Human Development Report Office
“It is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world,” wrote Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneering feminist and advocate for women’s rights in 1792. She could have been offering a comment on climate change.
As the threat posed by global warming intensifies, northern governments are building up their climate change fortifications. From lower Manhattan to the Thames Estuary and Cologne, flood defences are being strengthened to protect people from rising sea levels.Meanwhile, millions of the world’s poorest people facing the prospect of more droughts,storms and floods are being left to sink or swim with their own resources.
It’s easy to get swept up in the carbon-cutting euphoria of the past few months. The EU has bold plans for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Britain has gone one better, setting legally binding targets. With Germany aiming to put down its own marker, greenhouse gas mitigation is set to dominate the G8 agenda in June. Bold initiatives on carbon emission trading are in the pipeline.
All of this is good news. The bad news is that there is no soft-landing scenario. Even if all industrial countries deliver on deep carbon emission cuts – a very big ‘if’– the global weather forecast makes for grim reading. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenarios show, the chances of keeping below the 2°C dangerous climate change threshold are slim and slimming by the year. More extreme weather patterns are all but inevitable.
Britain is preparing for the worst. When it comes to climate change adaptation, the country is a world leader. The UK Climate Impacts Programme run by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), has drawn up comprehensive threat assessments. Agriculture is being helped to identify new opportunities created by longer growing seasons and warmer summers. Who knows, today’s East Anglian sugar barons may be running tomorrow’s avocado estates. Meanwhile, the Environment Agency has a budget of over £800m for flood defences. The jewel in the crown, the Thames Barrier, is being strengthened to cope with rising sea levels and future river surges.
None of this is enough for some of the government’s critics. Some minor trimming of the flood defence budget has prompted dark warnings that Britain faces a ‘day after tomorrow’ scenario, with London flooded and millions left displaced and destitute. The Environment Select Committee, backed by the Association for British Insurers, wants to see flood defence expenditure topped up with another £300m.
Elsewhere is the world, adaptation to climate change poses more immediate threats. Last year, drought posed a threat to the lives and livelihoods of over 10 million people in Ethiopia and Kenya alone. In Bangladesh and Vietnam alone a one metre rise in sea levels could displace over 40 million people. Single events such as droughts and floods can send whole economies into reverse gear: Kenya has yet to recover losses sustained in the drought of 2000.
All of which raises an obvious question. Having created the risks faced by developing countries through global warming, what is the rich world doing to support adaptation?Answer: not a lot. The current international effort on aid for adaptation is running at around $20-30m a year for all developing countries. This roughly translates into around three day’s worth of UK flood defence spending for the hundreds of millions of people at risk.
Without wishing to understate the climate change threats facing the residents of Essex and the Thames Estuary area, this is unbalanced. In the UK a weather ‘emergency’ usually produces soggy carpets and damage to a few buildings. Most people are protected against losses by private insurance, or by government programmes. These are luxuries that are absent in the developing world.
For millions of the world’s most vulnerable people, weather disasters are a threat to life and, in many cases, a one-way ticket into a lifelong poverty trap. Today, almost half-a million people in Mozambique are recovering from the devastating floods that swept the country in January. Those floods not only wrecked homes and wiped out crops, but destroyed dozens of schools and health clinics. The cost of repairing the physical infrastructure alone is put at $71m – twice total GEF spending on adaptation.
When droughts strike poor communities they do more than destroy crops. They wipe out assets built up over years, expose children to malnutrition and often inflame local conflicts over access top water, as they are in northern Kenya and Sudan. In Britain, the‘storm season’ makes the headlines when tiles are ripped from rooftops and a few trees hit the deck. In Bolivia, by contrast, the recent storms and floods have claimed over 70lives, destroyed tens of thousands of homes, and wiped out crops. Inevitably, the poor have borne the brunt.
Yes, I know, climate skeptics like to remind us that none of the above have a proven link to global warming. But climatologists point to a common el ENSO thread linking the floods in Bolivia and Mozambique to the recurrent failure of the spring rains in Ethiopia.
What is clear is that much worse is in store. In Malawi, a combination of rising temperature and reduced rainfall is projected to cut production of maize, the country’s main food staple, by over 40%. In the absence of concerted international assistance, how is a country with half of its population in poverty, one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world, and one-in-three children suffering malnutrition supposed to adapt to a shock on this scale?
Rich countries cannot ‘climate proof’ poverty reduction efforts in developing countries.But they can do more than sit behind their flood defences and watch climate change rollback efforts to cut poverty. Two years ago the Gleneagles G8 summit pledged to double aid for Africa and other developing regions. That pledge falls far short of what is needed to finance an effective response to climate change. Perhaps the Berlin G8 summit could look at innovative new financing options – such as a small levy on carbon trading or airline taxes – could be explored, linking the agendas for mitigation and adaptation.
In our increasingly polarized world, capacity to adapt to climate change threatens to become another source of inequality, mass poverty, and insecurity. Northern governments have a choice. They can watch and wait to deal with the consequences with humanitarian aid programmes, mopping up after the event and calling it charity. Or they can act now in a spirit of global justice and put adaptation at the centre of the global poverty reduction agenda.
Return to the list <<<<<