Global Warming

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“Global Warming” is a phrase on the tip of everyone’s tongue nowadays.

A topic of conversation paralleled in this country perhaps only by the Lisbon Treaty, the dreaded recession and whomever happens to grace the front page of the Herald AM – climate change is a “current affair” that none of us can ignore.

Most of us are aware that the Polar Ice Caps have been melting for some time now, that the permafrost is beginning to thaw and that Al Gore has reinvented himself as the self-proclaimed spokesperson for the planet. An inconvenient truth his film didn’t touch on, however, was who the real victims will be – those “at the margin” in the Developing World.

While an increase in temperatures could conceivably be welcome in Ireland, it has the capacity to be disastrous for third world countries, already crippled by extreme climates. Back in November 2005 Jonathan Patz, a professor at UW-Madison’s Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies summed it up perfectly:

“Those least able to cope and least responsible for the greenhouse gases that cause global warming are most affected… Herein lies an enormous global ethical challenge”.

So, in the irony of all ironies, the places that have contributed the least to warming the Earth are the most vulnerable to the death and disease higher temperatures can bring.

While some areas of the Earth will become wetter due to global warming, other areas will suffer serious droughts and heat waves. Africa, a continent in which water is already a dangerously rare commodity, will receive the worst of these droughts. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global warming will exacerbate the conditions and could lead to conflicts and war.

Sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest region in the entire world, is unfortunately one of the most susceptible to the ill effects of global warming. The reason lies in the fact that it already has an enormously hot climate which facilitates the spread of disease. As Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, co-author of a synthesis report featured in the journal “Nature” explains:

“Many of the most important diseases in poor countries, from malaria to diarrhoea and malnutrition, are highly sensitive to climate. The health sector is already struggling to control these diseases and climate change threatens to undermine these efforts”.

In a recent assessment, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that human-induced changes in the Earth’s climate now lead to at least 5 million cases of illness and more than 150,000 deaths every year. Temperature fluctuations can influence the spread of infectious diseases and also boost the likelihood of illness-inducing heat waves and floods. The Annual Human Development Report issued in November 2007 compiled by a team of independent experts maintains that over the next century erratic weather such as floods, severe storms, droughts and rising sea levels could force 332 million to flee their homes on coastal areas in developing countries, including 70 million people in Bangladesh and 22 million in Vietnam. The key factor in all of this is preparation. Wealthy countries must maximise the effectiveness of their contributions to the developing world in order to prepare for what’s to come down the line. Priorities have to be decided upon so that when the floods do come, people in Bangladesh have homes that are able to resist them.

It may be time to decide whether we need to compromise some things to make way for the effects of global warming. Is it more important to build for the future or to take care of the present population? Can we balance the competing needs of current and future generations? In the rich world’s fight against global warming, the needs of the poor world must be reckoned in the calculation of cost and benefit. We cannot decide to meet our carbon commitments simply by exporting old and dirty industries to the poor South, or by buying carbon credits from poor countries merely to allow us to continue in unsustainable ways.

Nations further along the development scale, such as India and China are an increasingly large source of the emissions linked to global warming. This indicates that other poor countries will likely follow the same route once they become more developed unless measures are taken to prevent this from happening. Solar electrification is one area which is beginning to take off in some African countries. The reduction of burning fossil fuels to create energy is a huge step forward in terms of lowering carbon emissions. ElectricAid recently funded a solar cooking project in Congo, where revolutionary solar-powered cookers were being used by the local population, in place of kerosene and charcoal. Overall, development efforts in the poorer countries can and must be encouraged to be carbon-neutral and environmentally sustainable. At the micro-project level that ElectricAid normally operates, this is reasonably achievable. Micro-solar power, bicycle transport for micro-credit schemes, organic dung-enriched horticulture, efficient cooking stoves for deforestation reversal, and waste-to-energy briquette production – these are some real examples of environmentally-positive development projects financed by ElectricAid in the last two years. Every sustainable agriculture project, which allows people have a real future in rural areas, contributes to the slowing down of the drift to energy-hungry megacities.

The experience from applications is that environmental issues are coming to the fore with people in the Developing World – this is not such a big jump for them, who have so little, as for us – who have and consume so much. The market mechanism also plays its part. ElectricAid has received far fewer recent applications than previously for stand-alone, noisy, dirty, and expensive diesel generators. Energy costs are such that people are forced to explore better options, such as solar power and rain-water harvesting.

The African countries are in this way setting an example for the rich world to follow. If the poorest countries in the world can make the effort to improve then surely we can reciprocate in kind – if not for their sake then for ourselves.

Climate Change will eventually affect everybody negatively. Future generations as soon as 2080 will be experiencing rises in temperature of 4°C, with temperatures rising by as much as 7°C in southern Africa and 8°C in northern Africa – almost double the global average. As vulnerable as Africa already is, these rises in temperature could “tip the balance” and lead to severe water shortages and reductions in crop yields. This is if we don’t act now. Sir Nick Stern, head of Government Economic Policy in Britain believes we can make a difference:

“We can provide resources to help people adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change in the coming… But if we act now, and strongly, to mitigate climate change, it is likely that we could reduce the risks of these scenarios while continuing economic growth.”