BATTLE AGAINST CLIMATE CHANGE CALLS FOR ‘WAR FOOTING’, DEPUTY SECRETARY-GENERAL SAYS AS GENERAL ASSEMBLY HOLDS FOLLOW-UP TO FEBRUARY THEMATIC DEBATE

8 July 2008
GA/10725

BATTLE AGAINST CLIMATE CHANGE CALLS FOR ‘WAR FOOTING’, DEPUTY SECRETARY-GENERAL SAYS AS GENERAL ASSEMBLY HOLDS FOLLOW-UP TO FEBRUARY THEMATIC DEBATE

8 July 2008
General Assembly
GA/10725
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-second General Assembly

Informal Meeting on Climate Change

 and Most Vulnerable Countries (AM)

battle against climate change calls for ‘war footing’, Deputy Secretary-General

says as General Assembly holds follow-up to february thematic debate

Millennium Goals at Risk, Development Gains Could Unravel,

She Warns as Panellists Underscore Imperative of Immediate Action

Unless a “war footing” was adopted in action to battle climate change, the world would miss the Millennium Development Goals and see existing gains unravel, Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro said today as the General Assembly held a follow-up to its February thematic debate on the subject under the theme “Climate change and the most vulnerable countries:  the imperative to act”.

Voicing deep worry about a potential roll-back of development gains due to climate change, she said the subject also raised questions of equity and fairness, because climate change was being driven by emissions that, in nearly all cases, could be traced back to industrialized countries.  To a lesser extent, middle-income and emerging economies were also responsible, yet the biggest burden was borne by the poorest nations, where as many as 2.6 billion people risked being condemned to a future of diminished opportunity.

She said the ripple effects of climate change would extend far beyond the localities of those most immediately affected, quite possibly leading to mass migration and refugee flows.  That, in turn, might lead to wider insecurity.  As a start, international assistance should focus on enhancing the adaptive capacity of poorer societies and reducing their vulnerability to climate-related disasters, for which international donors should provide funding.  Current official development assistance levels did not take into account the added costs of climate change, which would run into the tens of billions of dollars each year.

Underscoring that message in a video address, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, President of the Maldives, called for “climate justice”, noting that small-island developing States such as his own could well disappear because of rising sea levels, simply due to a practical inability to adapt and protect themselves with enough speed.  Although they contributed very little to global warming, poor island States and other vulnerable countries had only a limited ability to tackle the problem through domestic policy.

“It is surely wrong for small vulnerable communities to suffer because of the actions of other, more powerful, resource-rich countries,” he said, adding that their vulnerability was an inescapable consequence of geography.  Topography or climate made them more susceptible to the environmental degradation typically associated with climate change -- coastal erosion and the decimation of marine life.

He urged the United Nations to consider the adoption of a new universal right to live in a safe, secure and sustainable environment, the declaration of which would promote climate justice.  In asserting such a right, vulnerable States would be invoking the principles upon which the United Nations was built:  international peace and security; justice; equal rights and self-determination; international cooperation; respect for human rights; and sovereign equality.

In a keynote address to the meeting, Ogunlade Davidson, Co-Chair of a working group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said the group agreed that climate change was primarily a problem of development and poverty reduction, which could not be solved by climate change policy alone.  More mitigation and adaptation technologies must be developed, which Governments must link to national sustainable-development measures.  Climate change mitigation must also be linked with stabilization of emissions.  Between 1970 and 2004, for example, greenhouse gas emissions had increased by 70 per cent.  Without action, it would continue to increase at the rate of 25 to 90 per cent.

Srgjan Kerim, President of the General Assembly, suggested that climate change be viewed -- and duly tackled -- as a “development” issue.  It was important that all countries move towards understanding that they shared common but differentiated responsibilities in tackling climate change, whereby existing agreements to curb the emission of greenhouse gases must be implemented alongside a generously financed “Adaptation Fund”.

He went on to say that the General Assembly should move to adopt a resolution to send a strong political message of support for agreement on a comprehensive global framework in 2009.  Already, the Pacific Small Island Developing States had proposed a draft resolution on “the threat of climate change to international peace and security”, in an effort to improve early warning systems.

Participants then engaged in a panel discussion on climate change featuring three panellists.  They emphasized the importance of disaster-risk reduction, increased funding for adaptation and risk-reduction activities, and “climate-proofing” official development assistance to developing countries by paying more attention to catastrophes and scaling up funds to avert them.

Cheik Sidi Diarra, High Representative for the Least-Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States, said in a closing statement that there was clear concern over the impacts of climate change on developing countries.  Climate change now stood at the top of the agenda, and it was now time for action to avoid the worst impacts, particularly on the poorest of the poor.

