Can We Build a Safer World? Bill Gates and the World Bank Call for More Rapid Climate Adaptation

The Gates Foundation, the World Bank, and other global development influencers launch a Commission to address ecological disasters already at hand.

Global Commission Adaptation
Damage in Mexico Beach, Florida, after Hurricane Michael made landfall earlier this month Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard/ Colin Hunt

Offering big-name sway and promises of urgent action, billionaire Bill Gates, World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva, and former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon are launching a Global Commission on Adaptation today, their move to address “risks associated with climate change—from floods and droughts to sea level rise and storms.”

The new independent body includes political leaders from 17 countries—but not the United States—and 28 expert “commissioners” to advise on urban development, agriculture, and disaster prevention, among other topics. In her first public comments about the Commission’s intentions, Georgieva called out the built environment as a major focus.

“As you know, buildings are the biggest contributor to CO2 emissions,” Georgieva said. “Adapting them to a low carbon footprint and at the same time putting in building codes that are resilient to hurricanes and floods, that is already happening. There is a lot of experience and it is quite scalable.”

Georgieva, Gates, and Ki-moon all stressed the need to scale up and speed up adaptation, especially in light of last week’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report that warned of imminent and unprecedented dangers to humans on a fast-warming planet. Just how the Commission will incentivize progress, though, won’t be explicit for a year. Their first action, they said, is to work on a “flagship report” they’ll present at a UN Climate Summit in September, 2019, with a list of recommendations. Georgieva said solutions might include altering the way the way banks, insurance companies, philanthropic organizations and governments allocate funding for future building projects, prioritizing anything that reduces climate risk.

Architects, engineers, and advocates experienced at developing safer structures—especially in the world’s poorest communities, where people are already enduring severe heat waves, storms and floods— could be called upon to advise the Commission, which currently includes Sheela Patel, Chair of Slum Dwellers International and Francis Suarez, the mayor of Miami.

“It’s nice to see that the adaptation conversation is finally being had at the highest levels, because architects and planners have been having it for decades now,” says Eric Cesal, special projects director at the Curry Stone Foundation and a visiting lecturer at the University of California,Berkeley on issues of disaster and resilience.

Cesal is one of many architects and engineers who have worked in one way or another on initiatives sponsored by the World Bank, the U.N. and the Gates Foundation. EDGE, a new green building certification program led by the World Bank’s International Monetary Fund, encourages firms to reduce carbon emissions in countries where sourcing energy-efficient materials can be a challenge. Later this year, Cesal will be judging the Resilient Homes Challenge, a competition sponsored by the World Bank to encourage storm-resistant design.

Still, like many academics, Cesal looks critically at the organizations behind the new Global Commission on Adaptation when it comes to root causes of ecological crisis—investments in fossil fuels— and the unfair burden global warming has placed on poor communities.

“Any global effort at adaptation must begin with empathy,” Cesal says. “The poor are already experts at adaptation. They don’t need our help with that. They need us to stop destroying planet that they depend on to live.”

Jason Hickel, an expert on international development, says that Gates and the World Bank need to go further on mitigation (attempting to reduce the severity of climate change) in addition to adaptation efforts. He suggests they call for large-scale fossil fuel divestment, re-investment in renewable energy, and a substantial carbon tax.

”The call for adaptation only makes sense when it comes from institutions that are already mitigating as aggressively as possible—and that’s simply not true of Gates and the World Bank,” says Hickel. “We need much more from them.”


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