Action must prevail in Cancun

Campaigns and Advocacy, Media Releases, News, Opinion article written on the 29 Nov 2010

While in South Western Bangladesh last week, I watched as a woman named Shahana sat cross-legged on the ground with thirty members of her community noting down the many ways changing weather patterns were impacting their lives.

They told stories about how cyclones were becoming more frequent, how the weather was becoming more volatile and how clean, drinkable water was getting harder and harder to come by. The group of mostly women also talked about how it was getting tougher to farm for food in the village and how their husbands had been forced to go to the cities to find work.

Shahana works for a Bangladeshi community organisation which, with the support of Oxfam, helps local communities respond to the new challenges posed by a changing climate. As a low lying nation with some 160 million people packed into an area one eighth the size of NSW, Bangladesh’s already scarce resources are becoming more precarious in the face of climate change.

Bangladesh is just one of many poor countries around the world already feeling the impacts of environmental changes. A new Oxfam report released today, called Now More Than Ever finds that 21,000 people died due to weather-related disasters in the first nine months of 2010 – more than twice the number for the whole of 2009. It also finds that 2010 was one of the hottest years ever recorded with Pakistan logging a scorching 53.7°C.

The release of the report coincides with this week’s crucial United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Cancun, Mexico, and is a reminder to world leaders of the often forgotten reality that takes place outside the windows of their closed-door discussions.

It’s sad to think that this conference marks almost one year since the last major UN summit on climate change in Copenhagen, where talks nearly collapsed, further delaying a fair, ambitious and legally binding deal.

This week negotiators from around the world, including Australia, have a chance to turn things around. One of the major sticking points at Copenhagen was the need to secure finance for adaptation. In other words, the assistance needed for poor people in developing countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change they are already experiencing.

In Copenhagen, world leaders did commit to trying to find US$100 billion a year by 2020 from public and private sources in order to help developing countries adapt to climate change and develop along low carbon pathways.

This is just half the amount Oxfam believes is actually needed to do the job properly, yet no decisions have been made as to how governments will source the money, how this money will be spent, and who will manage and disperse it. These details need to be finalised this week in Mexico otherwise poor people will be forced to wait another year for the support they desperately need now.

Australia is the highest per capita emitter yet so far, its limited pledges to climate change adaptation have come from existing aid commitments – an approach that overlooks that climate change is an additional burden on the world’s poor. Every aid dollar diverted from the aid program is one dollar less for vital health, education, water and sanitation projects that save lives and help people out of poverty.

And it seems that Australians want their government to support developing countries adapt to the impacts of climate change. A Galaxy research poll published today reveals that 86 per cent of Australians are in favour of Australia doing more to support poor countries in Pacific Islands deal with the impacts of climate change. The poll also showed that 93 per cent of Australians are in favour of technology transfer to help developing countries reduce their emissions.

Helping communities adapt before disaster strikes not only saves lives, it’s cost effective. The Now More Than Ever report shows that climate impacts already cost countries between one and 12 per cent of GDP each year and this could rise to 19 per cent by 2030. Yet, every dollar spent on adaptation could save about $60 in avoided losses.

While money is crucial in the fight against climate change, how this money is spent is equally important. At the most recent UN intercessional climate negotiations in Tianjin, one of the Bangladeshi negotiators argued that “women farmers in Bangladesh know more about adaptation than the negotiators in this room.”

After meeting Shahana and her community last week, I would agree. People in developing countries are best placed to know what will work most effectively for them – and currently that knowledge remains untapped. The people of Bangladesh are resourceful and resilient yet they, and millions of others in the developing world, cannot afford global action on climate change to be delayed any longer.

Andrew Hewett, Executive Director, Oxfam Australia

This opinion editorial was first published by ABC’s The Drum Opinion on 29 November 2010.