Background

Following up on the high-level thematic debate on climate change held last February (see Press Releases GA/10687, GA/10689 and GA/10690), the General Assembly met this morning for an informal meeting on “Climate change and the most vulnerable countries:  the imperative to act”.

Statements

SRGJAN KERIM, President of the General Assembly, opened the discussion by saying that 11 of the last 12 years had ranked among the 12 warmest since the keeping of global temperature records had begun in 1850.  Two points were significant:  that climate change was inherently a sustainable-development challenge; and that more efforts than ever before must be exerted to enable poor countries to prepare for impacts because it had been estimated that there would be between 50 million and 200 million environmental migrants by 2010.

He said the international community must move towards a post-2012 framework based on the Climate Change Convention’s understanding of common but differentiated responsibilities.  Existing agreements to curb greenhouse gases must be implemented and mitigation measures must be implemented.  A generously financed, fully operational Adaptation Fund must be established by the end of the year.  As emphasized during the 9 June follow-up debate on climate change, the private sector must be engaged.  Beyond State and private-sector action, global citizens must make simple changes to affect the environment by consuming less, increasing energy efficiency, recycling more, off-setting carbon emissions and pursuing more sustainable lifestyles.

At the same time, the United Nations system must assist vulnerable countries to build their capacity and capability to adapt while ensuring that the system worked coherently to deliver more than the sum of its parts, he said.  There was a need to create technology-transfer mechanisms and to channel financial resources through an effective climate funding architecture, so as to benefit the neediest.  Early warning systems must be improved.  The Pacific Small Island Developing States had proposed a draft resolution on “the threat of climate change to international peace and security”.  The Assembly should adopt a resolution that took a principled stand so as to demonstrate its relevance and send a strong political message of support for agreement on a comprehensive global framework in 2009.

ASHA-ROSE MIGIRO, Deputy-Secretary-General of the United Nations, said there was no longer any question that human activity was the primary driver of climate change, which placed a particularly immediate and severe burden on the poor.  According the United Nations Human Development Report, on average 1 out of 19 people in developing nations could expect to feel the impact of a climate disaster, compared to 1 out of 1,500 in countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

She said that, as temperatures rose and extreme weather events became more frequent and intense, poor people faced rising health risks -- for example, through more frequent epidemics of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever.  Frequent drought meant that women spent more time walking greater distances to fetch water, taking time away from other vital tasks.  The search for water also kept children, especially girls, out of schools.  Taken together, those trends amounted to a development crisis, and unless action was taken on a “war-footing”, the world would miss the Millennium Development Goals and see existing development gains unravel.

She said that the potential development roll-back was “deeply worrying,” and raised unavoidable questions of equity and fairness.  Nearly all emissions that drove climate change could be traced back to industrialized and, to a lesser extent, middle-income and emerging economies.  Yet, the biggest burden was borne by the poorest and most vulnerable nations, possibly condemning as many as 2.6 billion people to a future of diminished opportunity.

The ripple effects of climate change would extend far beyond the localities of those most immediately affected, she said.  It would lead to mass migration and refugee flows, and the resulting tension could lead to wider insecurity.  International assistance should focus on enhancing the adaptive capacity, and reducing the vulnerability, of poorer societies, for which international donors should join together and provide funding.  Current official development assistance did not take into account the added costs of climate change, which would run into the tens of billions of dollars each year.

MAUMOON ABDUL GAYOOM, President of Maldives, said via video message that it was possible that the 38 small island States Members of the United Nations would no longer be around in the future, and urged participants to imagine a United Nations where “name plates are gone; seats are empty”.  Countries must work together to transform the global debate on climate change in order to save those countries and their communities, which were on the “frontline of climate change”.

“Our coasts are already under siege.  Our beaches are already eroding,” he said, adding that land was being washed away and coral reefs and marine life were dying, putting the islanders’ way of life at risk and compromising their human rights.  Their very lives were imperilled.

At a meeting convened by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Geneva recently, he said five “climate witnesses” had spoken of crop failures and hunger; beach erosion; salinization and the loss of arable land; and forced migration from ancestral homes.  They and their loved ones were paying the price for the world’s failure to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

He said the vulnerability of certain countries was an inescapable consequence of geography, noting that their topography or climate made them more susceptible to various types of environmental degradation associated with climate change.  In terms of mitigation, small island States and other vulnerable countries had only a limited ability to tackle the problem through domestic policy.  Though they contributed very little to global warming, resource constraints -- financial, human and technical -- reduced their ability to adapt and protect themselves.  Internationally, their voice was not well heard in key global forums.

He said the international community needed to address the concept of climate justice: “Within an international community based upon the rule of law, universal values of equality, human rights and dignity, it is surely wrong for small, vulnerable communities to suffer because of the actions of other more powerful, resource-rich countries.”

