Global warming and associated climate change has been referred to as an environmental challenge, and an economic challenge. Before it is either of those things, though, it is a moral challenge. 

The poorest countries and communities - who have done least to cause the problem of climate change - will suffer its effects earliest and worst, while the wealthiest countries - who are largely responsible for the problem through 150 years of carbon-intensive development - will be shielded from these effects by virtue of their wealth. And because climate change will become increasingly severe as the temperature gets warmer, then the longer we go without taking strong, cooperative action, the greater the risk that we will condemn generations as yet unborn to pay the social, ecological and economic debt on the tab we are now so recklessly running up.

Nepal

NEPAL: Ben Thurley says that the effects of climate change will soon be felt in places like Nepal where disaster planning is already underway in preparation for the moment when Himalayan lakes, fed by glaciers melting at a faster rate than anywhere else on Earth, burst their bounds. PICTURE: Nepali Maanish (www.sxc.hu) 

 

"If we are to exercise our Christian duty of care for the poor, then we must respond to climate change."

By ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, the Australian Government is in a position to take a constructive new approach, and practical actions, to tackle climate change. Kevin Rudd ratified the Kyoto Protocol as his first executive act. The UN Climate Change conference in Bali burst into sustained applause after the announcement, but the applause has now faded, and tough questions remain about what Australia will do next.

Australian Christians, too, must take a constructive and supportive approach, because the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable members of the human family - the poor and the unborn - are at stake. The research is clear, and my friends and colleagues are increasingly able to point to the reality. As this year’s UNDP Human Development Report argues: “In the long run climate change is a massive threat to human development and in some places it is already undermining the international community’s efforts to reduce extreme poverty.” If we are to exercise our Christian duty of care for the poor, then we must respond to climate change.

TEAR Australia’s developing country partners are already able to point to the impacts of climate change on poor and vulnerable groups and communities. 

The Anglican Church of Kenya has established a community development program in the Eldoret Diocese, which is implementing a water security and conflict resolution program. These are not two separate programs, but one and the same, as a 10-year drought in Western Kenya exacerbates inter-tribal conflict over increasingly scarce water supplies. Colleagues in Nepal are doing disaster planning for the almost inevitable moment when some of the Himalayan lakes - fed by glaciers that are melting faster than in any other region on Earth - burst their bounds, with potentially catastrophic results for communities downstream. 

Bangladesh has already experienced temperature increases of 1?C in May and 0.5?C in November from 1985 to 1998 and my friend, Sylvester Halder, assistant executive director of HEED Bangladesh, knows from personal experience that this major change in climate and weather patterns is affecting the lives of the poor: “Crop failures, loss of capital investment, failure to replenish the inputs essential for recovery not only increases food insecurity, but also loss of household assets. These events increase not only vulnerability but push more people into the vicious cycle of poverty.”

Cyclone Sidr, which killed around 4,500 people in Bangladesh recently, serves as a stark reminder of the vulnerability of the world’s poorest people to climate-related disasters. Every year weather-related disasters kill an average of 45,000 people and a further 245 million people are affected through homelessness, loss of income and destruction of infrastructure. The vast majority of those killed or affected in these events live in developing countries. The number and severity of these events is likely to increase. The UN issued 15 disaster response appeals in 2007, and all but one of these were related to climate and weather events. 

Thinking about the potential impacts of climate change beyond the warming we have already experienced is sobering. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report is the premier synthesis of all published and peer-reviewed science on climate change. Its modelling of the likely effects of temperature increases shows that up to 2°C, we can expect to see hundreds of millions of people with reduced access to water,
sea level rises putting millions of people at risk of coastal flooding and increasingly intense storms, as well as the loss of land and drinking water in some small island states; and, 20 to 30 per cent of plant and animal species at increased risk of extinction.

Beyond 2°C it gets worse, with between one and four billion people experiencing growing water shortages, up to 550 million more people at risk of hunger, and, 40 to 60 million more people exposed to malaria in Africa.

In this context, ratifying the Kyoto Protocol is a good step, but only a first step. So, what shape should Australian leadership take?

In the international negotiations going on in Bali and beyond, Rudd and his minister will need to work to maintain, broaden and deepen support for substantial and binding emissions reductions for developed countries. We will need to put constant pressure on the US and engage with Kyoto-waverers like Japan and Canada. Developed countries have a moral obligation, and the practical and financial capability, to accept binding cuts to their own emissions, and they must not shirk this. 

We must also work cooperatively with developing countries such as China and India to help them make more substantial contributions to the global effort to tackle climate change. Developing countries are understandably reluctant to accept binding reluctant targets of their own, when developed countries have as yet done little to show their own good faith, and when their poverty reduction and development challenges are immense, yet they must also play a part. Australia can offer financial and technological support, and engage in constructive diplomacy, to help accelerate this.

We must also take strong action on the two key planks of a global response to climate change: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation, or actions taken to reduce emissions, is a matter of “avoiding the unmanageable” while adaptation is about helping to “manage the unavoidable”.

Australia will almost certainly not set its national emissions reductions targets during the time of this UN Conference, as it is waiting for more detailed advice (and political cover) from the Garnaut Review. However, the science is clear. If we want to keep warming to below two degrees Celcius, beyond which we approach the level of extremely dangerous warming, then we will need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by around 25 to 40 per cent below 1990 levels and at least 80 per cent by 2050. It sounds like big ask, and undoubtedly will involve major changes, but it is what is required, and for a wealthy and technologically advanced country like Australia, it is achievable and affordable. 

"Ratifying the Kyoto Protocol is a good step, but only a first step."

Finally, Australia will need to do much more to help poor countries adapt to the current and future impacts of climate change. Current commitments to support adaptation fall so far short of the scale of need as to be hysterical or tragic, depending on whether your natural response is to laugh or cry. The best estimate of the scale of global adaptation needs in poor countries is around $US50 billion per year. The two funds that currently exist to support adaptation are entirely dependent on donor commitments and, predictably fall well short not only of the scale of need, but also even of the donors’ own promises. Of the nearly $178 million that has been pledged so far, only $98 million had actually been paid. Australia made its first contribution – of a paltry $7.5 million – to the Least Developed Countries Fund only this year. 

As well as increasing our support for climate change adaptation through our overseas aid program, Australia needs to be at the frontline of countries helping to set up and fund a large-scale, international Adaptation Fund. This Fund, under negotation in Bali, must focus on the adaptation needs of the countries and communities most vulnerable to climate change, especially Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States, and it must be adequately and predictably funded.

In my view, Australian leadership on climate change, led by a Christian Prime Minister, should take as its starting point the kind of servant leadership advocated by Paul on the model of Jesus: “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).

And Australian Christians should join together in calling for this.

Ben Thurley is national advocacy coordinator for TEAR Australia, a Christian aid and development organisation that works through local partners in 27 countries to strive for sustainable community development and emergency relief among some of the poorest people in the world. He is also one of the convenors of the Make Poverty History campaign. He is attending the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali along with representatives from partner organisations in Nepal and India, in order to press for a global climate change deal that meets the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable communities.