The impact of climate change and how to respond to it is the defining political debate of our era. There are two forms this response can take – reacting to environmental disasters by providing financial and technical assistance to affected areas, or adapting to the effects of global heating by preparing for future disasters.
Adaptation efforts – building flood protections, early warning systems and investing in resilient infrastructure – are increasingly recognised as important tools in limiting the consequences of climate change. This was a key focus of the UK’s COP26 presidency goals at the UN climate summit, which highlighted closing the “adaptation gap” and building resilience to climate change globally.
Despite this, there are more political rewards for devoting attention and resources to disaster relief, rather than disaster preparedness. This means politicians have little incentive to introduce large-scale investment in climate change adaptation.
Research finds that the public is more supportive of policies that react to adverse climate events, rather than those that proactively minimise the potential for damage (like flood defences). Reacting to a disaster is clearer and more visible to voters than investing in disaster preparedness.
These political incentives are clearly demonstrated in US presidential elections. Research examining elections from 1988-2004 found that incumbent politicians received higher vote shares when they prioritised disaster relief spending while in office, compared to equivalent spending on disaster preparedness.
Research published this year found that the key to breaking this cycle is helping the public better understand the economic benefits of disaster preparedness. While voters who have experienced disasters are not more willing to invest in preparedness, communicating information about the long-term benefits of this investment can increase public support.
The global stage
Action on climate adaptation also has a chequered history at the international level. It has long been considered a taboo due to concerns it would distract from efforts to mitigate climate change. Adaptation has only recently started to receive significant attention and pledges from developed countries.
These nations have the economic and technical resources to fund the scale of adaptation required in developing countries. But this investment has been limited by the problem of defining what exactly constitutes adaptation..
There is often a lack of clarity for international bodies in knowing whether projects actually offer protection from climate disasters, or are instead broadly focused on economic development.
The UN’s Green Climate Fund recently chose not to submit for approval a project focusing on building resilience to hydro-meterological hazards in Timor-Leste over these exact concerns.
Global investment in adaptation does not have the same immediacy as disaster relief. This is compounded by the fact that those most responsible for global adaptation funding -– the advanced economies -– are less affected by the immediate consequences of climate change.
Corruption v climate
The current approach to adaptation projects also draws attention to corruption in developing countries. Often referred to as the “C-word”, discussion of corruption has been avoided by policymakers and non-governmental organisations in order to avoid weakening political support for assistance.
A 2010 study by the UK government found that 57% of the British public considered it pointless to donate aid to poorer countries, due to government corruption in recipient countries. As a result, financing climate adaptation is likely hampered by public distrust in projects without clear immediate outcomes, compared to the highly visible response to disaster events.
Governments of wealthier donor countries must more clearly identify both the economic and humanitarian benefits of investing in adaptation for developing countries. This will likely increase support for these investments. This has limitations, as citizens in developed countries may be wary of efforts to boost growth abroad at the expense of domestic growth.
At the international level, interpersonal connections and experience have been shown to increase humanitarian aid flows..
Sadly, the increasing number of climate-related disasters such as flooding and wildfires in economically developed countries may be the key to support for necessary adaptation efforts across borders.
Liam F. Beiser-McGrath does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.