UN Climate Conference: Fighting climate change is moral, vital, and in our own interests

Amid the political horse trading, politicians ignore climate change at their peril

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The Independent Online

As Ed Davey, the UK’s Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, arrived yesterday in Qatar’s futuristic conference centre at the UN Climate Change talks, he would have been keenly aware that parts of Britain are still underwater.

He would also have been aware that a changing world climate means that events like last week’s UK floods are likely to become ever more frequent and that as they do, climate change will become ever more politically explosive.

Science and politics do not always make for easy bedfellows. Unlike politics, science does not deal in certainties but instead weighs up evidence and offers probable explanations.

Having said this, the scientific evidence for man-made climate change is now virtually beyond dispute. An overwhelming majority of scientists believe that greenhouse gas emissions are heating the earth’s climate resulting in more extreme weather and climate events.

A report published last week found that the polar ice sheets are melting three times faster than they were two decades ago. This study was preceded by two other important reports published ahead of the Doha talks. The first, by the United Nations Environment Programme, stated that the concentration of heat-trapping greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is up about 20 percent since 2000.

The second report, from World Bank, warned in a release that the “world is barrelling down a path to heat up by 4 degrees Celsius at the end of the century if the global community fails to act on climate change, triggering a cascade of cataclysmic changes that include extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks and sea-level rise affecting hundreds of millions of people.”

Climate change and the poor

It is estimated that every year for the next decade, 175 million children will be affected by sudden climate related disasters, which will challenge much of the progress made towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals. Children are therefore bearing the brunt of the impact of climate change, despite being the least responsible for it.

While it is the world’s poor who are feeling the greatest impact of climate change – over 95 percent of deaths from natural disasters between 1970 and 2008 occurred in developing countries – climate change is no respecter of national borders and ultimately affects us all.

A government commissioned study earlier this year found that heavier rainfall will be the major threat to Britain from climate change in the coming decades and could affect five million Britons.

In the UK, climate change may currently be a long way down the political agenda but with extreme weather affecting lives with increasing frequency and severity, politicians should take heed.

In an ironic twist, climate change - an issue almost entirely absent from the debate during the US Presidential campaign - might have been just the thing that swung the election in Barack Obama’s favour.

As Superstorm Sandy made landfall in New York, devastating the coastline and dominating the headlines, ordinary Americans were forced to confront what many around the world have long known.

Indeed, following the storm, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg admitted that Sandy had reshaped his thinking about the presidential campaign and wrote that it “should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

Immediate action requires sufficient funding and at the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009 the world’s governments committed to provide $100 billion a year by 2020 to tackle this crisis. A new Green Climate Fund was set up to spend much of this money but to date the fund has little in its coffers.

The game is on

Despite being in the midst of global recession, it is essential that governments in developed nations recognise that tackling climate change is not just a moral responsibility they bear to those in the developing world but an essential part of their national interest.

Climate problems faced by some will ultimately affect us all. Lack of action now will only increase the burden we face in the future, a burden that will likely fall on today's children in the future.

In Doha yesterday, as discussions over climate finance remained tense, the UK showed international leadership by indicating that they will commit climate finance beyond 2012.

The UK will be allocating around 1.8 billion pounds in aid money to climate finance up to 2015, and Davey reiterated the UK's support for contributing to the $100 billion a year by 2020 commitment of new and additional funds. This is a most welcome step.

Now the UK must show international leadership to galvanize further action - encouraging others to commit funds beyond 2012, and working with them to collectively mobilise new and additional funds up to 2020 and beyond for the Green Climate Fund.

In politics, it easy for short-term policy to take priority over long-term principle. Individual crises can be viewed in isolation rather than linked together, their patterns left unexplored and their causes left untraced.

Politicians might not yet want to talk about climate change but as we saw with the UK floods last week and hurricane Sandy last month, the changing climate will always force the issue.

Paddy Ashdown is President of UNICEF UK