With the failure of the world to agree on a holistic plan to halt climate change, talk is turning to how to buttress ourselves against its effects. The industrialized world's early measures are relatively straight-forward, if piecemeal: tougher levees, genetically hardened crops, better emergency response. But in the poorer parts of the globe — the World Bank estimates that adapting to climate change will cost developing countries up to $100 billion a year — the plans, when they exist, are both more urgent and more elusive.
Case in point: Senegal's plan to halt the spread of the Sahara, which typifies the grand eco-schemes we can expect to see more of. President Abdoulaye Wade's proposal is as bold as it is simple. He wants to plant a trans-African strip of forest 15 kilometers wide and 7,000 kilometers long — "a new 'green lung,' " he calls it — to hold back the dunes. It's among the more sweeping yet least intrusive geo-engineering proposals in the developing world, yet that doesn't mean it has much chance of succeeding.
So far, Wade's "Great Green Wall" has produced only a few stretches of acacia shrubs and lots of derision. As a temporary jobs program — half of Senegal's populace lacks work — it has some potential for immediate impact. But such megalithic projects in Africa have a history of failure. "It's a top-down approach that is not likely to be successful," says Jozias Blok, a European Com-mission policy officer in charge of sustainable land management. "The local community might participate because they get money or work, but they will not be motivated to maintain the trees." Even if the "Green Wall" went up, there's little assurance that it wouldn't soon crumble.
What the developing world needs is not a wall of trees but a different sort of climate change: a transformation of governance, with stronger institutions, better leaders, and smarter management of funds and natural resources. "The best resilience strategy is development," says Jonathan Jacoby, senior policy adviser at Oxfam America.
In a climate-stressed world, that will become even clearer. (Cue headlines about the next cyclone or drought-induced famine.) Protecting the world's most vulnerable countries means building them up so that when the CO2 hammer falls, they're ready to withstand it. Obviously that task seems enormous and frighteningly complex, but the easy answers died out long ago. Call them victims of climate change.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.