The Earth is experiencing the warmest surface temperatures since modern climate measurements were implemented in 1880. This extreme global warming is the result of excessive concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Moreover, overwhelming scientific evidence has concluded that climate change has been caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and if these are not substantially reduced, the devastating effects that it will have for future centuries will be irreversible.
Although developed countries have released most of the greenhouse gases that have caused climate change, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has stated in its book entitled “Climate Change: Impacts, Vulnerabilities and Adaptation in Developing Countries” in 2007 that, over the next decades, “… billions of people, particularly those in developing counties, [will] face shortages of water and food and greater risks to health and life as a result of climate change”. Consequently, global action should be focused on providing developing countries, and especially their most disadvantageous poverty-stricken sections and minority groups, who are the most vulnerable social groups in them, the necessary resources to adapt to the new climatic conditions that will arise from climate change.
Vulnerabilities of these extremely poverty-stricken sections and minority groups in developing countries are aggravated by discrimination and social exclusion that prevent them from acquiring the necessary resources to cope with global warming on their own. Adaptation strategies that are implemented need to acknowledge the circumstances of these groups to the extent of their vulnerabilities to climate change.
Poverty and Climate Change
Even though developing countries have less responsibility than developed countries for causing anthropogenic climate change, they are the most vulnerable to its effects. In fact, 95% of fatalities from global natural disasters have been suffered by developing countries in the last 25 years, fiercely striking their poverty-stricken sections and minority groups, according to Peter Höppe in Global Economic Symposium 2011.
Of the developing countries in the world, the populations from Africa, South Asia and Latin America are the most threatened by the consequences of climate change, due to the extreme poverty, social inequality and discrimination that exist in them. According to the GINI coefficient (2013), a statistical index used to measure income inequality, of the 40 countries with the highest rate of inequality, 93% belong to Africa (43%) and Latin America (45.70) and in South Asia the extreme poverty was estimated at 15.1%. In consequence, though developing countries of Africa, Latin America and South Asia are mostly exposed to the extreme weather events and altered climatic conditions, they are the least prepared to handle them.
The region of Africa is highly exposed to the effects of climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007, “The population at risk of increased water stress in Africa is projected to be between 75-250 million and 350-600 million people by the 2020s and 2050s, respectively”. It is projected furthermore that temperatures in Africa will rise faster than the global average during the 21st Century. Meanwhile, the great ecosystem diversity in Latin America and the Caribbean is subject to a large variety of climate change vulnerabilities along the continent. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, “in 2010, 98 of the world’s most serious natural disasters occurred in Latin America, and 79 of these were climate-related. They caused more than 300,000 deaths and losses valued at 49.4 billion US dollars, and affected 13.8 million people.” All together, the destruction that flooding could wreak in South Asia’s low-lying and urban areas is cruelly complemented by the effects of drought and changes in seasonal rainfall. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report predicts that in forthcoming decades, “the impacts of climate change will influence flooding of settlements and infrastructure, heat-related deaths, and food and water shortages in South Asia”. Further, the extreme weather events and altered climatic conditions are exacerbating the poverty level in developing countries. According to the World Bank in 2015, “…as the impacts of climate change worsen, it will become harder to eliminate poverty. That leaves a narrow window for ending extreme poverty and putting in place the safety nets that can keep poverty at bay while countries also work to lower their emissions toward net zero.”
Climate Change Adaptation in Developing Countries
According to the UNFCCC, the effects of climate change are already unavoidable, notwithstanding the efforts taken by the international community to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere. To combat global warming, it is no longer enough to focus on the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. Global warming will alter the patterns of weather and generate new climatic conditions that societies will have to adapt to. Action must therefore be centered on generating adaptation strategies for countries to adjust to climate change’s negative effects.
