From Tahrir Square to the streets of New York, citizens worldwide are protesting the status quo. In a world where the gap between rich and poor is widening, where corporate influence carries disproportionate weight, and where we are rapidly spending down nature’s capital, the public is saying “Enough!” Is this a passing fad or long-term trend? The realities of climate change and rising CO2 emissions suggest we’re in for a bumpy ride ahead.
Consider these facts: ocean acidification, warming and hypoxia are damaging life at the base of the ocean food chain. This, combined with the decreased resilience of marine ecosystems as a result of overfishing, marine pollution, resource extraction and other stresses, means that the 3.5 billion people who depend on the oceans for food increasingly will go hungry.
Those who rely on land-based sources of food are not likely to fare much better. According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization, “An increasing number of countries are reaching alarming levels of water scarcity and 1.4 billion people live in areas with sinking ground water levels. Water scarcity is particularly pronounced in the Near East/North Africa and the South Asia regions and is likely to worsen as a result of climate change in many regions.” At the same time, the report notes, “Satisfying the expected food and feed demand will require a substantial increase of global food production of 70% by 2050.”
This projection does not include the increasing demand for food crops used in biofuel production, which will only make matters worse. Studies show that climate change is already impacting food production and is responsible for price increases of around 20% in recent decades. Remembering the riots which erupted in Egypt, Bangladesh and Haiti in 2008 when food prices reached their all-time high, the potential for increasing social unrest is substantial.
Clearly, any way you look at it, climate change represents a threat to global security—not just in 2050, but right here, right now.
We need the concentration of CO2 to stabilise in the atmosphere at 350 parts per million or lower if we are to stave off the worst impacts of climate change. We have already overshot the mark at around 390, so we need to act fast to bring it back down. The longer we wait, the steeper the reductions will have to be in subsequent years. Alternatively, we stabilise at a much higher level and take our chances that some mysterious force of nature will rally to our defence. It’s not our generation that will suffer the worst consequences of a bad gamble, however, but that of our children, grandchildren and generations to come. If this is not to be our legacy to them, here’s what we need to do:
First we must finalise a fair, ambitious and legally binding global climate agreement. It must be fair for the poorest people who did not cause climate change but will suffer the most from it. This means adequate finance not only for mitigation, but for adaptation. It must be ambitious enough to leave a planet safe for us all; the existing pledges on the table only get us about halfway there. And it must be binding with real targets that can be legally monitored and enforced. To start with, parties to the Kyoto Protocol need to commit to a second commitment period beginning in 2013. But ultimately we need an agreement that includes all major emitters, while recognising the common but differentiated responsibilities between countries at different stages of development. The prevailing attitude of “I won’t move until you move first” must be countered head-on; we simply don’t have the time to procrastinate.
Second, all countries must embark on rapid and clean low carbon development pathways. This is a win-win situation. Take the Maldives, for example. President Nasheed made headlines in 2010 with his announcement to become the first country in the world to go carbon neutral and has developed a Carbon Neutral Plan to make it a reality. This is not only environmentally friendly but makes good economic sense as well. The Maldives spends around 14% of its GDP on imported oil, more than on education and health care combined. And as they can store relatively little of it at any one time, they are extremely vulnerable to changes in the price per barrel. The benefits of clean, low carbon development are becoming increasingly obvious. HSBC projected that the low carbon energy market will triple in size by 2020, to US$2.2 trillion. And a recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the Carbon Disclosure Project found that low carbon leaders amongst the world’s major corporations substantially outperformed the Global 500 average in terms of shareholder value.
Third, we need to stop arguing and start listening—really listening, that is, and acting as if our lives depended on it. The stories of real people being affected by climate change are being told with increased urgency. These are stories of flooding and famine, of drought and fire. They are heartbreaking and frightening, and too often we succumb to the natural human tendency of pretending that such things won’t happen to us. Until they do. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev became convinced of the need to address climate change by the terrible heat wave and devastating wildfires in the summer of 2010. In a speech delivered on 4 August that year, he said, “We need to learn our lessons from what has happened…Everyone is talking about climate change now. Unfortunately, what is happening now in our central regions is evidence of this global climate change, because we have never in our history faced such weather conditions in the past. This means that we need to change the way we work, change the methods that we used in the past.”
But have we really learned those lessons yet? Some have, but others are lagging behind.
In 2050, when the world looks back on the legacy of our generation, how will you be remembered?
FAO (2009), "How to Feed the World in 2050".
©OECD Yearbook 2012