Urging a rights-based approach to global warming, he said the United Nations should consider the adoption of a new universal right to live in a safe, secure and sustainable environment, the declaration of which would promote “climate justice”.  In asserting that right, vulnerable States would be invoking the principles upon which the United Nations was built:  international peace and security; justice; equal rights and self-determination; international cooperation; respect for human rights; and sovereign equality.

Keynote Address

OGUNLADE DAVIDSON, Co-Chair of Working Group III, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, presented a graphic demonstration of that body’s work, saying it had determined that climate change was primarily a development and poverty- reduction problem and that warming of the climate was both unequivocal and mostly human-induced.  It was also leading to a worsening of such other phenomena as flooding and desertification, which affected socioeconomic livelihoods.  Between 1970 and 2004, for example, greenhouse gas emissions had increased by 70 per cent.  Without action, it would continue to increase at the rate of 25 to 90 per cent, but mitigation factors could be tapped.

Stressing that climate change policy alone would not solve the problem, he said more mitigation and adaptation technologies must be developed.  Governments must institute policies linked to sustainable development measures.  Mitigation must also be linked with the stabilization of emissions, and measures towards that end must be intensified.  Current commitments were not only inadequate, but they also made conditions worse for vulnerable countries.  In the Pacific small island States, for example, changes in species were being seen, while South Asia and the Caribbean were witnessing the occurrence of extremes in water levels.

He said adaptation options included building adaptation capacity and implementation of adaptation policies.  Sustainable development options could be developed to assist mitigation.  Lifestyle changes could include putting pressure on the countries most responsible for climate change.  Innovative carbon-financing strategies could be developed.  Overall, a 50 per cent reduction in carbon emissions was not enough and an 80 per cent reduction should be the new target.  Also, the policy framework that the Assembly would adopt should tap local capacity in its implementation.

Panel Discussion

The Assembly then held a panel discussion moderated by author and journalist Eugene Linden.  The panellists were Reid Basher, Senior Coordinator at the Secretariat of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction; Ian Noble, Senior Climate Change Specialist at the World Bank; and Veerle Vandeweerd, Director of the Environment and Energy Group at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Mr. LINDEN opened the discussion by underscoring that it was “imperative to act” on the climate change issue.  In the 20 years since the international community had first taken up the cause, it had evolved from a concern about the impact on future generations to worries about the world’s present situation.  A glance at humankind’s past revealed that climate was known to be a “serial killer” of civilizations through the ages, but the difference between now and then was that, today the world community did not have the excuse of ignorance.  Another difference was that the changes faced were self-inflicted, which provided some hope that humankind could stop it or adapt to it.  But there was an imperative to act.

Mr. BASHER said disaster-risk reduction should be a core policy item in the climate-change agenda for protecting the vulnerable.  Disasters were increasingly related to development and climate change, and adaptation policies must encompass the concept of disaster risk and its reduction.  The world had the tools and knowledge to understand the root causes of disasters, not just manage them, and so should use them to full effect.

He said disasters occurred when communities could not cope with the effects of hazards.  As many as 2.5 billion people were affected each year to the tune of a million deaths and $600 billion in losses.  In some cases, the loss to some small countries might equal or exceed their gross domestic product.  Among the underlying causes for disasters were land degradation, unplanned settlements, lack of awareness about how everyday behaviour affected risk, poverty and a poor capacity to handle extreme climate events.  Growing evidence from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed that such extreme events were related to climate change, and that delta regions, small islands and the African continent were particularly affected.  As their risk for disasters grew, the intrinsic vulnerability of those regions would also grow, resulting in the loss of water resources and land degradation.

So far, not much was understood about the true cost of the humanitarian and economic consequences of climate change, he said.  Nevertheless, the international community had many ways to deal with disaster risk and tackle its root causes.  For instance, risk-assessment tools enabled Governments not only to grasp the enormity of the hazards posed, but also the vulnerabilities the countries faced in terms of food security and other issues.  Ecosystem-management systems were also fairly advanced in many places, including mangrove and forest protection, and river management.  But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change must conduct a proper assessment of the available tools, using the Bali Action Plan and the Hyogo Framework as a basis.

Risk reduction should be a central component of the proposed Adaptation Fund, he said.  National adaptation plans were a good way to coalesce adaptation concepts focused on vulnerable populations, and on strengthening existing risk-management strategies such as risk-related building codes, environmental buffers, and systems for monitoring floods and droughts.  Although not much was understood about the cost of adaptation and risk reduction, it was believed to be less than 1 per cent of gross domestic product.

Mr. NOBLE acknowledged that it was unclear how much money was needed to adapt to climate change, and how it would be raised and distributed most effectively.  Anywhere between several tens of billions of dollars to hundreds of billions would be needed to tackle the issue on a larger scale.  The Global Environment Facility (GEF) had been adequate in the early stages of the adaptation process, but the magnitude of the problem had outstripped its funds.

