Climate change takes dark toll in death and destruction


OPINION:Rio+20 must go beyond mere talk to stop a needless drift toward preventable disaster

IT SEEMS fitting that world leaders should gather in Rio de Janeiro to discuss the future of our planet, including the unresolved issue of climate change, shortly after the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking.

There are many similarities between our approach to the changing climate and the fateful journey. Both involve the needless drift towards preventable disaster. And both, the utterly avoidable deaths of very many people.

Perhaps the most fitting similarity is the fate of the poorest passengers on both journeys. The Titanic passengers in steerage, many Irish, made up the majority of people on board. Three-quarters of them died.

As the world edges closer to irreversible climate disaster we are faced with a similar scenario: the poorest left on the frontline facing the fatal consequences of a disaster not of their making.

Across Africa, Asia and Latin America, hundreds of millions are struggling to adapt to their changing climate. In the last three years, we have seen 10 million people displaced by floods in Pakistan, 13 million face hunger in east Africa, and over 10 million in the Sahel region of Africa face starvation.

Even those figures only scrape the surface. According to the Global Humanitarian Forum, headed up by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, climate change is responsible for 300,000 deaths a year and affects 300 million people annually. Linked economic losses are costed at more than $125 billion a year. By 2030, the annual death toll related to climate change is expected to rise to 500,000 and the economic cost to rocket to $600 billion.

The gradual, devastating impact can be seen in the millions of forgotten villages scattered throughout the developing world.

Trócaire yesterday published the results of a two-year research project into the effects of climate change on rural communities in the developing world. It paints a picture of communities battling food insecurity and plagued by migration, conflict and health issues as a result of climate change.

In the Tharaka district of central Kenya, annual rainfall has decreased by over 15 per cent since the 1970s and now stands at between 500-800mm. Rain has also become more erratic and less predictable. During the same time, the average temperature has increased by one degree.

Without steady and predictable rainfall, fields remain barren. Crops fail, animals die and people starve. Fifty years ago, the average household in Tharaka owned 20 cattle and 50 goats. Today, it is two cattle and five goats. Sixty-five per cent of Tharaka’s 130,098 people are now classified as living in absolute poverty.

People in Tharaka are trying to adapt but it is not easy. To buy drought-resistant seeds and irrigation equipment, they need money. Yet, as crops fail and animals die, they are becoming poorer, locked in a downward cycle. They are rightly anxious about where this is leading them.

As one Tharaka farmer told me last year: “We used to know when the rains would come but now it is so unpredictable. Most of the time it does not come at all. When we should have rain, we instead have clear, blue sky. How can we grow food? How can we live?”

That is a question being asked in villages throughout the developing world. In Africa alone, it is projected that by 2020 between 75 and 250 million people will face increased water stress as a result of climate change and in some countries agricultural yields could fall by up to 50 per cent.

Sadly, international conferences which include discussions on climate change have become synonymous with fudges and long-fingering of key issues. At the last climate change conference in Durban last December, the world’s top three polluters – the US, China and India – objected to the modest proposal that a new climate change treaty should be decided by 2015.

The Rio de Janeiro conference will deal with many issues. But at a minimum, it must give urgent momentum to tackling climate change. Ireland, as one of the world’s highest per capita polluters, has an obligation to bring this charade to a close. Our Government remains committed to introducing a domestic climate change Bill and should do so as soon as possible. As we attempt to rebuild our international reputation, Ireland has a chance to show leadership and integrity on an issue that poses a real threat to the future of our planet.

We are heading towards a global mean temperature increase of about 3.5 degrees by 2100 compared to 1990 levels. This will affect us all, although the impact will depend on people’s ability to respond. Communities such as those in Tharaka cannot cope without significant outside help.

The developed world is better-placed to respond to climate change but remains vulnerable. Storms, fires, floods, heatwaves and hurricanes will continue to increase in frequency, destroying land, killing people and costing billions. Failing to act comes at a price – destruction and death all over the world.

Because that is the thing about being on the Titanic – it doesn’t matter whether you’re in steerage or first class, when the iceberg hits, we’re all going down.

JUSTIN KILCULLENis attending the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro as director of Trócaire and president of the European NGO Confederation for Relief and Development

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