Not Cool Ep 4: Jessica Troni on helping countries adapt to climate change

The reality is, no matter what we do going forward, we’ve already changed the climate. So while it’s critical to try to minimize those changes, it’s also important that we start to prepare for them. On Episode 4 of Not Cool, Ariel explores the concept of climate adaptation — what it means, how it’s being implemented, and where there’s still work to be done. She’s joined by Jessica Troni, head of UN Environment’s Climate Change Adaptation Unit, who talks warming scenarios, adaptation strategies, implementation barriers, and more.

Topics discussed include:

  • Climate adaptation: ecology-based, infrastructure
  • Funding sources
  • Barriers: financial, absorptive capacity
  • Developed vs. developing nations: difference in adaptation approaches, needs, etc.
  • UN Environment
  • Policy solutions
  • Social unrest in relation to climate
  • Feedback loops and runaway climate change
  • Warming scenarios
  • What individuals can do

References discussed include:

There’s an estimate…that between 500 to 700 million people would be forced to migrate by 2050 due to climate change.

~ Jessica Troni

Ariel Conn: Welcome to episode 4 of Not Cool, a climate podcast. I’m your host, Ariel Conn. One of the big questions surrounding climate change isn’t just how we can mitigate the warming, but also how we can adapt and survive as the climate continues to warm. To talk about this issue and some of the work being done globally to address adaptation, we turned to Jessica Troni. 

Jessica has more than 20 years of experience in environment and development policy and has worked on climate change adaptation programming in the UN for the last 12 years. She heads up the Climate Change Adaptation Unit in the UN Environment Headquarters in Nairobi and oversees all programming related to the international climate funds in the Ecosystems Division.

Jessica, thank you for being here. Thank you for joining the podcast.

Jessica Troni: Good to be here. Thank you Ariel.

Ariel Conn: I want to just start by asking you what it is you do with the UN?

Jessica Troni: I’m the head of the Adaptation Unit in the Ecosystems Division in UN Environment. Essentially, we do two things. One is, we support member countries, member states to UN Environment, to access planet finance to help them design adaptation projects and then to support them in implementing adaptation projects — specifically in the area of ecosystem-based adaptations, so using nature-based solutions to help countries with that. And on a parallel track is developing normative messaging, guidance, and tools so that we can bring those country-level experiences up to the global audience, and to try and promote more action at the global level. 

Ariel Conn: Can you just explain what adaptation means?

Jessica Troni: Adaptation is essentially a response in social and economic systems to human-induced climate change. Changes both in the mean of climate parameters like temperature, annual rainfall, sea level, as well as changes to the variability of those parameters. For example, the highs and the lows of rainfall events, droughts and flooding events. And climate change specifically refers to human-induced. So, it’s the climate change that is produced because of human activity, burning fossil fuels in agriculture and industrial gases, for example.

Ariel Conn: And so, you’re trying to help countries basically prepare for these changes, is that correct?

Jessica Troni: That’s correct. Yeah.

Ariel Conn: Okay. How does the funding work through the UN?

Jessica Troni: So, there are various climate funds that are being set up at the international level. The Global Environment Facility in Washington manages two of those climate change adaptation funds that are accessible to developing countries. The recently established Green Climate Fund is the other main fund. But there are others, like the Adaptation Fund, that’s also another funding mechanism that’s being set up at the international level.

And then aside from that, there are a myriad of different other bilateral initiatives that would help developing countries adapt to climate change. And then of course you’ve got the philanthropic organizations, you’ve got non-government organizations. So there’s a lot of actors in this space. But specifically for the UN, we would support countries to access the international climate funding sources.

Ariel Conn: And so you mentioned that there’s a lot of actors in this space. Is it enough? Are there sufficient funds?

Jessica Troni: Well, no, it’s not enough. The estimates of adaptation needs run into hundreds of billions annually by 2050 if we don’t do something about climate change. But there is an issue of absorptive capacity. So, even if financing were enough, the fact is that the absorptive capacity of many governments that we work with to deliver adaptation is limited. There are so many barriers. There’s human resource barriers, there’s policy barriers, there’s informational barriers. So even if the funding were enough, how to direct that funding so that it makes an impact on the ground, how to implement it, is still a very big area for support in developing countries.

Ariel Conn: How is adaptation a different problem for wealthy countries versus developing countries?

Jessica Troni: So, all countries will need to adapt to these changes. Some of the solutions can be similar. For example, making sure that soils are covered with grasses, or shrubs, or trees to prevent soil erosion and sedimentation of rivers when there are heavy rainfall events. That would be common to all countries. Other adaptation solutions would be employed by richer countries, but not necessarily poorer ones, because they’re expensive. So for example, think about the coastal protection dikes in The Netherlands, where 23% of the land area of that country is under sea level, or the Thames barrage in London. Those would be very expensive options that are not within the affordability range of most developing countries.

