Forget the environment, climate change is now about people

And the politics of it are about to get very, very messy

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Every climate change logo from here to Tokyo makes use of at least two of these three elements: a sketch of the globe, a branching tree or some green, vine-like swirls. You know what the logos mean. They paint climate change as an environmental problem, one that concerns the air we breathe and the trees we may or may not be hugging. Human beings don’t feature much. The logo for the UN Climate Change conference currently ongoing in Warsaw, pictured, is a particularly bureaucratic example. Cold, green, leafy. And yet, after the talks in Warsaw finish, these logos will, en masse, look embarrassingly out-of-date. The debate has moved on. Climate change is no longer about the environment; it’s about people, and in particular the poor.

The conference in Warsaw was set to be routine. Then tropical storm Haiyan made land in the Philippines, splintering cities, killing at least 3,600, and carrying away the bungalows, flats and schools of several thousand more. Discussions in Warsaw darkened. The lead Filipino negotiator is now on hunger strike. He – like many in developing nations – believes that his country is suffering the effects of climate change, and points the finger of blame squarely at the biggest historical emitters, rich countries like America and Britain. An op-ed by the Filipino manager of the Climate Reality Project ended on this note: “You see, for us this is a crime – a climate crime – and we will be seeking climate justice”.

Scientists cannot tell whether any single storm was caused, or worsened by climate change. But politicians tend to make the leap themselves. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, President Obama played up the threat of global warming (having ignored it in his election campaign). David Cameron did the same after Haiyan (having threatened weeks before to remove green levies in the UK). People in developing nations are right to worry about such vacillating commitments. What scientists can predict is that climate change will add destructive force to future storms. And those storms will hurt the people least responsible for global warming the most, those in countries like Bangladesh and the Philippines.

The issue of compensation is now live. Should developing countries carry the cost of repairs or flood-defence systems when the growing might of storms and rising sea levels have precious little to do with them? The answer is no. But it looks unlikely that rich countries will offer much help. The $100bn funding target for the Green Climate Fund – established to help poor countries adapt to global warming– remains unmet. Last month the US envoy on climate issues said that, in terms of compensation for damages: “The fiscal reality of the United States and other developed countries is not going to allow it”.

No wonder, then, that the US Intelligence Community’s 2013 threat report ranked climate change as a major possible cause of war. Storms cripple and kill. And from now on, the villain won’t just be mother nature. It will – for the people hurt - be those dastardly emitters, Uncle Sam and John Bull.

 So let’s update those logos. The future of climate change is far more red than green.

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