by Eithne McNulty, Trócaire's Director in Northern Ireland
Humans, along with every other species, depend totally on the proper functioning of the planet for the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. A small change to nature’s system can have the effect of knocking the entire basis of life on earth out of synch.
Tragically, we are seeing one such change. It is called climate change and it cannot be described as small.
Fact: the earth’s average temperature is higher today than it was before mass industrialisation. Fact: each of the last three decades have been successively warmer than any preceding decade since 1850.
The scientific evidence is unequivocal: not only is our climate changing, it is changing as a direct result of carbon emissions from human activity. If emissions continue as they are, experts warn that by 2100 average global temperatures will be between 3.7-4.8°C higher than today.
Such a rise would have a profound impact on sea levels, rainfall patterns and the frequency of extreme weather events. These, in turn, would similarly have a profound impact on our ability to live. Crop yields across much of Africa are predicted to fall, including by up to 50 per cent by 2020 in some countries, as a direct consequence of climate change. Even optimistic predictions forecast that there could be an additional 86 million malnourished children in the world by 2050.
We do not have to look to the future to see the devastation of climate change, of course. Today, one in twelve people across the world is at risk of hunger. Through my work with Trócaire I have seen how drought, storms and floods are plunging people already on the edge into further poverty.
The reality is simple: climate change is no longer a stand-alone issue, it is the entire context in which the world exists.
When world leaders met in New York yesterday (Sept 23rd) at the UN Climate Summit, the urgency for genuine action has never been greater. The decisions we take this week and over the coming years will have huge implications on a wide range of issues, from food production to mass migration, for decades to come.
Despite dire predictions from experts who warn that we are running out of time to avoid a future of mass displacement and growing hunger, political leaders have until now chosen to ignore long-term issues in favour of short-term gains.
Collectively, the world has chosen to ignore a catastrophe that is heading straight towards us.
We have recently seen the impact of conflict in many countries around the world – Syria, Iraq and others. These conflicts have been driven by factors that are not linked to the changing environment. However, the UN has warned that the depletion of renewable natural resources, combined with environmental degradation and climate change, poses fundamental threats to human security. Disputes and grievances over natural resources can be a major contributing factor to violent conflict when they overlap with high levels of inequality, poverty, injustice and poor governance.
One of the greatest injustices in today’s world is that those who have done least to contribute to the planet’s changing climate are the very people who are suffering most from its effects.
The average person in Northern Ireland is responsible for emitting 8.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year – 83 times the amount of the average Ethiopian. All industrialised countries need to cut carbon emissions as a matter of urgency.
We need changes to our economy and government policies. Each of us has a role to play, be it in our homes, our schools or our businesses.
Justine Greening, the UK Secretary of State for International Development, and the Taoiseach Enda Kenny, attended the UN Summit on Climate Change. They should be willing to seize the opportunity to become climate champions and push political decision-makers and the international community to agree fair and binding global targets to reduce emissions and support developing countries dealing with climate change. Closer to home, paramount to effecting change will be whether or not the Assembly has the courage to introduce a Northern Ireland Climate Change Act with a legally binding regional target to reduce carbon emissions from 1990 levels by at least 40% by 2020 and 80% by 2050.
This New York meeting will set the tone for the work that needs to be achieved in the coming months in advance of the new global climate deal which is expected to be agreed at talks in Paris next year. In the run up to this Summit people have taken to the streets in New York, in Belfast, in Dublin and around the world in the biggest ever mobilisation on climate change, and they are calling for responsible leadership: it is now up to our leaders to step up to the plate.
We need to respond to climate change before it’s too late. If we do not then what kind of legacy will we be leaving future generations?