Climate Change Does Have A Face, We Just Need To Open Our Eyes

Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It is also a development issue.

04/06/2016 6:15 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:53 PM AEST
Highlight text to share via Facebook and Twitter
Getty Images
Science tells us that the world is warming to dangerous levels, but we fail to imagine it, we fail to give it a face.

As floods consume Paris, in Ethiopia the wind is again blowing dust into the sky. El Nino has dealt the country a vicious blow, with more than 10 million people now requiring food assistance.

It is not only in Ethiopia. The strongest El Nino in more than 50 years, triggering severe droughts and floods, has cut a devastating swathe through South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Angola, Lesotho, Tanzania, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The UN predicts that food will start running out on a large scale by next month (July), while the World Food Programme predicts that by Christmas, 50 million people in southern Africa will need food support, with tens of millions more people facing food and water shortages in Asia, Latin America and the Pacific regions. Millions of children face malnutrition and disease.

Whether El Nino and its counterpart La Nina, which now looms on the horizon, become more severe with climate change is an unsettled question, but this "super" El Nino has shown again the extent to which the world's poorest people are the most vulnerable to climate variations -- and poor children most of all.

Charles Kabena
Precious Lameck, 13, pictured in his family's dried up garden.

The ever growing frequency and severity of extreme weather events is providing a glimpse of what climate change could mean.

In this election season, climate change has floated on the periphery of the national debate, like a boat drifting over bleached coral on the Great Barrier Reef.

In Paris last December, the world's nations pledged to keep global temperatures "well below" 2.0C above pre-industrial times -- the level scientists regard as dangerous and irreversible -- and to "endeavour to limit" them even more, to 1.5 degrees celcius.

Australia has only pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 (19-22 percent below 2000 levels). Is it enough? The federal government calls it a "fair contribution", but the Climate Change Authority said Australia should be aiming to reduce emissions by 40 to 60 percent of 2000 levels by 2030.

Australia's 2030 reduction targets are below those of most of the developed world, including the UK with its target of 80 percent by 2050, Germany (40 percent by 2020 and up to 95 percent by 2050), and even the US, which has a slightly more ambitious target of 26-28 percent by 2025.

There is also the question of coal. The issue of new coal mines must be on the table for discussion.

Science tells us that the world is warming to dangerous levels, but we fail to imagine it, we fail to give it a face.

Yet for those of us who work in the humanitarian sector, climate change does have a face. It is a child in a barren landscape with no food to eat, or huddled in a flimsy shelter during a violent storm.

Getty Images
Over 23 million people across East Africa are facing a critical shortage of water and food, a situation made worse by climate change.

Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It is also a development issue. Its effects are felt first and hardest by the world's poor, those least responsible but most vulnerable.

Already, the UN's refugee agency estimates that as many as 23 million people are displaced by climate or weather-related catastrophes every year.

In its November 2015 report, Unless We Act Now: The Impact of Climate Change on Children, UNICEF states: "Nearly 530 million children live in extremely high flood occurrence zones, over 300 million of them in countries where half or more of the population lives on less than $3.10 per day. Nearly 160 million children live in areas of high or extremely high drought severity, including almost 50 million in countries where half or more of the population lives on less than $3.10 per day."

Preparing communities to adapt to climate change and extreme climatic events has become a key focus of aid agencies' work.

In Ethiopia, a 10-year World Vision program to regenerate trees, called Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration, has been so successful that a community at Humbo that previously needed food aid to survive has begun selling grain to the World Food Programme.

Involving the careful regeneration of trees and shrubs, the regrown trees, integrated into crops and grazing pastures, help restore soil structure and fertility, inhibit erosion and soil moisture evaporation, rehabilitate springs and the water table, and increase biodiversity.

We have also started a pilot project in Ethiopia trialling the impact of "clean stoves" to reduce the 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere each year from open fires, while in South East Asia and the Pacific region, including Vietnam, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, we are working with communities on Disaster Risk Reduction strategies, to better prepare them for increasingly frequent and violent tropical storms and other natural disasters.

As we do so often, we are dealing with the present, preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.

More On This Topic