With the adoption of the Paris Agreement in December 2015 – a legally binding, landmark treaty on global warming, although is not yet in force, climate change adaptation has been given a greater relevance than ever before as one of the three main goals of the global action against climate change, and so, it is of paramount importance to understand how these adaptation strategies can be designed and implemented in order to help developing countries and their minority groups to manage global warming. Article 2(b) of the Agreement gives emphasis on increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience besides limiting global temperature and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, particularly those adaptation efforts of developing countries that are most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. The Agreement did identify the basic requirements of all adaptation strategies, namely, to structure them upon the specific circumstances of each country, guided by the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities, promoting the full participation of minority groups, and addressing the social and economic vulnerabilities that affect its population [Article 7(5)]. Addressing social inequalities and exclusions that aggravate poverty is crucial to any adaptation strategy, because they will not deliver results if the social groups that need them are illiterate, poor, hungry and diseased, and cannot use them; or if the aid does not reach them because of the corruption of their governments and the fragility of their institutions.
Poverty and Climate Finance
Responding to the climate challenge requires collective action from all countries. Although developing country Parties, especially those that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, have made efforts to adapt to the new climatic conditions on their own, their efforts will not be sufficient if they do not receive financial and technological support from the international community because they do not have the financial and technological resources, nor the necessary infrastructure and institutions to adapt to the global change.
Climate finance has been a central element of the international climate change agreements from the beginning. The UNFCCC, agreed in 1992, stated that developed countries shall provide “new and additional financial resources” to developing countries. The Convention and the Protocol therefore foresee financial assistance from Parties with more resources to those less endowed and more vulnerable.This commitment was further reinforced in the Cancun Agreements in 2010 where the Green Climate Fund (GCF) was established to act as a key mechanism to deliver large scale financial resources to developing countries.
Most recently in the Paris Agreement in 2015 the issue of climate finance was further postulated. Article 9 of the Agreement ascertains developed countries responsibilities in climate change adoption including financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention, to take the lead in mobilizing climate finance from a wide variety of sources, instruments and channels. Article 2(c) sets a goal of the Agreement to make finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate resilient development. Article 7(2)of the Agreement recognizes a contribution to the long-term global response to climate change to protect people, livelihoods and ecosystems, taking into account the urgent and immediate needs of those developing country Parties that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. Article 7(6) recognizes the importance of support for and international cooperation on adaptation efforts and the importance of taking into account the needs of developing country Parties, especially those that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.
The GCF, together with the Global Environment Facility (GEF), under Article 11 of the Paris Agreement, was given an important role in serving the Agreement as operating entities of the Financial Mechanism and as such represent the main channels through which future sources of international climate finance are expected to flow in the years to come. The Financial Mechanism was established with a view to reinforcing and streamlining efforts to provide concessional financial resources to developing country Parties.
It is widely claimed that the objective of the GCF is to raise $100 billion per year in climate financing by 2020. This is not an official figure, however, and disputes remain as to whether the funding target will be based on public sources, or whether leveraged private finance will be counted towards the total. As of July 2017, the GCF has raised USD 10.3 billion equivalent in pledges from 43 state governments, according to GCF’s resource mobilization statistics. A major new report from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate calls on governments and finance institutions to scale up and shift investment for sustainable infrastructure since the report estimates investments totaling about US$90 trillion will be needed in infrastructure over the next 15 years as a fundamental strategy to spur growth. The model of “micro-scrutiny” of paperwork used by the GCF has been argued as ineffective and inappropriate since this process slowed the GCF’s project allocations.
While the broad agreement on the international climate finance to be provided to developing country Parties has been reached, the debate is now focused on the fine detail of how to deliver this. In particular, how this figure should be raised, what financing should classify, and how should it be distributed.
Discrimination of Minority Groups in Developing Countries and Climate Change
Among the social groups that inhabit developing countries, minorities like indigenous people and ethnic communities are the most vulnerable victims of global warming, not just because of the exposed ecosystems they inhabit and the close relationship they maintain with nature but their vulnerabilities to the consequences of climate change are clearly rooted in their conditions of poverty, discrimination and social exclusion. As a result, climate change adaption strategies that are being designed and implemented are not taking minorities in consideration, and are in effect leaving them on their own to survive (or not) global warming.