Plus the fact that also developing country economies are usually more dependent on agriculture and subsistence farmers are a very big demographic in those countries. And so, your adaptation strategies in those countries are going to be focused more on the agriculture sector. It’s also worth saying that developing countries are usually more vulnerable to climate change impacts because they’re more reliant on rain-fed agriculture, they’re more water-scarce, and their populations are usually poorer. They have fewer resources to spend on adaptation. So again, your technologies and how you reach people is going to be different in poorer developing countries.

Ariel Conn: So can you talk a little bit about some of the plans currently either underway or being implemented or considered to try to help get the money there and try to help get these new systems implemented?

Jessica Troni: The work that we’re doing at UN Environment is basically split into two areas of work. One is helping countries develop national adaptation plans. That’s really looking at the barriers that I mentioned in terms of information, in terms of human capacity, in terms of coordination between government departments, in terms of reaching subnational planning structures. All of that is under these national adaptation plan proposals that we are supporting governments with. That will hopefully develop systems and tools that can be replicated in future planning exercises of this kind. 

And then on the other side, it’s what we would call full funding proposals: proposals that really focus on helping communities to deal with climate change. So a lot of these projects are going to be around agriculture land management. And increasingly we’re getting demand from countries to help them with urban EBA, looking at cities, and how we can help cities adapt to climate change.

Although it has to be said that even when we’re looking at actual implementation on the ground, there is usually a component in those projects looking at policy frameworks, planning frameworks. Because unless you get that right, your absorptive capacity for more climate financing is going to be limited.

Ariel Conn: I think that connects to another question I have, and that is, in terms of trying to implement policies and implement changes to enable countries to adapt, are these things that need to be happening at a global level? Obviously you’re working at a global level, so I’m assuming the answer is yes there. But to what extent is it global versus national versus very local levels?

Jessica Troni: Yeah, that’s a good question. There’s lots of new information coming up about that. But the simple answer is, all of the above. There are pressing policy needs at national level. Effective adaptation is not just about policy, it’s about integrating climate risks and how you manage those risks into every day policies that the Agriculture Ministry, Water and so on, would be implemented and concerned with. So we need to mainstream into decision-making at every level in government policy and strategy, budgeting, investment design, program implementation.

So we need to address inefficiencies whereby one policy undercuts another. So for example, subsidies that encourage inefficient use of water are obviously going to magnify the effects of climate change on rainfall. Urban planning that doesn’t consider flood risk, or which doesn’t consider the role of nature in mitigating climate impacts. So for example, green spaces that might reduce the heat effect in cities. And even agriculture policy that promotes monocultures, which have an impact on soil erosion. And that’s going to be magnified by climate change.

So there are many areas of public policy that need to be aligned so that they each reinforce adaptation across the economy. But also, consideration of climate risks in government — national government — and business decisions isn’t enough. We also need to partner with local communities so that we plan for adaptation in a way that makes sense to local communities, and that delivers benefits to poorer, unrepresented people. That’s really important as well.

Looking at the international pictures, we have to support countries with adaptation, not only because of the moral imperative. We always say that poorer countries are disproportionately affected by climate change because they didn’t make the problem, but they are poor and unable to deal with the problem. So there is a moral imperative to deal with them. But, there are also good geopolitical interests for doing so.

There was a recent assessment report published on land degradation and restoration by the Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity in Ecosystems Services called IPBES, that’s the acronym. And they came up with an interesting finding that in dryland areas and in years with extreme low rainfall, there has been an increase of up to 45% in violent conflict. And the report also notes that for every 5% lost in GDP in these fragile environments, there’s a 12% increase in the likelihood of violent conflicts.

So the evidence is very, very clear. And there’s increasing evidence coming out that the war in Syria, that that was precipitated by droughts and having masses of people with their livelihoods undercut by these droughts. And then one final point to make is that the forces of migration are likely to be exacerbated by climate change. There’s an estimate in that report that between 500 to 700 million people would be forced to migrate by 2050 due to climate change. So there are really good reasons for the international community to get engaged in climate change, and to support developing countries in adapting to these effects as far as possible.

Ariel Conn: To what extent so far as you seeing support from the international community? Is this something that countries are saying, “Yes, we need to help these poorer nations.” The U.S. doesn’t seem to be doing that, but are other countries?

Jessica Troni: Some countries are stepping up to the plate. But as you say, there are gaps in international support. The recent adaptation gap report that was published in 2018 sets out the broad picture there. Public international flows to adaptation are about $23 billion a year, whereas the needs are an order of magnitude bigger. The amount of funding available for developing countries is much lower than needed, and we see it. At UN Environment, we see that. 

