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14 November 2008updated 24 Sep 2015 11:01am

A planet in peril

Oxfam's Phil Bloomer wonders whether the positive signals about a US change of direction on climate

By Phil Bloomer

President-elect Barack Obama’s representatives can expect a warm welcome from campaigners when they arrive at the UN’s climate change talks in Poznan, Poland in two weeks time.

His warning that we live on a “planet in peril” has raised hopes across the globe that an emphatic “yes we can” will replace the US’s current “no we won’t” negotiating position.

US leadership to tackle climate change cannot come quickly enough. While the rich world concentrates on minimising the fall-out from the credit crunch, climate change is already having a devastating impact on developing countries.

Poor communities across the globe are struggling to survive a four-fold increase in the number of natural disasters – cyclones, droughts and flooding – they suffered a decade ago. People in Haiti were recently forced to live through three hurricanes in as many weeks.

Behind these headlines are millions of unheralded day-to-day tragedies: women forced to walk miles further every day to find water for their children; farmers faced with changing weather patterns forced to guess when best to plant their seeds only for unusually heavy rains to wash them away; children pulled out of school to help raise extra money in face of rising food prices and failing crops.

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And the situation is deteriorating fast. UN reports show that by 2020, up to 250 million people across Africa may face severe water shortages.

If his Kenyan roots offer hope that Obama will pay greater heed to the damage climate change is already inflicting, then his rhetoric suggests he has absorbed the lessons of Lord Stern’s review of the economics of climate change. Published two years ago, the UK Treasury-funded study revealed that global warming could wipe out upwards of 20 per cent of global economic output forever. Such a climate crunch would dwarf our current problems.

It is also to be hoped that a dose of Obama optimism will help sway leaders such as Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Poland’s Donald Tusk who have led efforts to water-down ambitious action on climate change, claiming that short-term economic recovery must trump action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In place of their false conflict between prosperity and planet, will be a new willingness to kick-start the economy through investment in green technologies.

But hope will only take us so far. It would be unrealistic to expect Obama to make all the running on an issue that remains controversial in the US. If the hopes that his election will mark a turning point for the millions of poor people affected by climate change are to be realised, then the world needs other leaders to help turn his rhetoric into reality.

There is a real opportunity for Gordon Brown to enhance his global reputation for decisive action gained during the credit crunch. The British Prime Minister is well placed to lead the world towards a green new deal thanks to his strong track record of action on international development, his willingness to press for ambitious action in global climate change talks, and his championing of the UK’s world-leading Climate Change Bill. Early indications from Obama’s advisors suggest the US may follow Britain’s lead and adopt a target for reducing greenhouse gas emission by 80 per cent by 2050.

This makes it doubly disappointing then, that when it comes to helping people in developing countries adapt to the damage caused by climate change, the UK has sided with those in the European Union looking for excuses not to act.

To their credit, European parliamentarians last month voted for half the revenue from the EU-wide auction of carbon trading permits to be given to developing countries to help them adapt to climate change and develop clean energy. The money would be invested in vital projects to protect poor people from the worst effects of climate change such as: better irrigation and water-harvesting practices, early-warning systems for floods, developing drought-tolerant crop varieties, building higher roads and bridges.

This is a win-win proposition. It’s new money and does not require Member States to increase core spending. And the amounts raised should be big enough to match the scale of the need – by 2020, auctioning emissions permits to polluting businesses could raise up to €75 billion (£61bn) a year. It’s also fair, since, following the ‘polluter pays’ principle, the money comes from Europe’s largest and dirtiest industries, which caused the problem.

But Member States, the UK included, worry that earmarking revenues breaks public spending rules, and sets problematic precedents. These are reasonable concerns. But as Mr Brown’s response to the credit crunch shows, a willingness to embrace new thinking is vital in tackling major problems on a global scale. Disputes about where money comes from cannot be used as an excuse for failing to provide the scale of investment necessary to protect poor people from the climate change of our creation.

If Gordon Brown is serious about being a climate change leader he should remove the UK objection to the parliamentarians’ proposal and instead apply the same political pressure that he did during the credit crunch to persuade fellow EU Member States to make the right decisions on the EU climate change package over the next days and weeks.

Oxfam’s research estimates developing countries need at least €38bn (£31bn) annually, beyond existing aid, just to cope with climate change impacts that are now unavoidable. In this context, the €133 million (£109m) rich countries have currently pledged to the UN fund for poor countries’ most pressing adaptation needs is little more use than a sticking plaster in the aftermath of a tsunami. It is a seventh of the cost of building the new Wembley.

It would be ironic, if after years of complaining of US intransigence on climate change, the EU greeted the promise of action by Obama with a watered down package, and a feeble “no we can’t”.

Phil Bloomer is Oxfam GB Campaigns and Policy Director

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