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The new meaning of Climate Action. (World Bank conference, 2016, creative commons.)

The time for Adaptation Ambition under the Paris Agreement has arrived

With news that we’re not likely to solve the climate crisis, hope now shifts from Article 4 to Article 7.

What a seismic start to 2021. It is a climate moment that really must not be lost on anyone. First, a quick recap:

  • January 20, inauguration day, President Biden signed an Executive Order to rejoin the Paris Agreement.
  • A week later, January 27, he penned another one launching the promised whole-of-government approach to cascade climate action across the country and via U.S. engagements in every country on Earth.
  • On February 19, the U.S. did rejoin Paris, an event marked by the launch of America Is All In, the former We’re Still In, a coalition of companies, NGOs and state/local governments now promoting a whole-of-society partnership with the federal government. This column, in fact, was inspired by you in All In as I sat in on the Zoom launch call, and written with you in mind, particularly the 1,000+ member companies, my brethren in the sustainable-business and ESG world.

America is back in. Our commitment to climate ambition is back in, hand-in-hand with the global community of like-minded countries, companies, NGOs and state/local governments. Our sense of hope, of tomorrow, is back in.

Except…

  • One week to the day after America rejoined Paris and launched All In, news broke of how abysmally far the world is from staying below the target 1.5° and 2° Celsius temperature rise, with only a 5% chance of doing so even if — a big if at this point — all countries and companies live up to their long-term Paris commitments. Only a 5% chance.
  • Other stories broke deeply questioning the wisdom of the entire net-zero approach most companies and countries are using to close that gap. That is, achieving net-zero by 2050 has become everyone’s principal ambition commitment, but it is increasingly clear it will highly likely fall significantly short of the promise, virtually guaranteeing the world will indeed overshoot 1.5° and 2°C.
  • Still other stories — this one, this one and this one, to include but three — keep telling us how rapidly and massively climate change is worsening, with a high probability now that 1.5°C will be breached as early as this very decade. This study indicates we’re on pace to reach 4°C around 2070, with climate-system tipping points and feedback loops overriding human attempts to reduce temperatures by slashing emissions. So we’ll probably be overshooting long before everyone presumably gets to net-zero.

As instructed by the Paris Agreement

None of this is to suggest we should take our foot off the Paris Agreement Article 4 mitigation accelerator. By all means, let’s double down. Even in an overshoot scenario, the more we decarbonize today, the lower the chance we’ll get to four degrees, and that’s as vital an objective as there is.

Matched, to be sure, by the equally vital goal of adapting today to whatever the climate throws our way on our way to the 1.5° to 4°C economy we’re locked into.

And that’s where the other big part of the Paris Agreement enters the picture, right about…now. Because with the overshoot probability so high, Priority #1 must be to prepare as many people, places and organizations as we humanly can, as thoroughly and urgently as we can, for the climate onslaught sure to come, indeed already underway.

That said, I still hear from folks in the environmental community that going big on adaptation and resilience somehow takes away from going big on mitigation and decarbonization. And that, in fact, is a deadly false choice — reasonable, perhaps, when we did have a clear shot at solving the climate crisis. But we don’t have a clear shot any longer. We have a 5% chance. Those odds dramatically favor adapting, given the unthinkable number of lives, businesses and livelihoods at stake if we do not, if we keep clinging to the notion that adapting takes away from solving.

Therein lies the larger wisdom of the Paris Agreement and the path it would have us take. It instructs us to do both, mitigation and adaptation, at the same time. And I find it absolutely awesome that the same Paris Agreement we use to push mitigation hard can now be used just as aggressively to scale adaptation.

Since the adaptation components of the accord have been largely lost on most people, I thought it would be useful to outline here what the Paris Agreement actually says:

  • Article 2: “This agreement aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change [by] increasing the ability to adapt and foster resilience.”
  • Article 6: “In the implementation of their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs),” parties will “allow for higher ambition in their adaptation actions.”
  • Article 7(1): “Parties hereby establish the global goal of enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change.”
  • Article 7(2): “Parties recognize that adaptation is a global challenge faced by all with local, subnational, national, regional and international dimensions, and that it is a key component of the global response to climate change.”
  • Article 7(10–11): “Each Party should submit and update periodically an adaptation communication as a component of or in conjunction with other communications or documents, including a national adaptation plan, a nationally determined contribution, and/or a national communication.”
  • Article 8: “Parties recognize the importance of averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including extreme weather events and slow onset events.”