Any climate change adaptation strategy that is designed and implemented in developing countries has to contemplate transversal measures that address the social exclusions and inequalities of their minorities, because they are the ones with the fewest resources to cope with global warming and the most likely to suffer its effects in a life-threatening way. To protect minority groups and guarantee their existence, it is important that the social inequalities in which they live be addressed, because adaptation strategies have to be aimed at providing these vulnerable groups with the necessary resources for them to cope with climate change on their own.
Reducing Social Inequalities as a Climate Change Adaptation Strategy
According to the Paris Agreement, the essential goal of climate change adaptation is the protection of people and their livelihoods and ecosystems, especially the vulnerable groups, like minorities, that inhabit developing countries (Article 2). Adaptation techniques implemented in developing countries that are focused in protecting economic sectors are not enough because they do not address the social inequalities that are the essence of their climate change vulnerabilities. In consequence, transversal adaptation strategies that combine technology and financial transfer with structural reforms in the social fabric of the society can be more effective in managing global warming in the long-term. In addition, it is important that the adaptation strategies include mechanisms that enable vulnerable social groups to participate in their elaboration, implementation and accountability. By doing this, the strategies will be benefited from the unique local knowledge of the inhabitants of the ecosystems, and the vulnerable social groups will feel part of the action plans, collaborate proactively and benefit from them.
On the other hand, if communities are not involved in the elaboration and implementation of adaptation strategies, they will perceive them as an intervention from the government, and will not contribute proactively to them.
The magnitude of the consequences that climate change will have on the world is still relatively unknown. Nevertheless, it has already altered global climatic conditions and caused devastating effects on all countries and their populations, particularly those that are most vulnerable to such effects. The promotion of climate change adaptation is, thus, an urgent matter. For such promotion to lead to effective action, governments have to acknowledge the fact that only by addressing socially, economically and politically enabling policy framework that combines climate actions and the needs of vulnerable social groups their populations will be capable of successfully managing climate change and adapting to it. Adaptation strategies can be sectoral – aimed at specific affected areas, multi-sectoral – when the affected natural resources cover different areas and transversal – with the objective of introducing structural changes to the existing social fabric for it to be better capable of coping with global warming. The international community needs to broaden their view of the problem and possible solutions. If this does not happen, climate change will continue to accentuate the already disproportionate vulnerabilities of poverty-stricken people and minority groups in developing countries, and its consequences will be catastrophic to humanity.
Increasing Frequency of Cyclones and Flooding Portends Worse Problems
Sixteen years ago on August 29th, hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coast causing widespread damage that was estimated at $125 billion. This year, by a remarkable coincidence, hurricane Ida hit on the same date, again August 29th. The weather service holds the end of August though the beginning of September as the period with the highest likelihood of tropical cyclones hitting the Louisiana coast. In light of this, perhaps the coincidence is not quite as uncanny.
While not as large as Katrina, hurricane Ida was more powerful with winds in excess of 150 miles per hour. That is in line with climate scientists who now believe extreme weather events will tend to increase in both severity and frequency unless something is done about global warming.
Another example has been the heat wave last June in the Pacific Northwest in which hundreds of people died. Canada set an all-time-high temperature record of 49.6 degrees Celsius in the village of Lytton. The chance of all this happening without human-induced global warming is about 1 in a 1000. However, the warming makes the event 150 times more likely.
Following Ida was hurricane Larry. Also powerful, it formed in the Atlantic but luckily for the Atlantic coast chose a path straight north. These recurring extreme weather events have caught the attention of scientists. Thus Myhre from the Center for Climate Research in Norway and his coauthors find a strong increase in frequency and confirm previously established intensity. They collected data for Europe over a three-decade period (1951-1980) and repeated the process for 1984-2013. This historical data also allowed them to develop climate models for the future, and, as one might imagine, the future is not rosy.
Expanding their horizon, the authors note that historical and future changes in Europe follow a similar pattern. This does not hold when including the US, Japan and Australia which are likely to experience bigger changes. Given intensity and frequency going hand in hand and also that the study considered natural variability alone, we can only dread the inclusion of human forcing through climate drivers like greenhouse gases.
