Hopenhagen – that magical place of bright future days – is a few weeks behind us and the public interest in climate change is in slow decline – at least according to Google Trends . This is normal. Big meetings create lots of news and expectations and there is often disappointment and exhaustion in their wake. Couple that with the recent concerns about some of the results of specific scientific research, and it seems that the debate on climate change is in a bad place, doomed to irrelevance.
Well, it should not be. Regardless of overcrowded meetings and leaked emails in academic departments, the world’s climate is changing fast (NASA reports that 009 ties with a cluster of other years as the second-warmest year on record since 1880 and the decade 2000-2009 was the warmest 10-year period). Climate change will add pressures to our already difficult development challenges. We care about climate change because it can derail several development efforts undertaken in recent decades.
The channels linking climate change to development are numerous but most of them involve water (or the lack of it). Droughts, floods, storm surges and changes in rainfall patterns affect the livelihoods of poor people, their nutrition, their security, their future opportunities and probably those of their children. Poorly designed policies to reduce the threat of climate change can exacerbate the problem. One such policy is carbon-intensive economic growth; as mentioned in the first chapter of the World Development Report, “countries cannot grow out of harm’s way fast enough to match the changing climate.” Economic growth is necessary for development, but it needs to become less greenhouse-gas intensive.
An often overlooked characteristic of climate change is that it will make stacks of knowledge obsolete, as climate patterns change and volatility increases. For many of us, risk can be dealt with through insurance or through a well-designed portfolio of assets. But for the 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty that is not the case; many of them rely on their understanding of the climate for their livelihood and as the climate changes in unexpected ways, they will experience setbacks. Recent World Bank research suggests that, in Tanzania, climate volatility could throw (in the worst case scenario) 1.17 million people – 3.4 percent of the population- into extreme poverty.
Dealing with the twin challenges of climate change and sustainable development requires major efforts – in the way we manage water, deal with climate-associated risks, and produce and transmit energy. Given the nature of the problem, an international agreement and additional finance is needed. And there must be some change in behavior. All these elements are required to maintain and expand the development gains – for this generation and for future ones. There will probably be no way back if we get it wrong.