As climate disasters mount, the world isn't spending nearly enough to adapt

People walk through floodwaters in Dadu, Pakistan, in September 2022. (Saiyna Bashir for The Washington Post)

As climate change makes extreme weather events more intense and frequent, the world must spend hundreds of billions more a year - 10 to 18 times more than it currently spends - helping vulnerable people adapt to mounting devastation, United Nations experts said Thursday.

The warning comes as millions of people suffer amid severe droughts, catastrophic wildfires and ruinous floods fueled by rising global temperatures. It also comes less than a month before the next U.N. Climate Change Conference, hosted this year in Dubai, where negotiators from wealthy countries are expected to resist calls to compensate poor nations for such deadly disasters.

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"Storms, fires, floods, drought and extreme temperatures are becoming more frequent and more ferocious, and they're on course to get far worse," U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said in a statement on the Adaptation Gap Report.

"Lives and livelihoods are being lost and destroyed, with the vulnerable suffering the most," he said. "Yet as needs rise, action is stalling."

The findings should provide a wake-up call for the diplomats and world leaders attending the upcoming climate conference in Dubai known as COP28, said Andrea Hinwood, chief scientist with the U.N. Environment Program, which released the report.

"We don't produce reports just for the hell of it," Hinwood said in an interview. "Negotiators at COP28 need to think about this seriously."

The authors of the report examined the gap between how much money vulnerable countries need to adapt to climate disasters and how much money the world is offering. They concluded that this "adaptation finance gap" is between $194 billion and $366 billion per year - more than 50 percent higher than previous U.N. estimates.

Developing nations need between $215 billion and $387 billion each year to protect against climate disasters, the report says. But global spending on adaptation fell to just $21 billion in 2021, the latest year for which comprehensive data is available.

The findings underscore a cycle of inequality: Developing countries that have contributed the least to climate change are suffering the most because of decisions by rich, industrialized countries to continue burning fossil fuels and pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And those wealthy nations are not providing more cash to help poor countries cope with the consequences of their actions.

For instance, Pakistan, historically responsible for less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, was devastated last summer by heavy flooding that killed nearly 1,500 people and caused more than $40 billion in damage. Scientists have said the flooding was supercharged by human-caused global warming.

"The last year was a year of devastation for us," said Malik Amin Aslam, who until last year was Pakistan's minister of climate change. "The climate crisis is already upon us."

At last fall's international climate summit in Egypt, negotiators from nearly 200 nations agreed to establish a fund to help vulnerable countries address "loss and damage" - U.N. jargon for the irreversible, unavoidable impacts of global warming. But nearly a year later, nations are still squabbling over the most basic elements of the fund, including who should pay into it and who should benefit.

"We've been hoping since last year for these funds to be coming through," Assam said. "But the door is still not opening."

Many people are unfamiliar with the concept of adaptation, but examples abound in everyday life, said Harjeet Singh, the New Delhi-based head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International.

"When it comes to adaptation, what are we talking about?" he said. "Adaptation means helping communities raise the height of their houses so that their homes don't get flooded. It is about providing water during drought conditions or retrofitting roofs to prevent damage from cyclones."

The U.N. emphasized that proactive investments in adaptation can stave off even costlier climate damages in the future. For example, a $1 billion investment in protecting communities from coastal flooding can prevent $14 billion in damage from destroyed homes and infrastructure. Early-warning systems, which alert communities to approaching extreme weather, can yield a tenfold return on investment.

The report points to one sign of progress: Roughly 5 out of 6 countries have adopted a national climate adaptation plan or strategy. But such plans are no substitute for cash, experts say. And the outlook for the new "loss and damage" fund, announced with much fanfare last year, now appears increasingly bleak.

Last month, the fourth round of talks over how to set up the fund collapsed after going into overtime. A fifth round has been hastily convened this week in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, the petrostate that will host COP28.

The United States, which has historically emitted more greenhouse gases than any other country, has not pledged any new money for the fund, and the Republican-controlled House would be unlikely to approve a new contribution. But U.S. officials have still shaken up the negotiations by suggesting that the World Bank host the fund.

Many developing countries strongly oppose this proposal, saying the fund should operate as an independent body under the U.N. They argue that America dominates the World Bank as its largest shareholder and would have undue influence over the money.

"It's a shareholder-based governance model where the more money you put in, the more power you have," Brandon Wu, director of policy and campaigns for the nonprofit group ActionAid USA, said on a Wednesday call with reporters. "The U.S. of course has the largest share of power. So governance is a major issue."

A State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive diplomatic issue, said launching the fund from scratch could take years, so placing it within the World Bank would be a faster way of delivering climate aid to countries in need.

"We want to make it operational as soon as possible," the official said. "And the easiest way to do that is to leverage something that already exists and already has the infrastructure and the capability."

One of the most vocal proponents of the loss and damage fund, the Bangladeshi-British scientist Saleemul Huq, died Sunday after playing an instrumental role in its creation. Some climate activists have called for the fund to be named after Huq, a word that means "rights" or "dues" in Urdu.

In a letter accepting an invitation to advise the COP28 presidency earlier this year, Huq emphasized the importance of adaptation.

"The fund manager should visit each country as it gets hit by climate events to help those affected - not just to recover from a disaster but to invest in building longer-term climate resilience," he wrote.

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