For coastal residents, sea level rise adds to the hazard. Worse, it is now a problem for people several miles inland. In South Florida, drainage canals are used to return water to the ocean after storm and flooding events; the difficulty now lies in rising sea levels that hinder the efficiency of the drainage canals.
Residents as far away as 20 miles inland have noticed water coming up their driveway, a new and frightening portend of the future. The South Florida Water Management District oversees the canals. It raises and lowers the gates controlling flow to the ocean or vice versa. Thus they can open the gates to release flood water from storms to the ocean.
The problem now is that the ocean level in the Atlantic during some storms is higher than the water level inland so they cannot open the gates — that would simply bring in more water.
All of these happenings are clearly not a happy future prospect … unless we take global warming seriously and act soon.
Human activity the common link between disasters around the world
Disasters such as cyclones, floods, and droughts are more connected than we might think, and human activity is the common thread, a UN report released on Wednesday reveals.
The study from the UN University, the academic and research arm of the UN, looks at 10 different disasters that occurred in 2020 and 2021, and finds that, even though they occurred in very different locations and do not initially appear to have much in common, they are, in fact, interconnected.
A consequence of human influence
The study builds on the ground-breaking Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment released on 9 August, and based on improved data on historic heating, which showed that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General described the IPCC assessment as a “code red for humanity”.
Over the 2020-2021 period covered by the UN University, several record-breaking disasters took place, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a cold wave which crippled the US state of Texas, wildfires which destroyed almost 5 million acres of Amazon rainforest, and 9 heavy storms in Viet Nam – in the span of only 7 weeks.
Whilst these disasters occurred thousands of miles apart, the study shows how they are related to one another, and can have consequences for people living in distant places.
An example of this is the recent heatwave in the Arctic and cold wave in Texas. In 2020, the Arctic experienced unusually high air temperatures, and the second-lowest amount of sea ice cover on record.
This warm air destabilized the polar vortex, a spinning mass of cold air above the North Pole, allowing colder air to move southward into North America, contributing to the sub-zero temperatures in Texas, during which the power grid froze up, and 210 people died.
COVID and the Cyclone
Another example of the connections between disasters included in the study and the pandemic, is Cyclone Amphan, which struck the border region of India and Bangladesh.
In an area where almost 50 per cent of the population is living under the poverty line, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left many people without any way to make a living, including migrant workers who were forced to return to their home areas and were housed in cyclone shelters while under quarantine.
When the region was hit by Cyclone Amphan, many people, concerned over social distancing, hygiene and privacy, avoided the shelters and decided to weather the storm in unsecure locations. In the aftermath, there was a spike in COVID-19 cases, compounding the 100 fatalities directly caused by Amphan, which also caused damage in excess of 13 billion USD and displaced 4.9 million people.
The new report identifies three root causes that affected most of the events in the analysis: human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, insufficient disaster risk management, and undervaluing environmental costs and benefits in decision-making.
The first of these, human induced greenhouse gas emissions, is identified as one of the reasons why Texas experienced freezing temperatures, but these emissions also contribute to the formation of super cyclones such as Cyclone Amphan, on the other side of the world.
Insufficient disaster risk management, notes the study, was one of the reasons why Texas experienced such high losses of life and excessive infrastructure damage during the cold snap, and also contributed to the high losses caused by the Central Viet Nam floods.
The report also shows how the record rate of deforestation in the Amazon is linked to the high global demand for meat: this demand has led to an increase in the need for soy, which is used as animal feed for poultry. As a result, tracts of forest are being cut down.
“What we can learn from this report is that disasters we see happening around the world are much more interconnected than we may realize, and they are also connected to individual behaviour”, says one of the report’s authors, UNU scientist Jack O’Connor. “Our actions have consequences, for all of us,”
Solutions also linked
However, Mr. O’Connor is adamant that, just as the problems are interlinked, so are the solutions.
