by Dr Lorna Gold, Head of Policy and Advocacy with Trócaire
The tragedy of super-Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines less than two weeks ago, put climate change firmly back on the global political agenda.
Suddenly, from talking in terms of future predictions, there was a shift to talking in terms of the present – climate change is now, it is happening. The frightening reality has been captured on the countless social media clips of children clinging to roof tops and dead bodies strewn in the streets as floods recede. It is etched on the faces of people who have lost loved ones. It seems the terrifying reality is hitting home: this is for real. Or is it?
Caption: Bodies line the streets of Tacloban on Leyte island. Rescue workers continue to search the rubble for people who perished in the typhoon. (Photo: Eoghan Rice – Trócaire / Caritas)
While people in the Philippines were picking through the ruins of their lives and communities across the world united in solidarity to support the aid operation, the UN climate negotiations in Warsaw were getting underway. The Head of the Philippines delegation, Nadarev Sano, overcome by grief, threw scientific caution to the wind and gave a powerful, moving speech linking the typhoon to climate change. He pleaded with the negotiators to do what is necessary. There was not a dry eye in the conference room.
A week on since his powerful speech and the talks are at a delicate stage. His passionate appeal has failed as 132 countries led by China pulled out of a key part of the negotiations on loss and damages. The same frustrations and delaying tactics that have dogged these negotiations for years re-emerged shortly after Sano’s speech. Anger was palpable as it became evident that the financial pledges to assist developing countries with adaption have not materialised and emissions reductions are still woefully inadequate. The crunch point came when rich countries refused to even discuss the controversial issue of “loss and damages” or compensation until after 2015. The question now is whether the ministers present can turn the situation around and prevent a full collapse.
So what more will it take to make progress? Despite the clarion calls of science and the palpable sense of compassion with the Philippines, the negotiations are stuck in a loop as if tackling climate change is a “zero sum game” where success is about winners and losers, but failure has no impact on anyone. They are trapped in a kind of 19th century tit-for-tat international relations which is incapable of seeing that the global common good is far greater than individual countries and blocks.
The problem lies in the fact that addressing climate change requires a paradigm shift in human society, which cannot be reached through UN negotiations alone. The negotiations almost presuppose that a shift has occurred at a national level, or at least that it is top of the national political agendas of the countries represented. Ireland’s climate bill is about to go to the Daíl for debate, but is hardly top of the agenda. It is critical that we widen the public debate to recognise the scale of the climate challenge and our duty to respond for the sake of all our grandchildren and the right of all people to live in dignity and security.
According to the science, if we are to stay within “safe climate limits” within five years, we need to stop taking fossil fuels out of the ground, requiring a radical shift to a fossil-free economy and society. But the move to a fossil free world could not currently be further from the lifestyle so many people aspire to. Those aspirations are undoubtedly shaped by many factors. The power of advertising promotes an economy based on created need, where waste is key. Waste and created need satisfies a lifestyle, generates growth and keeps people in jobs. It keeps politicians in power. But the huge environmental cost of this, is completely ignored.
There are some positive signs that change may be on the horizon. Despite the collapse in Warsaw, climate change is now top of the agenda of the financial and economic institutions like the World Bank and IMF, which recognise the mounting economic cost of inaction. It is also being discussed in the boards of investment companies, which are looking for ways to kick start a greener economy or “green growth”.
Yet even moving to green growth is not enough. The kind of change needed would mean aspiring to different lifestyles, which place greater value on community, locality and sustainability. These aspirations, once translated into behaviour, can lead to ambitious political action. We can benefit from climate change solutions. Imagine, less pollution, strong local economies and better public transport. We owe it to our children, and to the millions of people like those in the Philippines, who are already suffering due to climate change.