Extreme weather may be wake-up call for world, UN climate chief says

UN climate chief says recent floods and droughts have a silver lining - putting global warming back on the political agenda

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 March, 2014, 4:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 March, 2014, 4:02am

Devastating extreme weather, including recent flooding in England, Australia's hottest year on record and the US being hit by a polar vortex have a "silver lining". It boosts global warming to the highest level of politics and reminds politicians that climate change is not a partisan issue, according to the UN's climate chief.

Christiana Figueres said that it was amoral for people to look at global warming from a politically partisan perspective, because of its impact on future generations.

The "very strange" weather experienced across the world over the last two years was a sign "we are [already] experiencing climate change", the executive secretary of the UN climate secretariat said.

The flooding of thousands of homes in England because of the wettest winter on record has brought global warming to the forefront of political debate in Britain. Prime Minister David Cameron, when challenged by Labour leader Ed Miliband for having climate-change sceptics in his cabinet, said last week: "I believe man-made climate change is one of the most serious threats that this country and this world faces."

Global warming was barely mentioned at all in the 2012 US election battle, until superstorm Sandy struck New York, prompting the city's then mayor, Michael Bloomberg, to endorse Barack Obama's candidacy because he would "lead on climate change".

Figueres said: "We are reminded that climate change events are for everyone, they're affecting everyone, they have much, much longer effects than a political cycle.

"Frankly, they're intergenerational, so morally we cannot afford to look at climate change from a partisan perspective."

Figueres said that examples of recent extreme weather around the world were a sign global warming was here now. "If you take them individually you can say maybe it's a fluke. The problem is, it's not a fluke and you can't take them individually. What it's doing is giving us a pattern of abnormality that's becoming the norm. These very strange extreme weather events are going to continue in their frequency and their severity. It's not that climate change is going to be here in the future, we are experiencing climate change."

Figueres was speaking in London before meeting business leaders from Unilever, Lafarge and Shell among others, to urge them to put pressure on governments to take action ahead of renewed international negotiations in Bonn this week. The talks will flesh out details of a draft climate treaty to be laid out in Lima this year and agreed in Paris at the end of 2015.

Peru's foreign minister said in January that the Lima meeting in December must produce a first draft of a deal to cut carbon emissions, which would be the first of its kind after efforts to get binding agreement for cuts from most of the world's countries failed at a meeting in Copenhagen in 2009.

"Paris has to reach a meaningful agreement because, frankly, we are running out of time," Figueres said. But she dismissed parallels with the run-up to the Copenhagen summit, saying the frequency of extreme weather events, lower renewable energy costs and progress on climate legislation at a national level meant it was different this time round.

"I hope that we don't need too many more Sandys or Haiyans or fires in Australia or floods in the UK to wake us up. My sense is there is already much momentum. We have 66 governments that have climate legislation, we have a total of 500 laws around the world on climate, whereas before Copenhagen we only had 47."

Quamrul Choudhury, Bangladesh's climate envoy to the UN, said: "I am optimistic that the world can avoid another diplomatic disaster like Copenhagen in 2009. There have been major changes since then. In 2008-09 we knew it would be very expensive to reduce emissions. Now we know it does not cost very much. It's not expensive, not a Herculean task. Countries like the UK know they can reduce emissions by 65 per cent without it costing very much at all.

"But even if we have an ambitious mitigation target, adaptation must be the cornerstone of a new treaty. This is not a zero-sum game. If we treat it like that there will be no Paris protocol."

Figueres said that the US$100 billion proposed as compensation for poor countries would not be enough for them to build defences and adapt their economies. "The International Energy Agency has suggested it may cost US$1 trillion over 25 years just for adaptation. US$100 billion is a freckle on the map of what needs to be invested."

A major UN climate-science panel report to be published at the end of this month will spell out the impacts of global warming on humanity and the natural world. Leaked versions of the report say agricultural production will decline by up to 2 per cent every decade for the rest of the 21st century.