Saturday, November 9, 2013

MDG 7: A spectacular failure

This is a summary of a talk I gave at the United Nations Day of Vesak conference, held near Hanoi, in May 2014. The slides can be downloaded at Slideshare. The full paper is via a link here.

Of the ten Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the seventh, which relates to environmental protection, is the most spectacular failure. Hastily conceived, and almost overlooked by Mark Malloch Brown, then administrator of the United Nation Development Programme, this Goal seeks to “ensure environmental sustainability.” One of its targets is to “integrate principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes” and “reverse the loss of environmental resources.” While its other targets (improve water access and the lives of slum dwellers) are more on track, the failure of the main theme is extremely serious, threatening not only to worsen the lives of future slum dwellers, but to destroy civilization within a century.
As I started to write this, Typhoon Haiyan was crossing the South China Sea towards Vietnam. When it made landfall in the Philippines it was described as the fiercest storm (measured by wind speed) of all time, to reach land. A former Australian prime minister recently revealed that he had never believed in the science of climate change; even saying that the West has no right to deny economic development to the rest of the world in the name of climate change”. In reality, the West is denying development to the rest of the world through its intense addiction to fossil fuels.  This latest catastrophe in the Philippines should shift world opinion (occurring at the start of the Climate talks) but will it?  
The Philippines climate change negotiator is increasingly distraught. One year ago Hurricane Sandy flooded parts of New York City; as a result some people were stranded in high-rise apartments without electricity for weeks. Inhabitants were forced, if they were capable, to use unlit staircases to access the outer world; others relied on volunteers and relatives for food. Hurricane Sandy caused at least US$50 billion dollars in physical damage, and ranks behind Hurricane Katrina as the most expensive disaster of all time, to date.
These events are not random: they are long-predicted consequences of climate and other forms of adverse environmental change. All of these events are worsened by sea level rise, which is increasing every year. Also predicted, and also understandable, is the rise in global food prices observed since 2007. This was contributed to not only by more expensive energy, but several other extreme weather events since 2010; especially the Russian-Ukrainian heatwave and two very severe droughts in the US, worsened by extreme heat. The drought in Syria, perhaps also worsened by climate change, is an underlying factor in its brutal civil war.
Despite overwhelming evidence, including five major reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the trajectory for climate change appears to be more firmly set every year, steering grimly towards a future with ever-increasing catastrophes, perhaps generating cascades which will not only worsen poverty for billions, but threaten civilization itself. Progress towards the seventh MDG is an abject failure.

The forthcoming summary for policymakers of the IPCC working group II has been leaked. This includes a summary of the health findings (to which I made a small contribution). Its conclusions are very conservative; the conceptualisation of health effects in the IPCC currently excludes that from existing food price rises and also from conflict. In contrast, my forthcoming edited book, called "Climate Change and Human Health" (CABI, 2014) explicitly considers cumulative effects such as famine, mass migration and conflict as likely to arise in part from climate change, and as having significant health effects. Already, Typhoon Haiyan has killed over 1,000 people. But its eventual burden of disease is much larger than this, due to indirect effects such as via food insecurity, infrastructure damage, and despair.

Naomi Klein is now adding her voice to calls for civil disobedience. The need for this is increasingly obvious.