Experts say inaction on climate change is top global risk for the next decade

Blog post by Celine Charveriat

Oxfam International, Director of Advocacy & Campaigns
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This entry posted by Celine Charveriat (@MCcharveriat), Director of Advocacy and Campaigns, and Tim Gore (@tim_e_gore), Head of Policy for Food, Land and Climate Change, on 15 January 2016.

For the first time, the flagship Global Risk Report of the World Economic Forum has found that insufficient action on climate change is the greatest threat to societal stability the world faces. Whilst large-scale migration is identified as the most likely risk for the next 18 months, the top risks of highest concern for the next ten years are (in this order) water crises, failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation, extreme weather events and food crises. The timing could not be better.

The report is essential reading for anyone – including those attending this year's gathering in Davos – that hoped the adoption of an historic global climate agreement in Paris last December would mean that world leaders can tick climate change off of their to-do lists for the next years. The Paris conference sealed a landmark deal, but unless and until its commitments are implemented in full – and  surpassed – the risk of climate chaos only grows.

The report echoes the warnings Oxfam has been sounding in recent years that runaway climate change is at the center of a web of global food and water insecurity, with ripple effects that touch us all, whether through extreme food price hikes or mass migration flows. As the report states, “without food, people have only three options. They riot, they emigrate, or they die.”

For evidence, leaders need look no further than the unfolding emergency spurred by the current super-charged El Niño weather pattern. Countries needing international assistance include Ethiopia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Madagascar, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Papua New Guinea and many Pacific Islands. This is one of the strongest El Niñosever recorded with impacts on a huge global scale. Tens of millions of people are facing hunger, water shortages, and disease as droughts and floods exacerbated by the El Niño effect have devastated harvests and livelihoods. In Ethiopia alone, 10.2 million people require international assistance, and this is on top of the 8 million people that will be supported in 2016 by the national food safety net program.

Warming seas could double the frequency of the most powerful El Niños, and as global warming creates more and more sea-surface temperature ‘hot spots’ in the world’s oceans, and wind systems change as a result, extreme weather and greater climate disruption may be what a ‘normal’ future looks like without hugely scaled-up climate action.

The response to this crisis is the first test of the resolve of those who signed the Paris deal last month. After all, the new agreement establishes a global goal on adaptation, recognising that dealing with the effects of climate change is a global challenge faced by all, and “strongly urges developed countries to scale-up their level of financial support... significantly increasing adaptation finance from current levels” by 2020.

Urgent life-saving resources are needed now to respond to this El Niñocrisis, particularly in Ethiopia, including the delivery of food or financial support, ensuring access to clean water and sanitation and treating malnutrition. Elsewhere, where there is not yet a crisis but the situation is alarming and deteriorating, urgent action is needed to build resilience to protect lives and livelihoods, such as rehabilitating water points, developing new water sources, improving weather information for farmers and providing training on alternative means of making a living.

Alongside this emergency response, we need to support communities to become more resilient to the changing climate and address inequality and other structural causes of food insecurity. Investing in adaptation and resilience is not cheap, but it will save much greater costs and loss of life down the line. Investing in interventions and programs that contribute to the building of resilience of households and communities consistently outweigh the costs, yielding gains ranging from $2.3 to $13.2 for every dollar invested.  

Yet in many ways, money for adaptation is the unfinished business of Paris. Quantified targets to scale-up adaptation funding were on the table, but didn't make it into the final text. While the nature and scale of the global challenge in moving away from fossil fuels is increasingly understood and accepted by governments and private sector actors alike, few have yet to really grasp what adapting the world to the climate change we can no longer avoid means. As Oxfam highlighted in 2014, the world's food system is woefully unprepared for the risks climate change pose as highlighted in the WEF report.

By the time the new Paris agreement enters into force from 2020, we anticipate that adaptation and resilience will be the major issues of contention in the UN climate negotiations. Private sector actors that are now starting to make bold commitments on mitigation, we predict will by then be making them on adaptation in their operations and supply chains. Stranded assets will not only be an issue for the fossil fuel industry, but any sector that has failed to adapt to the changing climate. This year's Global Risk Report only confirms our view that addressing climate risk, and especially its impacts on food, water and migration, will be at the top of the political agenda for years to come.

Photo: Fatuma Roble Maidane, of Fadeto IDP center, Ethiopia. Fatuma has seven children. Fatuma has lost 190 sheep and goats and 23 cattle because of the drought. She now has 10 goats and sheep and 2 cattle. Credit: Abiy Getahun/Oxfam

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