The report shows that cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions can positively affect the outcome of many different types of disasters, prevent a further increase in the frequency and severity of hazards, and protect biodiversity and ecosystems.
Blue sky thinking: 5 things to know about air pollution
Around 90 per cent of people go through their daily lives breathing harmful polluted air, which has been described by the United Nations as the most important health issue of our time. To mark the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, on 7 September, UN News explains how bad it is and what is being done to tackle it.
1) Air pollution kills millions and harms the environment
It may have dropped from the top of news headlines in recent months, but air pollution remains a lethal danger to many: it precipitates conditions including heart disease, lung disease, lung cancer and strokes, and is estimated to cause one in nine of all premature deaths, around seven million every year.
Air pollution is also harming also harms our natural environment. It decreases the oxygen supply in our oceans, makes it harder for plants to grow, and contributes to climate change.
Yet, despite the damage it causes, there are worrying signs that air pollution is not seen as a priority in many countries: in the first ever assessment of air quality laws, released on 2 September by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), it was revealed that around 43 per cent of countries lack a legal definition for air pollution, and almost a third of them have yet to adopt legally mandated outdoor air quality standards.
2) The main causes
Five types of human activity are responsible for most air pollution: agriculture, transport, industry, waste and households.
Agricultural processes and livestock produce methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, and a cause of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Methane is also a by-product of waste burning, which emits other polluting toxins, which end up entering the food chain. Meanwhile industries release large amounts of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulate matter and chemicals.
Transport continues to be responsible for the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, despite the global phase out of dangerous leaded fuel at the end of August. This milestone was lauded by senior UN officials, including the Secretary-General, who said that it would prevent around one million premature deaths each year. However, vehicles continue to spew fine particulate matter, ozone, black carbon and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere; it’s estimated that treating health conditions caused by air pollution costs approximately $1 trillion per year globally.
Whilst it may not come as a great shock to learn that these activities are harmful to health and the environment, some people may be surprised to hear that households are responsible for around 4.3 million deaths each year. This is because many households burn open fires and use inefficient stoves inside homes, belching out toxic particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead and mercury.
3) This is an urgent issue
The reason that the UN is ringing alarm bells about this issue now, is that the evidence of the effects of air pollution on humans is mounting. In recent years exposure to air pollution has been found to contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, dementia, impaired cognitive development and lower intelligence levels.
On top of this, we have known for years that it is linked to cardiovascular and respiratory disease.
Concern about this type of pollution dovetails with increased global action to tackle the climate crisis: this is an environmental issue as well as a health issue, and actions to clean up the skies would go a long way to reducing global warming. Other harmful environmental effects include depleted soil and waterways, endangered freshwater sources and lower crop yields.
4) Improving air quality is a responsibility of government and private sector
On International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, the UN is calling on governments to do more to cut air pollution and improve air quality.
Specific actions they could take include implementing integrated air quality and climate change policies; phasing out petrol and diesel cars; and committing to reduce emissions from the waste sector.
Businesses can also make a difference, by pledging to reduce and eventually eliminate waste; switching to low-emission or electric vehicles for their transport fleets; and find ways to cut emissions of air pollutants from their facilities and supply chains.
5)…and it is our responsibility, as well
At an individual level, as the harmful cost of household activities shows, a lot can be achieved if we change our behaviour.
Simple actions can include using public transportation, cycling or walking; reducing household waste and composting; eating less meat by switching to a plant-based diet; and conserving energy.
The Website for the International Day contains more ideas of actions that we can take, and how we can encourage our communities and cities to make changes that would contribute to cleaner skies: these include organizing tree-planting activities, raising awareness with events and exhibitions, and committing to expanding green open spaces.
How clean is your air?
You may well be wondering exactly how clean or dirty the air around you is right now. If so, take a look at a UNEP website which shows how exposed we are to air pollution, wherever we live.
The site indicates that more than five billion people, or around 70 per cent of the global population, are breathing air that is above the pollution limits recommended by the World Health Organization.
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