We are in the process of developing 50 large adaptation proposals for the Green Climate Fund, and we see the resource constraints on the other side. There isn’t enough funding to comfortably fund all of these proposals, and we’re one agency among many in the UN system. So, the amount of financing available is an issue, notwithstanding what I said previously that actually the absorptive capacity in developing countries does need to be further developed so that we can absorb larger flows of funds.

Ariel Conn: Okay, so listening to you, this seems like a huge, huge problem to try to be addressing. And it seems like so many different and collaborative efforts need to be made. And I guess I’m curious, what would you most like to see happen in the next five to ten years to really try to address this?

Jessica Troni: So what I would really like to see is global emissions to go to zero. That’s what I would really like to see, because even if they went to zero tomorrow, we are still locked into some degree of climate change. The evidence is saying that already there has been a one degree global temperature increase. And so, even if we were to stop emissions today, we would still see climate change effects. However, they would be manageable. They would probably be manageable up to another degree of global average temperature increase.

Beyond two degrees, scientists are not able to say what the effects would be, because of this pesky issue of feedback loops in the climate system, whereby you have climate processes that unlock other processes and lead to runaway climate change. So for example, the melting of the glaciers in the Antarctic. That is leading to a reduced albedo effect. So when you look at the planet Earth from space, you see a lot of white areas. Those are the glaciers.

Once the glaciers start melting, you get a lot more black space in those areas, and that black space attracts more warming to the planet, which in effect melts the glaciers even faster. So that’s an important effect. And the whole issue of the cryosphere, the frozen water in the planet. That has been very poorly modeled up until now. Scientists are starting to get a better handle on how these processes affect climate change. And as more reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change come out, the news seems to be getting worse.

Another process that’s happening with glaciers is that as they melt, the cold water sinks faster, forces up warm water, which eats away at the glaciers on the surface and worsens that effect again. Another important feedback loop is the melting of the glaciers in the Arctic, and other frozen areas that are releasing peat. Peatlands are becoming uncovered, and when peatlands are uncovered, they release methane gas. And methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, 21 times the effect. And so that’s also having a sort of runaway effect on the climate.

There are many of these feedback loops, and that’s why scientists have said, since 1994 when the Climate Change Convention came into force, that beyond two degrees, we are in the area of dangerous climate change, because these processes will be unlocked, and then we don’t know how fast climate change could accelerate. So that is the main thing that needs to happen, is that global emissions have to come down significantly.

There was a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published last year on a 1.5 degree world, where global mean average temperatures increased to 1.5 degrees. And the figures come from that report. To stay within 1.5 degree temperature increase, global CO2 emissions should decline by about 45%, from 2010 levels, by 2030. So, we are essentially 11 years away from that. And they should reach zero by 2050. That’s to stay within one-and-a-half degrees temperature increase.

And that is what small island developing states, such as you find in the Pacific, that is what they are demanding. Because they understand that climate change beyond that level will basically mean they have to move. It is an existential threat for them. To limit global warming below two degrees Centigrade, that is the threshold that was enshrined in the UNFCCC Convention, the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change. CO2 emissions should decline by 20% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2075.

So, even when you look at two degrees Centigrade temperature increase, these are substantial decreases. Once you start to get beyond two degrees temperature increase, your space to manage climate change, to adapt to climate change, becomes much harder. There are consequences that you can’t predict. Those extremes that I talked about when we started the podcast, how to manage those climate extremes, becomes much more difficult to do that.

So in order to be able to manage adaptation in a controlled way, we actually need to deal with the cause of the problem, the CO2 emissions, in a really significant way. So that’s my number one ask, is that country governments, when they get together at the conference of parties under the UNFCCC, that they take the need to compromise really serious, for the sake of current and future generations. The second is that politicians implement policies that are good for their citizens.

Ariel Conn: That seems so basic, and yet it’s so hard.

Jessica Troni: Yes. It just seems so basic and so obvious, but there are all sorts of political interests that complicate the ability of a country to adapt. Unless you get that right, it doesn’t matter how many adaptation projects you mobilize and you implement. Unless your policy and your budgeting process is all geared towards helping a country adapt to climate change, it’s going to be an inefficient process. And finally, responsibility I think is on all sides. It’s on developing countries to get their own house in order, but it’s also on developed countries to help developing countries with the financing needs associated with this problem. Those are my three asks.

Ariel Conn: Okay. Again, I think they seem reasonable, but I can see where they’re difficult.

Jessica Troni: There are some really intractable political economy issues as to why, for example, water tariffs are so low or non-existent in countries; why big infrastructure projects are pushed, as opposed to investments in nature-based solutions, which are much more cost-effective and have shown to protect many more people, particularly those people that are dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods. So there are some big reasons why economies are the way they are.

And one of the things that we’re trying to do with our national adaptation planning processes is to develop better information on risks, so that the messaging can be sharpened so that policymakers can start to take this more seriously, and understand their own role in helping economies adapt to climate change.