He said the World Bank was considering a 30 per cent increase in its concessionary grant system (the International Development Association) and ensuring that those additional funds would be used in relation to climate change.  A workshop at the recent climate change meeting in Bonn, Germany, had outlined certain principles governing a new Adaptation Fund:  it should be new and additional to official development assistance; and it must be predictable and adequate.  There had been no agreement on whether funding should be provided in multiple streams, through a small number of dedicated “super funds”, or in the form of grants or loans.

Questions had also been raised regarding how it would be raised, he said, citing such methods as a global levy on gross domestic product, through which it might be possible to raise around $50 billion a year, and a global tax on emissions alongside levies on air fares and bunker fuel, among others.  The Adaptation Fund, as envisioned by the Intergovernmental Panel and the Kyoto Protocol, would be funded by a 2 per cent tax on the Carbon Development Mechanism and contributions towards it.  It would be governed by a board with strong developing-country representation, while GEF provided secretarial services and the World Bank provided trust fund services.  How the Fund evolved would be critical to the manner in which adaptation would be dealt with in the future.

He went on to say that, at a recent Group of Eight (G-8) meeting, members had decided to create a “climate resilience” target of half a billion dollars over several years for 5 to 10 countries.  The goal of that project was to help support the evolution of the Adaptation Fund by providing the Intergovernmental Panel with lessons to draw upon for future action.  It was controversial because much of the funding would come in the form of grants and concessionary lending, which the Bank had previously granted only for “development” purposes.

Mr. VANDEWEERD said climate risks must be integrated into the development plans of vulnerable countries otherwise they could reverse development gains, whereas if addressed properly, they could make poverty reduction projects more successful.  However, immediate action was needed.  Developed countries must deliver on their commitments:  “climate-proofing” official development assistance; paying more attention to catastrophes; and scaling up and coordinating funds.  At the national level, countries must mainstream adaptation efforts into their development plans and secure additional financing.

Most adaptation work had to be done at the community level, he said, adding that key actions in mainstreaming climate risks involved incorporating climate change scenarios systematically into strategies, policies and measures, while assessing socio-economic vulnerabilities.  Cost-effective alternative responses must be carefully assessed and implemented, and systems created to manage evolving risks.  At the same time, institutional capacity and cross-agency relationships must be strengthened.

He said that, while the financing of adaptation was dependent on public resources and international support, up to $50 billion a year in additional resources were needed.  Private sources of funding could be expected to cover a portion of the adaptation costs where investment in privately-owned infrastructure was needed, and where measures were required to encourage such investment.  Most importantly, developing countries themselves should identify priorities in accordance with their specific national conditions and needs.

Questions and Comments

In the ensuring discussion, delegates and panellists discussed some of the most serious results of climate change, such as “climate refugees”, and spoke of promoting South-South cooperation, the mainstreaming of climate change concerns, developing-country ownership of mitigation and adaptation projects, and the problems of equity in paying for that work.

The representative of Antigua and Barbuda, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, addressed both the impact of climate change and the cost to developing countries of confronting it, asking, “Have we been acting with urgency?”  While many meetings had been held, not even a two-year work plan had been agreed upon.  It was particularly worrying that the costs to developing countries of mitigation and adaptation were not engendering clear commitments on the part of developed countries, which had caused, and benefited from, activities causing climate change.

The representative of Japan, in his capacity as President of the G-8, said that leaders at the ongoing G-8 meeting had made progress on some of those issues, including commitments on the part of members to fund mitigation and adaptation.  $6 billion had been pledged to a climate investment fund administered by the World Bank, and Japan had entered into mitigation and adaptation arrangements with other countries worth $10 billion.

Closing Remarks

CHEIK SIDI DIARRA, High Representative for the Least-Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States, said that it had emerged from the meeting that it was now time for action to avoid the worst of impacts of climate change on the poorest of the poor, in particular.  The phenomenon would have far-reaching effects on many sectors, causing the most serious harm to the most vulnerable States.  It was also clear that natural disasters were likely to increase and that the very existence of many small island States was threatened.  Such countries were already experiencing the serious consequences of erosion and loss of potable water.  That placed a sobering challenge before the international community, as well as the recognition that the right to compensation for losses from climate change should be considered.

Many least developed countries and small-island developing States had experienced difficulties in incorporating adaptation, mitigation and natural-disaster management into their development plans, he said.  It was, therefore, imperative to allow for a sharing of knowledge and resources through both South-South and North-South cooperation.  A great deal of work lay ahead and resources must be mobilized, particularly in support of the most vulnerable countries.  Adaptation policies were not enough by themselves; they must be coupled with mitigation measures and sound development policies.  Climate change had been moved up to the top of the agenda where it belonged, and it was now time for action.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.