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The Cost of Inaction With Climate Change

No pressure COP21 delegates, but an Oxfam report finds that, unless progress is made in Paris, climate change could cost the developing world billions.
Hundreds of people with placards take part in a demonstration on November 14, 2015, in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)

Hundreds of people with placards take part in a demonstration on November 14, 2015, in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)

Next week in Paris, some 40,000 government officials, journalists, activists, and lobbyists will descend on the city as delegations from 195 countries convene to nail down plans for curbing emissions and opening new energy markets in the face of climate change. The last Conference of the Parties, as the summit is known, occurred six years ago in Copenhagen. While the Copenhagen COP was supposed to be a turning point in climate change policy, it was largely deemed a failure. Should COP21 fall similarly short, it'll likely be at the expense of the 3.5 billion poorest people around the world, according to a new report from Oxfam International.

Ahead of this year's conference, participating nations submitted emissions reduction pledges, known officially as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. The United States, for example, agreed to cut emissions 25 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Still, the promises of many developed nations tend to fall "well short of their fair share," according to the report. And either way, cumulatively, the pledges wouldn't be enough to prevent runaway climate change. "Even if all countries meet their INDC commitments, the world is likely to warm by a devastating 3°C or more, with a significant likelihood of tipping the global climate into catastrophic runaway warming," the report warns.

If that were to happen, developing countries would be left to foot an astronomical bill by mid-century, according to the report. Developing countries can expect adaptation costs—the money nations use to buffer the unexpected and catastrophic effects of climate change—to reach $790 billion per year ($270 billion more than if temperatures rise only by two degrees Celsius). Economic losses for the developing world could eventually reach $1.7 billion annually, the report finds. And, perhaps most concerning, is the fact that those projected losses far outstrip the amount of financial aid rich countries provided to developing nations last year. The report breaks it down like this:

If all of today's public adaptation finances were to be divided among the world's 1.5 billion smallholder farmers in developing counties, they would get around $3 each a year to cope with climate change. This would be to adapt to more frequent and severe droughts, floods and other climate extremes, and to pay for drought-resistant crops, small-scale irrigation systems or mangroves to protect crops from storms. Equivalent to the price of a cup of coffee in many rich countries, this grossly inadequate amount underlines the derisory sums of money being provided to the world's poorest people to adapt to a problem they did least to cause.

Oxfam notes that the financial gap could be addressed in Paris if the delegations commit to contributing a minimum of $50 billion for adaptation by 2025. Oxfam also wants countries to agree to a thorough review of mechanisms for emissions reductions that would encourage nations to make more ambitious reduction pledges and ensure that the world's wealthiest nations—and powerhouse greenhouse gas emitters—shoulder their fair share. "The Paris COP won't save the world," the report's authors write. "But it must serve as a springboard for increasing climate ambition in the years ahead."


"Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change" is Pacific Standard's aggressive, year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.