Ariel Conn: I’ll end with two questions. The first is, is there anything else that you think is important for listeners to know?

Jessica Troni: Well, I think there are things that everyone can do. And maybe we should finish on a positive note. This can seem like a very big and difficult issue, and therefore, you know, this is for someone else to think about. But there are things that we can all do. One is, buy organic where possible, because this avoids the use of chemicals. And chemicals leads to eutrophication of water where chemicals leach out into watercourses. It contributes to soil erosion, and it has knock-on impacts on fisheries and drinking water, and so on.

The other thing is, work on your carbon emissions. Use solar energy where possible. If you’re living in very hot, sunny environments, use solar water heating — it’s much more efficient than using boilers. Reduce car use where possible. Be water efficient. Water is such a scarce commodity, and there are billions of people that are going to be living in water-scarce areas in the world. Be energy efficient. 

Reduce, eliminate if you can, use of single-use plastics. Although this is an indirect effect on climate change, there are impacts to watercourses and to oceans with rubbish spilling out into the sea, and impacting on environments that are already under tremendous amounts of stress from rising sea levels and acidification of the waters. Support local producers of food — reduce carbon miles from imported foods. eat seasonally. But also, smaller producers of food are likely to use more sustainable methods of production.

And finally, and maybe this is probably one of the biggest ones, is vote for politicians that support doing something about the issue. This is really the issue of our times, and our children and grandchildren will not forgive us if we don’t contain this problem, and the global action that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reductions is enormous. And so, we really need to put pressure on politicians to take this issue seriously.

Ariel Conn: My final question was actually going to be, what can individuals do to help? So I love that that was your answer. But I’m going to end with one more question instead. And that is, do you think this is a solvable problem?

Jessica Troni: Yes. Definitely. It’s definitely a solvable problem. It just needs countries, governments to come together, and people can pressure governments to doing more. So it can happen. But I would also put a note of caution here. We need to be very careful about the privatization of adaptation solutions. I’m seeing more and more companies offering geotechnical fixes. There are so many out there, but machines that are able to make rain; panels that you can put into space to reflect the Sun’s rays away; or seeding of the oceans to absorb more CO2; or seeding of the clouds to absorb more CO2, or to rain.

There are so many things out there that are geotechnical fixes, but they are manmade, they are costly, and the unintended consequences are unknown. Nature-based solutions — restoring the planet so that its ecosystem services, goods and services can help us mitigate the effects of climate change — they are much more cost-effective than these geotechnical fixes. So for example, rather than have a machine that makes rain at a cost of $1 million per hectare, there’s plenty of evidence to show that planting trees and restoring watersheds can make rain essentially, can bring back rain to an area.

We have an example here in Nairobi, where we’re living very close to the Karura Forest, which is an area of 30,000 hectares of protected forest. And it rains much more here than it does in the airport side of the city, down south, where there are no trees. And it’s very much drier, and very much more unpleasant to live there for the people who have to live there. So, investing in nature can help us mitigate some of the effects.

In cities, I’ve mentioned heat islands. Having green spaces can mitigate some of those heat effects. Investing in riverbank restoration and watershed reforestation can save millions, hundreds of millions of dollars worth in water treatment costs. China is leading on the creation of sponge cities, which uses permeable surfaces and constructed wetlands to absorb heavy flows of rainwater. So we have nature. This is what UN Environment — this is one of the things that we are trying to raise to the global level, is investments in nature and co-investments of nature and gray infrastructure together.

Ariel Conn: As someone who lives in Colorado, and I am surrounded by mountains and nature, I am a huge fan of that approach. So thank you.

Jessica Troni: It would be great if the U.S. federal government came to the party.

Ariel Conn: Yes.

Jessica Troni: Leadership, political leadership which we sorely need, and also in terms of financing, which globally we sorely need as well.

Ariel Conn: All right. Yeah. We’ll do what we can. I will certainly vote, and hopefully many others will vote as well. I think that’s it for my questions. Is there anything else?

Jessica Troni: I think that’s it, Ariel.

Ariel Conn: Okay, excellent. Thank you so much.

Jessica Troni: It was nice to speak to you.

Ariel Conn: On the next episode of Not Cool, I’ll be speaking with Ken Caldiera. Ken is a climate scientist working for the Carnegie Institution for Science and as a professor at the Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University. He investigates issues related to climate, carbon, and energy systems.

Ken Caldeira: How do you develop empathy, and how do you get people to try to optimize for something broader than their narrow, short-term self-interests? To me, that’s the kind of research question that is the most pressing.

Ariel Conn: I hope you enjoyed this fourth episode of Not Cool. My next interview with Ken Caldiera will go live on Thursday, September 12th. In the meantime, please join the climate discussion on Twitter using #NotCool and #ChangeForClimate and let us know what you think of the show so far.