If necessity is the mother of invention, we should be looking forward to a breathtakingly innovative agreement on climate change in Copenhagen in December. Such an agreement would not only outline how we should curb greenhouse gas emissions, but also how we could realistically adapt to climate change, and help countries cope with its negative effects.
The increasing threat to life and livelihood posed by climate change is already palpable and the need for effective action agreed in Copenhagen is increasingly urgent. Yet the lack of progress in ongoing climate negotiations raises concern as to whether world governments will be able to reach meaningful agreement in December.
For those living on the frontline - the most vulnerable communities living in risk-prone parts of the world - every day wasted could mean a step closer to food or water insecurity; communities having to move to secure adequate and safe services; or even whole regions emptying as they become unable to sustain life.
Changes in the Arctic are accelerating global climate change. Scientists warn that if the Himalayan glaciers disappear, the impact would be felt by more than one billion people across Asia. What will African farmers do when floods wash away their crops as is happening these days in West Africa?
This might sound overdramatic. However, climate change is already increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme natural hazard events, especially floods, storms and droughts. Weather-related events are affecting or displacing more people every year. During the last decade on average 140 million people annually were affected by floods and storms, or two percent of the global population. All the scientific evidence suggests that these trends will continue and accelerate.
Of course the climate change issue is complex, and cannot be neatly separated from other factors such as population growth, urbanization and environmental decline – all of which are increasing risks to vulnerable communities. But those working in the humanitarian field – whether aid workers on the ground, high level advocates or those providing funds – understand all too well that climate change is now a major factor in the rising numbers of people affected by disasters and therefore in the increasing demand for lifesaving aid. Disasters driven by climate change cost lives here and now and they also have lasting effects that take us back to square one in the fight against poverty.
We are not helpless – far from it. Many of the humanitarian consequences of climate change can be averted or reduced. For example, cyclone preparedness programmes in Bangladesh and Mozambique have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and can be expanded to address the increased risk of heavy storms and floods.
Public hygiene campaigns which have improved health in many villages and cities can be upgraded to address climate change related risks like the spread of dengue and malaria. Upgraded care for the elderly during heat waves, planting trees against landslides and storm surges, fine-tuned water saving systems against droughts. There are a multitude of small and big solutions in our hands. We are committed to bring these solutions to the places where adaptation programmes are needed.
But the humanitarian system will need an overhaul to adapt to this new reality. Better balance must be achieved between the imperative to respond to acute humanitarian need and far greater investment in disaster risk reduction and preparedness measures in risk-prone countries. At the global level, we need to improve our risk-management systems to anticipate and respond better to future climate impacts. We also need to explore more innovative ways of sharing risk, perhaps through insurance schemes, to better protect people in the future.
Time is short. There is a unique opportunity to put in place a comprehensive global approach for climate change mitigation and adaptation. World leaders meeting at the UN in New York and at the G20 in Pittsburgh this month should help to lay the basis for an agreement. Let’s hope so, as the interests of many vulnerable populations depend on a strong agreement signed by all Governments in Copenhagen. The agreement may not tie down every detail, but it needs to be in place to ensure that all the fine words we have heard are followed up by meaningful action.
Bekele Geleta is Secretary-General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)
John Holmes is United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator