepare for climate-related threats. They can also connect them with experts who can advise them on conserving water, choosing stress-tolerant crop varieties, or getting animals immunized against vector-borne diseases.
Since even just a day’s warning about an upcoming extreme climate event can cut damages by a third, the Global Commission on Adaptation (GCA) estimates that investing US$800 million in better digital warning systems in developing nations could prevent losses of US$3 billion to US$16 billion a year. That’s why organizations like GCA and the German international development company GIZ have developed digital blueprints and principles to accelerate the rollout of these systems—because they’ve already been proven to have an impact. For example, in 2015, Ethiopia suffered a drought as severe as the one that caused the 1984 famine, but this time the country had infrastructure and technologies in place to avert another crisis.
The private sector and international community can further these advances by making much-needed investments in digital innovations, rolling them out at scale, and ensuring that farmers can access these resources and technologies.
Investment in water
Water is of course central to both human life and smallholder agriculture, but the effects of climate change on water pose a vicious double-edged problem. On one hand, rising seas and more extreme weather threaten to inundate coastal and low-lying regions, forcing mass relocation and damages that are projected to exceed $1 trillion per year by 2050. Increased rainfall also means more floods that endanger crop yields and swamp rudimentary sanitation systems, exposing more families to unsafe drinking water and dangerous pathogens.
On the other hand, climate change also means that many more people will be increasingly subject to droughts that prove devastating to both safe drinking water and food supplies. Left unchecked, climate change will increase the number of people experiencing water scarcity to as many as 3 billion by 2050.
Nations and communities need to prepare now for these additional climate risks by incorporating them into future planning, strengthening water infrastructure, investing in healthy watersheds, and supporting new technologies that can more efficiently use and allocate water. Among these potential innovations are more decentralized (and thus more resilient) wastewater systems and toilets that can operate without a water supply. At the foundation, we support research into these reinvented toilets, which could also drastically reduce disease and improve sanitation for billions around the world.
Stronger safety nets, wiser policies
We know that even though the world must adapt to the changing climate now, people can’t be insulated against all eventualities. Already, the effects of climate change threaten hundreds of millions who are still reeling from the pandemic. These families face poverty, disease, and hunger through no fault of their own—and they aren’t even causing the emissions that are driving this crisis.
In light of this reality, the foundation strongly urges governments, the private sector, and international organizations to shore up social safety nets and help people in the most vulnerable communities gain access to credit, insurance, and savings. Similarly, climate change is placing increasing constraints not just on water but on other critical natural resources such as soil and forests. Public policy should recognize these growing constraints and conserve critical natural resources whenever possible.
We can no longer afford to pretend that climate change is a problem for the future. Its impacts are being felt right now all over the planet, and they will only grow worse if the world does not begin reducing emissions and helping people adapt to the new normal. Even as we work to contain and ultimately defeat COVID-19, it is time to come together and address the climate crisis in earnest.
You can read more about the foundation’s work to accelerate climate adaptation efforts in a Q+A with Rodger Voorhies, president of the foundation’s Global Growth & Opportunity Division.