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It’s down to local action to integrate climate change, development and disaster work, project by project.

Climate science has come a long way. It has moved beyond fierce battles for acceptance — despite scientific uncertainties and remaining sceptics — to a stage where action is clearly the next step.

As you read this, the world stands in the middle of two high-profile global processes set to decide the policy framework on climate change and development for the next 15 years. Two weeks ago, 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted at the UN summit in New York, United States. And in a few weeks, countries will again gather under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP 21) to negotiate a new international treaty to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

This momentous year has seen a third major UN process take shape. A voluntary agreement to tackle disasters — offering seven targets and four priorities for action — was reached in March and endorsed in June. Like the SDGs, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction runs until 2030.

In reality, despite their separate UN frameworks, the challenges of climate change, development and disasters are, of course, interlinked. The Spotlight we publish today takes a closer look at some of those links, probing how comfortably (or uncomfortably) effective action for climate change sits with other agendas.

Policy barriers, shared agendas

Science has been documenting for some time how climate change, development and disasters are connected. Writing in an overview article, research scientist Ilan Kelman of University College London, United Kingdom, recounts their history, overlaps and conflicts. 

Kelman’s overview suggests that, despite the policy separation, evidence points to shared actions. And focusing on the links, through UN processes and beyond, will place climate change in a wider development context that should help overcome barriers to action.

The vast distance between UN conference centres and poor villages is one barrier to action. In a feature article, journalist Joe Turner looks at some of the reasons why indigenous peoples’ experiences and views lose out when competing for political attention.

A document of key resources put together by Kelman outlines voices and sources of information on climate change, development and disaster risk. And his research offers a powerful visual archive of the vulnerability of small island developing states (SIDS). 

Conflicts and divisions

Two opinion articles take a closer look at the space between climate change, development and disasters.

Narrowly conceived ‘sectoral’ policies are a big part of the problem with UN level actions, argue researchers Asim Zia and Caitlin Waddick.

Governments tend to divide climate change policies between mitigation and adaptation — reflecting the international policy split between slowing climate change and getting ready for it. They then bolt on policies, rather than integrate them with development schemes. Inevitably, resources get wasted by the time they reach local communities.

When it comes to reducing disaster risk, climate change policies often conflict with, or divert attention away from, short-term needs or indigenous strategies that have worked for decades, argue adaptation expert Zenaida Delica-Willison and researcher J.C. Gaillard. They say the answer lies with national and local governments: these must now do the work of integrating the outcomes of the Sendai Framework, the SDGs and any new UNFCCC treaty agreed in December.

This is already being done in Bangladesh and other nations says Saleemul Huq, a scientist and climate expert who supports least developed countries in climate negotiations. In a two-part audio interview, Huq discusses how global agendas converge at national and local levels, the role of scientific evidence and expectations from the Paris summit.

Mutual benefits

Some may counter calls to enmesh climate change and wider development concerns with arguments that climate change is a singular, unprecedented challenge for humanity — one that requires unique action above and beyond other development goals. So it should be clear that exploring links in no way downplays the importance of climate change. Quite the contrary: it highlights the development benefits of many proposed actions for mitigation and adaptation. Renewable energy, for example, cuts emissions and also reduces air pollution, while urban drainage designed to cope with extreme weather also helps cut mosquito-borne disease.

Yet even if overlaps are clear to those working on the ground, they are hardly reflected in policy agendas.

One example is the ‘loss and damage’ mechanism in UN negotiations, designed to compensate countries for losses they suffer from impacts to which they cannot adapt, such as disasters. Developing countries pushed for it at last year’s UN negotiations at COP 20, and it was a last-minute inclusion in the agreement on which this year’s negotiations will be based. But, though important for financial compensation, loss and damage is only one component of disaster risk reduction under the Sendai Framework.
Project by project

The prospect of individual countries and communities now having to take the lead to find common ground is both daunting and hopeful.

It’s not difficult to imagine governments being overwhelmed by the coordination and resources required to meet multiple targets across different policy frameworks while avoiding conflicts between them.

But luckily, people don’t wait for bureaucracy to act and adapt. So the process of integration will be different, and more intuitive, if we focus away from global targets and onto local needs. One action that could make a difference is for governments to require development projects — in any relevant sector, and whether backed by public or private finance — to produce a ‘needs assessment’ that addresses key targets across the three frameworks.

Getting climate change, development and disaster reduction to work together could be less daunting if it happens project by project, starting with local agendas.

Anita Makri is opinion and special features editor at SciDev.Net. @anita_makri

This article is part of our Spotlight on Joint action on climate change