December 2010: Time to level on the risks of climate change

Time to level on the risks of climate change 

Ross Mountain, Director General of DARA, and Mohamed Nasheed, President of the Maldives, during the Monitor launch in London

By Ross Mountain

We can all be happy that some progress was made inside the conference rooms at the main UN climate meeting this month at Cancun. We now need to see a lot more progress outside those rooms. In particular, while we all agreed to keep warming within relatively “safe” levels, that’s not backed by policies able to achieve it.

To those who think we can just adapt to climate change and not tackle the root causes: time to level on the risks. Yes, there has been success in reducing poverty. Greater efforts have been made and prior to the downturn global economic progress boomed. Even then more than a billion people depending on how you count still went hungry, without electricity, clean water or sanitation, and desperately poor. Many goals to rid us of this deprivation look sure to go unmet in four years time they are so far behind. No small wonder then that the major report we released this month together with the Climate Vulnerable Forum on the state of the climate crisis finds the targets we lag on – hunger, child mortality, extreme poverty – are the same problems climate change worsens most. And which regions do we find worst off? Africa, South Asia and small islands – the same places where we are farthest behind in development. Also of note is that fragile states which already absorb the majority of overseas aid (ODA) are especially badly hit.

Our Climate Vulnerability Monitor report scares. If proper measures are not taken, the explosive, unstoppable growth of every main climate stress will break the back of most communities already failed by a globalised world. We cannot just expect those worst off to up and move. If they don’t, losses in agricultural yields, fish stocks, sweltering temperatures, torrential rain and flooding, or just less rain, less water, less land all amount to untold suffering for millions. If they do move, disaster-prone shantytown death camps are hardly a better alternative.

The Climate Vulnerability Monitor is not all bad news however. It clearly shows that every major climate stress can be addressed as of now through relatively cost effective measures. But it does make most adaptation plans – however good – look completely inadequate compared to damages faced. How can the more than 30 atolls set over millions of square kilometres of tropical sea that is the Pacific island nation of Kiribati manage to protect its coral reefs against deadly warm and acidic waters with just one pilot project?

We also see clear gaps in many adaptation policies today. The roughly 350,000 deaths per year we estimate climate change is already responsible for come from an aggravating effect on diseases sensitive to the climate like diarrheal infections and malaria, which are already killing millions. Yet just 1% of adaptation funding has so far gone into health, and just 3% of planned priority projects target these concerns.

Today we can and must adapt to harsh changes in the climate. Double the pressure, and we still have a fighting chance. Triple it, or quadruple it – much faster than seen so far – and no amount of planning, bioengineering and ODA would save us – all of us – since we are all in this together. Other solutions exist. Learning how to live with climate change should not be considered one of them by anybody but the foolishly brave – and never by the faint at heart. We must get to work properly on all fronts.