Unity on climate change has never been more urgent

Learning from the devastation in the Philippines

The rising death toll from Typhoon Bopha which hit Mindanao in the Southern Philippines this week highlights the vulnerability of communities around the world to the impact of climate change and serves as a timely reminder to government representatives currently at the UN Climate Change Conference in Doha of the need for urgent collective action.

I witnessed myself the devastation that such violent storms can cause during my visit with UNICEF UK to Mindanao just a year ago in the aftermath of Typhoon Washi which killed thousands of people. Seeing the devastated area and talking with the government, NGOs and survivors in the refugee shelters it was clear that despite the tragedy reconstruction was already underway. During my visit I was told that typhoons and tropical storms were less common in the south of the country but climate change means that more areas are becoming increasingly vulnerable. I can’t help but think about the people I met who had lost everything and were trying to rebuild their lives. As a result of climate change those same people may now be facing situations such as this with increasing regularity. 

It is the most vulnerable in society who are likely to be the ones who will be the most affected by these events. UNICEF estimates that there are approximately 756 million children living in the ten countries most vulnerable to climate change and at least half of all people who die in disasters are children. They experience unimaginable fear and confusion as they attempt to deal with the loss of the most stable aspects of their lives, whether that is family members, their home, regular meals or schooling.

The Philippines is listed as the sixth country in the world most vulnerable to climate change and the response to Typhoon Bopha has been a good example of how preparatory measures can save lives. The people in affected areas had been warned by phone messages, the media and the government. It is vital to ensure the most vulnerable, including children, are adequately prepared and the new global institution for finance, the Green Climate Fund, should be constructed in a way that ensures it helps to deliver protection for children in the most vulnerable countries.

As international leaders meet this week at the 18th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP18) ambitious action is needed to ensure global emissions are reduced. We cannot afford not to recognise the impact of climate change on the lives and wellbeing of those in developed and developing nations alike. Governments must also ensure that they mobilise new and additional funds for 2013 and beyond to meet the global goal of $100bn a year by 2020. It is essential that the resources are available for the adaptation measures needed to ensure that children in all nations do not grow up in a world of further climate extremes. I hope that COP18 will put the needs of children at the heart of initiatives to limit the damage of climate change.

As people in the UK battle to save their homes from floods, families in America seek to repair the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy and this latest typhoon claims further lives in the Philippines the importance of our commitment to address climate change has never been clearer. It has confirmed to me once again how we are united in our differences. The capacity of people to weather the storm must be equal no matter on what continent the storm lands and the current UN negotiations provide an important opportunity to demonstrate a united response to the global problem of climate change.

Tony Cunningham is Shadow International Development Minister, MP for Workington

Damage wrought by Typhoon Bopha in the Philippines (Getty Images)
Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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