With ‘Tough Decisions Ahead’ on Tackling Impacts of Climate Change, United Nations Official Urges Political Leadership, Investment in Disaster Risk Reduction

19 October 2009

With ‘Tough Decisions Ahead’ on Tackling Impacts of Climate Change, United Nations Official Urges Political Leadership, Investment in Disaster Risk Reduction

19 October 2009
General Assembly
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-fourth General Assembly

Second Committee

Panel Discussion (AM)

With ‘Tough Decisions Ahead’ on Tackling Impacts of Climate Change, United Nations

Official Urges Political Leadership, Investment in Disaster Risk Reduction

Economic Committee Panel Discussion on ‘Climate Change:  Impacts and Threats’

Another half billion people face food insecurity because of climate change, Margareta Wahlström, Assistant Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction told the Second Committee (Economic and Financial) today during a panel discussion on “Climate change:  Impacts and threats.”

Over the past several decades, countries around the world have struggled against the effects of drought, flood and desertification and other increasingly unpredictable weather events driven by climate change, said Ms. Wahlström, who is also the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for the Implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action, the ten-year global blueprint for disaster risk‑reduction adopted by United Nations Member States in 2005.

Yet, she continued, leaders still have time to alleviate the worst effects of climate change through smart choices and sound investments.  “Action now is really the only issue,” she said, stressing the importance of prioritizing strategies of mitigation, so not to get overwhelmed by the hurdles ahead.

Regarding the most urgent challenges, Ms. Wahlström, one of five panellists participating in the discussion, said that water had not been talked about enough.  Indeed, in the same way people had rioted for food, they might also riot for water.  Other immediate challenges were the irreversible effects of climate change on the ecosystem, the destruction of coastlines and low-lying deltas.  For example, in the mountains of Nepal, the glaciers were melting, and 1.4 billion people were directly dependent on that rapidly declining water resource.

But rather than dwell on the downside, she called for accelerated risk‑reduction investment, and emphasized that, while action could still be taken to lessen the effects of climate change, it required political leadership to do so.  Governments around the world had already made huge investments in long-term projects, but more could be done, especially in the area of education.  With tough decisions ahead, a public debate about the available options was crucial, she added.  

In terms of concrete instruments, she referred to the recent report, “Shaping climate-resilient development,” as a useful tool.  The report, from the Economics of Climate Adaptation Working Group, dealt with the “nitty-gritty” economic choices, and made the argument that Governments could make a number of investments -- not all them costly -- to reduce the effects of climate change.  One important measure was to scale-up the development of green energy sources, not just because it was the right thing to do, but because it ensured economic growth. 

Committee Chairperson Park In-kook ( Republic of Korea), who also chaired today’s panel, said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s first-ever report on climate change and its possible security implications stated that climate change acted as a “threat multiplier”.  For example, the report, completed just over a month ago and awaiting imminent release, said climate change hindered the well-being of vulnerable individuals and communities, slowed economic development, caused populations to migrate or fight over scarce water, land and other resources, and limited access to internationally-shared resources such as transboundary waters. 

Small island developing States were particularly at risk for losing large portions of their national territory and becoming stateless, he continued.  Low‑lying delta nations experiencing severe, recurrent floods and extreme weather were likely to see large-scale population displacement.  And in drought-prone countries, water scarcity would intensify and food insecurity would become a major development challenge.  Sustainable development would minimize and peacefully manage those threats, because it built a country’s adaptive capacity and resources needed for an effective response.  He also noted the merits of strengthening governance institutions to resolve conflicts and improve information sharing and early warning on climate-related threats.

Koko Warner, Head of the Environmental Migration, Social Vulnerability, and Adaptation Section, Institute of Environment and Human Security, at United Nations University, said that by 2050, between 50 million and 700 million people worldwide would be forced to leave their homes and migrate elsewhere because of sea-level rise or drought.  “We have a chance now in this historic time to influence that and to reduce the impacts on human security,” she said, and called on decision‑makers to form a strong global agreement that focused on human security for the world’s most vulnerable populations and which considered migration in adaptation strategies. 

The United Nations University, with funding from the European Commission, had conducted 23 case studies worldwide, from January 2007 to December 2008, to observe the impact of changing water patterns on people and communities that depended on the environment for their survival.  For example, she said that in the Sahel Desert, farmers in some areas reported that rain was arriving too soon and for too few days, washing away their soil. 

Ms. Warner went on to say that in parts of Central America and southern Mexico, however, delays in rainfall had caused harvest losses, forcing people to migrate part of the year to work in the United States and Canada.  In the densely populated Nile Delta -- home to 40 million people -- desertification could force people to squeeze into scarcer and scarcer habitable land. 

In the Mekong Delta, home to 16 per cent of Viet Nam’s population and a large contributor to the national gross domestic product (GDP), potential sea‑level rise could cause mass displacement, she said.  In five or six case studies, human trafficking had been uncovered, the result of women crossing into Cambodia to work as prostitutes to supplement family income lost because of climate change. 

Giving another example, she said that in Maldives, where the sea was rising as much as 2 metres in some areas, people were preparing to abandon up to 75 per cent of their territory.  In just a few years, part of the country’s airstrip could be under water.  Over the weekend, President Mohamed Nasheed and Government ministers held the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting to draw global attention to Maldives’ plight.  In Tuvalu, many young people had already started immigrating to New Zealand, she added.

