“We step a little closer towards a fate that none of us wants”, said United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres in his remarks at the High-Level Event on Climate Change in September, hinting to a growing environmental catastrophe! This inevitably provokes an alarm to learn more about climate change and act to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that promise to transform peoples’ lives by ensuring a more peaceful, prosperous and fairer world on a healthy planet.
Of these 17 global goals, climate change is given particular attention, with a stand-alone goal aiming to preserve the planet by reversing climate-induced effects, and taking urgent action to tackle its irreversible implications. But what is Goal 13 about? What is climate change? And why is it vital to address it?
Climate change indicates a change in the pattern of weather and behaviour of the atmosphere over years, and the change this causes on oceans, land surfaces and ice sheets, due to human activities and natural processes. Goal 13 of the SDGs, thus, calls for urgent action not only to halt climate change and its impacts, but also to build resilience in responding to climate-related hazards and natural disasters.
Climate change has been identified by scientists and the UN as one of today’s most pressing global challenges and its impacts are manifested in many ways, such as sea levels rise, global temperature increase, changing rainfall patterns and extreme weather events. According to the 2018 Sustainable Development Goals Report, the year 2017, for example, was one of the warmest on record, as it was 1.1°C above the pre-industrial period, mainly caused by increased greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). The global average sea level rose by 19 cm during the period
1901-2010 and the number of natural disasters in the world has more than quadrupled to around 400 a year since 1970. Economic losses recorded in 2017 due to natural disasters, such as tsunamis, tropical cyclones, flooding and severe droughts, were estimated at over $300 billion, requiring an investment of at least $6 billion annually in disaster risk management alone.
Many of those events can impede the timely achievement of the SDGs, since climate change repercussions are “likely to slow down economic growth, and exacerbate food insecurity, health problems and heat stress of the most vulnerable populations”. This is in addition to undermining and negating existing development achievements.
Climate change is threatening the lives of all people: Be it a farmer relying on rainfall to grow sorghum in a semi-arid area, a manager of a tourist hotel in an area prone to tropical cyclones, owner of a ski resort or an artisanal fisherman who fishes from a small boat in the ocean, all are facing monumental challenges due to climate-related hazardous effects.
However, while climate change affects all countries and all people, it is mostly the poor and the most vulnerable who bear the brunt of natural hazards that further increase their vulnerability and threaten their livelihood, with women and children paying the highest price. This is mainly due to the fact that they depend heavily on natural resources and have less resources, capacities and assets to adapt to climate change and increase their resilience. For example, 40 million people in west and central Africa rely on water of Lake Chad for crop and livestock farming, fishing, commerce and trade, but the lake has shrunk by 95 per cent in the last four decades.
The spill-over effects of climate change are even more daunting. Loss of livelihoods means more children will be engaged in income-earning activities and the displacement and migration of families will further make education a low priority. Water scarcity caused by weather-related events further aggravates the problem, as vast amounts of freshwater are required to end hunger. The destruction of infrastructure is another bottleneck: Hurricane Mitch in 1998, for example, destroyed one-quarter of all of Honduras’ schools. The list goes on with fundamental alterations in ecosystems, ozone depletion and reduced biodiversity, with increased extinction of global species and noticeable changes in the quality and quantity of natural resources.
Therefore, it is time to bend the curves on environmental violations and harmful human activities! To do so, it is important not to look at climate as a technical issue solely, but rather as a humanitarian crisis that relates to all people irrespective of their background, geographical location and level of power or capacity. It is also “our” choice to adopt” and apply a “planetary boundary” thinking that does not limit economic growth but rather achieve it within a safe environmental operating space, through technological breakthroughs, behavioural change, agricultural innovation and profitable businesses that require energy and food security transformation.
Climate change also raises an ethical concern, that of reducing the climate change effects on future unborn generations and on the current poor who are known to be the smallest contributors to the causes of global warming and the least able to combat its impacts because of their lack of resources. This imposes on each one of us a moral obligation to combat climate change and take decisive climate actions. But how?
“Change starts with you,” says the UN. Each person can help in achieving Goal 13 of the SDGs by doing simple daily tasks. These can range from simply plugging appliances into a power strip and turning them off completely when not in use, to saving electricity, stopping paper bank statements and paying bills online to reduce trees destruction. More engaging issues include increasing individual and institutional knowledge on climate change mitigation, adaptation and impact reduction, as well as embarking on a set of “green” and environmentally friendly initiatives that help mitigate climate change, and secure the continued productivity of lands and oceans within a defined planetary boundary, a fence over which we should not pass.
This has been the core message of the undergoing 24th Conference of the Parties to the UN Climate Change Convention held in Katowice, Poland, during which Guterres asked world leaders to focus on key issues that would help boost climate action and ensure steady progress on the Paris Agreement, a global agreement adopted in December 2015 that presents an action plan for the world to limit global warming to no more than 2ºC, through greenhouse-gas-emissions mitigation, adaptation and proper financing mechanisms.
Although we may think that addressing the problem of climate change is a far-reaching goal that is hard to achieve, many countries in the world have succeeded in turning their natural crisis and challenges into a window of opportunity! This is the case of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Sweden’s socioecological urban landscapes and Latin America’s agricultural revolution.
Changing our own lifestyles and reconnecting our values with the biosphere is crucial to combating climate change and limiting its detrimental effects on our lives and planet. This also means changing our consumption and shopping habits, adopting new smart choices, such as favouring organic food, reducing purchases, recycling and reusing items, in addition to embracing other environmentally friendly attitudes. This opens a window for innovation, for a new way of thinking, of acting, behaving and communicating.
The writer is the national information officer at the United Nations Information Centre-Beirut. She conributed this article to The Jordan Times