Ready for Change: Notre Dame Launches the Global Adaptation Index

Author: Laura Henson

New Security Beat


In 2008 and 2010, the price of many basic food stuffs soared, sparking a series of riots andfood crises around the world. People in the poorest countries – those living with the smallest margins – were most affected, while the economies of developed nations were able to absorb the price changes. According to Notre Dame’s Global Adaptation Index, how climate change will impact different countries depends not only on their vulnerability to physical changes, but also their ability to absorb these impacts. 

The ND-GAIN Index, which ranks countries according to both their exposure to climate change and their readiness to adapt, show some of the world’s poorest countries are afull century behind the wealthiest, in terms of preparedness, putting not only millions of people but private assets at risk as well.

The ND-GAIN Index launched at the Wilson Center on December 12 during a two-day conference focused on security and the private sector’s role in climate change mitigation and adaptation. “We’re seeing new shifts in the way the world focuses its attention,” said former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Thomas R. Pickering. “Certainly economics, over the last dozen years, has become as much of a center pivot of international activities and action as the traditional role of political diplomacy and indeed national security. And of course, the truth is, they’re intimately linked and intertwined.”

Instability Accelerant or Opportunity for Peacebuilding?

Marcus King, director of research at the George Washington Elliott School of International Affairs, dubbed climate change an “instability accelerant” and identified three “mega-trends” that could threaten national security over the next 20 years: uneven demographic growth, climate change-induced scarcity (especially water scarcity), and the rise of violent extremists. “These trends converge most alarmingly in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa,” he explained.

“Some would not associate the forest fires in Russia in 2010 with the Arab Spring,” said retired U.S. Marine Corps Brigadier General and CEO of the American Security ProjectStephen Cheney. “But the massive forest fires in Russia in 2010 caused wheat prices to skyrocket around the world, particularly in the Middle East, and that helped sow the seeds of the unrest for the Arab Spring.” Cheney said they found around 70 percent of countries explicitly recognize climate change as a national security concern.

Still, “it’s really hard to forecast something like armed conflict,” said Patrick Regan, professor of international relations at the University of Notre Dame. “We just don’t know enough about the drivers of civil war to do that effectively, in a way like you can population or income.”

Roger-Mark De Souza, director of population, environmental security, and resilience at the Wilson Center, said resistance to these kinds of stressors is often termed “resilience.” But what that entails or how it’s measured is not always clear. “What is the role of conflict and peacebuilding, and how does it fit in [to resilience]?” he asked. “Resiliency of what, to what, for whom?”

Rapid population growth may, for example, portend political instability, as the work ofRichard CincottaElizabeth Leahy Madsen, and others has shown; but not always. “Demography is not destiny,” De Souza said – population may be relatively simple to project, but its implications are not.

Likewise, natural resource scarcity has not always been a driver of tension. “Water has sparked more incidences of cooperation than conflict,” Regan said, and “there is an argument that if you can work on adaptation, you can generate cooperation.” He pointed out that Israel and Jordan held the secret “Picnic Table Talks” between water specialists from 1954 to 1994, even though they were officially at war. “The theory would say that if you cooperate over the hardest issue, then cooperating over other issues simply becomes more doable.”

Accounting for the Bottom-Line: The Corporate Role in Adaptation

Jessica Hellmann of Notre Dame’s Climate Change Adaptation Program said they hope the Index will not only help governments but also businesses and donor organizations to fill the financial gap in global adaptation funding by highlighting where financial investments might create the most opportunity.

The Index is “an extremely valuable tool in helping to direct companies like ours…to know where in the world they ought to be operating to make the biggest difference,” said David Gustafson, senior fellow and environmental and agricultural policy modeling lead at Monsanto, one of the world’s largest agriculture and biotechnology companies.

“Farming has always been hard,” said Gustafson, “but it’s actually getting even more difficult as we look to the future, because not only do we have man-made global warming, but we also have accelerating demand [and] the urbanization phenomenon.”  ND-GAIN provides “actionable information,” he said, on how they can help farmers make the best use of land that’s already used for crop production around the world. Monsanto received this year’s ND-GAIN Corporate Adaptation Award for its Water Efficient Maize for Africa project, a public-private partnership to created drought-resistant seeds in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, and South Africa.

Similarly, Perry Yeatman explained how long-term projections about cocoa played into Mondelēz International’s decision to launch Cocoa Life, an investment in sustainable cocoa practices and community development around the world. Before the project, the company projected demand for cocoa would far outstrip its supply in the near future – a bottom-line issue for the largest cocoa-purchasing company in the world. Mondelēz launched Cocoa Life to encourage farmers in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and other countries to stay in the business, ultimately keeping Mondelēz in business as well. “It has to be a mission-critical business issue,” said Yeatman. “[Cocoa farming] is big to us, and we’re big to it.”

What Can We Afford vs. What Can We Endure

Ultimately, decisions about climate change adaptation come down to a trade-off between “what we can afford in the short term and what we can endure in the long term,” said Pickering.

According to Patricia Bliss-Guest, program manager for climate investment funds at the World Bank, the private sector is relatively easy to engage in mitigation funding, but is less involved in adaptation. In the World Bank’s Pilot Program for Climate Resilience, the public sector accounts for 93 percent of program spending. Bliss-Guest explained that “this low representation reflects the significant challenges associated with engaging the private sector and building climate resilience, information and awareness gaps among the private sector, as well as the weak private-sector business environment in many of these low-income countries.”

“We have tremendous challenges in terms of trying to determine how to best manage risks that exist in the absence of climate change, let alone managing risks that are aggravated in the face of climate change,” said Lindene Patton, chief climate product officer of Zurich Insurance Group, one of the largest insurance companies in the world.

By providing actionable information on climate change exposure and readiness, ND-GAIN hopes the Index will spur more engagement in both the private and public spheres, and the panelists expressed enthusiasm for that goal.

“We’re all in this together, literally, and the only way we’re going to be successful is to begin to work together,” said Gustafson.

“The GAIN index is valuable as a new tool, for both national and corporate partners, because it utilizes data and helps us better understand vulnerability and resilience at both the national and subnational levels today,” said King. “This will contribute to conflict prevention…by hopefully informing investments in sustainable infrastructure to avoid some of the worst prospects for violence in the future.”

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Sources: American Security Project, CNN, Mondelēz International, Monsanto, ND-GAIN, The Wall Street Journal, World Bank.

Image Credit: ND-GAIN Index.