Picking up that thread, Rolph Payet, Special Adviser to the President of Seychelles, said climate change was increasingly an issue of “survival of the fittest”, and outlined the domino effects of not taking action, which ultimately made the basic human support system, such as food and water, more insecure.  “The real cost of climate change lies in the fact that we are all victims,” he said. 

In terms of how climate change affected the world, he said that one overlooked issue was the issue of sovereignty as some populations faced losing their homeland.  “How would you react if another nation was responsible for sinking your country, denying you the right to a home, a culture and a way of life?” he asked rhetorically.

With regard to statistics, Mr. Payet brought forward statistics from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) describing the effects of 200 climate change-related disasters last year.  In 2008, 160 million people were affected in various ways, with almost 13 million people displaced and another 7.3 million evacuated from their homes as a result of climate change, he said, and warned that this was just “the tip of the iceberg”.  As for the victims, he noted that developed countries carried a high financial burden, but experienced low human cost of the effects of climate change.

In contrast, developing countries had a high financial burden and a high human cost, while less developed countries had a low financial burden but a high human cost.  In conclusion, he said that climate change knew no border or race, and he anticipated the emergence of a new world map, not drawn by colonial powers but by climate change.

Geoffrey Dabelko, Director, Environmental Change and Security Programme, Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, said it was necessary to address climate change at the ground level to link it with long-standing underlying threats to security.  While the focus was usually global, climate change played out on the ground, locally, causing water scarcity, desertification, drought, food shortages, poverty and economic woes, and it exacerbated underlying conditions of instability. 

By building resilience and adaptive capacities to tackle climate change, countries reduced their vulnerability to instability, conflict and a range of negative security outcomes.  The United Nations Secretary-General’s report outlined several “win-win” strategies to do that, he added.  Climate change made some resources like water more scarce in some places, leading to drought and desertification, but too abundant in others, resulting in flooding or sea-level rise, he continued.  Member States really needed to pay attention to statistics and predictions because such changes could happen suddenly in ways that left political institutions ill-equipped to adjust. 

A good example of that was seen in the rapid melting of glaciers due to warmer temperature that caused greater water flows in the short-term, followed by precipitous declines in areas not accustomed to adapting to water scarcity.  The United Nations Secretary-General’s report rightly stressed the need to have and strengthen trans-boundary water-sharing institutions. 

Countries must cooperate to ensure that initiatives to mitigate climate change were a force for peace and development, not conflict, Mr. Dabelko said.  For example, the United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (UN-REDD Programme), promised to deliver big money in exchange for big changes in land-use practices.  But the key was in how the funds were disbursed and how the changes in access and use of forests occurred. 

He went on to say that reducing dependence on fossil fuels could weaken competition for that resource and reduce conflict.  The 2009 report of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) titled “From Conflict to Peacebuilding:  The role of Natural Resources and Environment” gave good examples of how to use natural resources at the ground level to bring peace.  Lowering the military’s blueprint, which contributed to climate change, could also help mitigate emissions.  The focus, he said, must be on small island developing States and low‑lying states like Bangladesh experiencing sea-level rise and increased and more frequent storms.

Also speaking was Simon Dalby, Professor of Geography at Carleton University, who said the international community needed to face up to the reality of climate change, and how it would decide to think about climate change matters greatly.  The appropriate context and what needed attention was how humanity was changing the plane.  “What’s coming next may be very different from what we experienced during the last 10,000 years,” he said.

Globalization was a buzz word of the 1990s, which had been carried into the current century and which described the increasingly complex and physical process of humans moving things around on the globe.  In becoming an urban species, humans had created the artificial ecologies of big cities, and that carried risk, as exemplified by the disastrous floods of New Orleans and Mumbai in 2005.  “We can’t predict the future but we have to prepare for it,” Mr. Dalby said, paraphrasing Pericles.  Because climate change carried the risk of wars and conflict, it was crucial for Governments and peoples to come together before disaster struck.

During the ensuing question-and-answer session, delegates asked about the scientific relationship between climate change and disasters.  In response, Ms. Wahlström said one report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had established that link, but the details of the phenomena had not yet been nailed down conclusively.   A new IPCC project that aimed to study that link would be made available in 2011.  At the same time, what was known was that 80 per cent to 90 per cent of all disasters were weather induced, and were mainly floods.  Most analysis was global in scale.  But work was underway to chart and analyse the impact on individual countries.  

To a concern about international waters being forcefully occupied by a few countries, Mr. Dabelko said indeed they should be protected as the common heritage of mankind.  He also supported the concerns of some delegates that it was incumbent upon developed countries to take radical measures to expedite adaptation.

On the extent to which current United Nations initiatives protected vulnerable countries and populations, Ms. Warner said none of the proposals of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change were sufficient, but at least they were a start.  Commitments must be strengthened to ensure that climate change did not cause global temperature to rise more than 2° C.  She stressed the need to reduce, and not just respond to risks, and to look at those groups most vulnerable to climate change, such as the poor people of New Orleans who did not have cars or lived in low-lying areas, making it difficult for them to evacuate when Hurricane Katrina devastated their city. 

On a question about victims fleeing environmental disasters in some areas being seen as “security threats” to people in others, Mr. Dalby said that thinking was misguided and would lead to failure in the fight against climate change.  At present, non-governmental organizations were largely aiding victims, but Governments were increasingly looking at ways to address the problem.

The Second Committee (Economic and Financial) will meet again tomorrow at 10 a.m., to consider the reports of groups of countries in special situations.

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