Something startling is happening around the globe - world leaders are starkly warning us of the dangers of inaction on climate change. In the UK last week a climate change review by Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank, warned that without action, up to 200 million people could become environmental refugees as well as cost the world economy $9 trillion - one fifth of the world’s wealth.
And at a media conference to launch the review, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said the consequences for the planet of inaction were “literally disastrous” and that the report was the most important his government had ever commissioned.
After 20 years of mounting evidence, climate change is becoming a political and economic issue as important as interests rates and inflation. Put simply - climate change has gone mainstream. Something else has happened too - the debate about whether climate change is occurring is over. The question is now how do we respond?
There are fewer places on earth where the effects of climate change are felt more severely than in our own backyard, the Asia Pacific. And it’s the poorest and most vulnerable communities to pay the highest price, according to a recent CSIRO report commissioned by an unprecedented coalition of development, environment and church groups.
The Stern Review is a wake call up to all of us - including aid agencies. Millions of lives will be at risk from dengue fever, malaria and other infectious diseases by the end of the century due to temperature rises, while flooding and tropical cyclones will increase deaths. Local and regional economies will be hit hard from chronic food and water insecurity as well as epidemic disease and extreme weather events.
Coastlines will be threatened by rising sea levels; fragile ecosystems such as coral reefs and mangrove wetlands will be at risk. There’s likely to be an increase in land degradation and loss. Flooding is tipped to increase and tropical cyclones are likely to intensify. Taken as a whole the impacts will be overwhelmingly detrimental, even devastating for already vulnerable communities. Villagers on small island Pacific states are in the firing line of climate change.
But so are the residents of many of the Asian mega cities, such as Jakarta, or countries like Bangladesh where even a modest rise in sea-levels could permanently displace tens of millions of people. Already on the edge, living on minuscule incomes, lacking many of the things we take for granted like clean water, education or access to good quality healthcare, vulnerable lives are going to become ever more so.
Being concerned about the plight of vulnerable communities affected by climate change is not just a moral question for Australians, important though that is. Don’t forget most of Australia’s exports go to countries in the Asia-Pacific region. A decline in living standards in Asia and the Pacific will result in a decline in living standards of Australians.
So what are the solutions? The Commonwealth Government should listen carefully to the findings of the Stern Review and set even more ambitious targets to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The Stern report makes clear that the cost of action now will be dwarfed by the longer term cost of inaction. And the implications of inaction will be enormous for all Australians - including aid agencies compelled to respond to more and worsening natural disasters.
The choice is simple - invest more now in reducing greenhouses gases or pay a fantastical price in a decade or so. All Australian companies and organisations - including my own - need to act now within their spheres of influence to prevent climate chaos and promote sustainable development and growth.
The critical factor in all this however is visionary and decisive leadership from governments. Vision requires thinking and acting beyond three-year electoral cycles to provide global solutions to a global problem. Decisive means demonstrating the leadership and political will to take what may be hard decisions for our generation for the benefit of future generations.
Australia is a regional economic powerhouse and has a responsibility to assist its poorer neighbours to tackle climate change. Greater investment is needed from aid agencies to help vulnerable communities prepare for the likely increase in natural disasters such as flooding. Our overseas aid program should foster greater use of renewable and more efficient energy sources in developing countries. Furthermore, Australia’s immigration program should be reviewed to look at ways it could support communities displaced by some of the worst effects of climate change.
The world is faced with an unprecedented threat. And it’s the world’s poor, including those in our region, who will suffer the most. Australia must respond with regional initiatives that go beyond its borders.
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