Pretty amazing, right? For brevity, I omitted the mitigation references to highlight the Agreement’s powerful adaptation message. You can see that the high-ambition NDCs countries are working on are supposed to include adaptation-ambition contributions. For organizations like All In to live up to their promise of promoting Paris, it seems to me they should work as hard to secure the most ambitious adaptation commitment as they do for mitigation.

From now on, when we say “it’s time for ambition and urgent climate action under the Paris Agreement,” let’s include all of the Paris Agreement. Both parts.

Yes, because words matter. Climate Action can no longer be only about mitigation. Neither can Ambition, nor Nationally Determined Contributions. The climate language in daily use must expand to reflect what the Paris Agreement says.

Article 7 is the principal section dedicated to adaptation. I only included four sections and subsections; it has 28. Article 8 is entirely about adaptation, as well, though focused specifically on creating resilience against losses and damages.

The next six articles apply equally to both, which means we’re to apply them to adaptation at the same priority level: 9 (finance), 10 (tech and innovation), 11 (capacity building), 12 (public awareness and climate literacy) and 13–14 (transparency and reporting).

Join the revolution

To their credit, the Biden climate team has signaled in public interviews and statements that they are all in, aligned with the January 27 Executive Order and its emphatic resilience directives. In fact, I ran through it for this recent column and discovered a veritable American adaptation revolution.

Every federal agency was instructed to prepare new rules that demand resilience of everyone who receives federal funding, leases office space or real estate, is a supplier, and is on the receiving end of a federal-agency investment — in the United States and wherever these agencies do anything with anyone in any country on the planet.

Think about how far that will go, if only in the next four years, to cascade adaptation. And that isn’t the only Big Thing creating a revolution:

  • The Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) is now mainstream, getting public companies to begin assessing and disclosing their climate risks, and moving the U.S., the U.K., Switzerland and other countries to mandate it via regulation.
  • The landmark Climate Adaptation Summit was held in January and launched Race to Resilience, a massive mobilization effort to protect upwards of four billion vulnerable people from extreme climate.
  • Philanthropists have made headlines of late with large-money investments in adaptation programs and innovations, including the Global Commission on Adaptation partly funded by Bill Gates, the Atlantic Council’s Arsht-Rockefeller Resilience Center, and numerous others.
  • Speaking of Rockefeller, cities continue to lead the way, including the Resilient Cities Network (the former Rockefeller-funded 100 Resilient Cities). ICLEI’s Resilient Development Pathway, the Global Covenant of Mayors, C40, Climate Mayors in the U.S., EuroCities in Europe, and other organizations, totaling thousands of urban areas, are also stepping up their resilience game.

This is simply the most exciting time ever for climate adaptation. The opportunities are endless, and everywhere you turn. At the resilience organizations of which I’m a member through my own practice — namely COMMON, the American Society of Adaptation Professionals (ASAP), the U.S. Green Building Council, and the Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF) — we’re certainly seeing those openings come alive.

If you’re an All In company working on your Paris contribution, perhaps also moving toward TCFD compliance, ideally designing a visionary adaptation plan for your own company to make it through and hold its value in the imminent 1.5° to 4°C economy, the time has come to embrace Adaptation Ambition.

The business case for a company is open and shut:

  • If you have or can innovate an adaptation solution, the market is opening for you like the Red Sea.
  • If you’re a public company, adaptation ambition can help you draw a bigger share of the booming ESG investment space and emerge well from the new regulatory scrutiny.
  • Leading-edge resilience, particularly against the 3°C and 4°C scenarios likely to materialize, will reduce disaster-recovery and business-interruption expenses astonishingly, particularly since there are growing doubts about the future availability of suitable insurance.
  • It will also, much like sustainable management has done, boost employee engagement and consumer loyalty game-changingly. Indeed, to the extent you adapt and competitors do not, you’ll attract the talent and sales —what I call the new wellspring of value, or how value will be created.

I can go on, but the message is clear. The time for adaptation has arrived, at every level: government, company, NGO and citizen, in every country. The time to pivot our Paris Agreement ambition push has arrived, from one focused on mitigation to a balanced approach that features adaptation on a par.

The time to face the odds has arrived, because we plan and act based on the probable. Not the miracle.

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Alexander Díaz

Alexander Díaz

Pioneering Deep Climate Adaptability as a business value driver and Adaptation Ambition for faster mainstreaming. Because societies adapt only if companies do.

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