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OPINION: A dangerous climate for COP-17

As the official delegates to the UN Climate talks came together this week in Durban,  violent storms have hit the city on the east coast of South Africa.   The tragic death of eight people in these flash floods is a timely reminder of current reality of a changing and volatile climate and the need to take action.  The ultimate objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ‘is to achieve stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) new report on extreme events and disasters (SREX), released on the 24th November, essentially finds that this objective is no longer achievable.  Human activity is already making extreme weather worse; having likely caused warming of extreme daily maximum temperatures, led to extreme coastal high water and contributed to intensification of extreme rain and snow falls.

The report is another chilling reminder for governments meeting in unseasonably flooded Durban for the annual UN climate change summit. Its findings underline the need to negotiate knowing that climate change is a clear and present danger and that the outcome of the summit has to incentive the collective action needed to avoid a world of disasters.

The implications of the report are considerable. Every additional tonne of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere will lead to more extreme weather. Delayed action to reduce emissions will see the one in 20 year temperature extreme happen once every few months in some regions by the end of the century and future weather extremes will be well beyond our lived experience. The impact of such changes will be felt unevenly, with the greatest impact being on vulnerable people living in exposed areas, but few anywhere on the planet will escape. Even if not directly affected, droughts and flooding in major mining and food producing areas will mean higher prices for many and the greater potential for conflict over scarce resources.

The IPCC report should not be seen as a report on climate change, to be dealt with by a stalling international climate regime, but as a report on global human and economic development. It really asks the questions, how risky is our current strategy for economic growth and our pattern of human settlement? With our influence on extreme weather already proven, can development be reconfigured to create a safer world to live in?

The answers, the report suggests, are three fold. Firstly, emissions must be aggressively cut – now –  to avoid the most severe disasters and economic losses in the future. Secondly, existing approaches to managing disaster risk must be dramatically upgraded. Thirdly, where people are exposed and their vulnerability is high, such as in some small islands or areas of Africa experiencing recurrent drought, transformational change may be needed. Such changes could be in beliefs or values or in economic or social policy, and may involve the redistribution of human activity to create safer patterns of lives or livelihoods. Any delays will likely lead to disaster losses of biblical proportions.

El Salvador, a small country of just 6m people in Central America, has arrived at these answers on its own after 1.5m of rain fell in just 10 days this October, bringing landslides, flooding and decimation of the agriculture sector. The disaster is one of a series of impacts in the last 18 months that are linked to extreme weather arriving from the country’s Pacific coast. While El Salvador is used to dealing with high winds and rain coming from the Atlantic side, the recent switch to the Pacific has exposed new areas. The 6% wiped off the country’s GDP captured the attention of every member of the Country’s cabinet. A margin concern about freak weather has now become a national priority. Accordingly El Salvador’s President, Maurico Funes, is setting up a national commission for reconstruction that has the goal of reducing the country’s exposure and vulnerability to Pacific track storms and heavier rainfall. Steps are also underway to make disaster risk reduction a core part of all sectors.

Mauricio Funes’ ministers also head to Durban with a renewed sense of urgency and injustice, where armed with the IPCC report and some bitter experiences, they will line up to challenge the big emitters to commit to deep cuts now and seek compensation for the damages caused by the latest climate disaster. I wonder how long the queue will be.



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