Our leaders are mortgaging our children’s future

First published in The Australian December 15, 2012

The latest round of climate change talks have ended in a disappointing fizzle after two weeks of bickering.

The cruel irony is that while the talks descended to infighting the people of Mindanao in The Philippines were battered by Typhoon Bopha which killed more than 600 people and left almost half a million homeless. The Philippines is hit by around 20 typhoons annually, so in a sense this isn’t news. But Mindanao – the poorest part of the country – is rarely in the path of big storms. Is climate change to blame?

Earlier this year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released research on the connections between climate change and extreme weather, which found that tropical storms are likely to get stronger and may also hit new places. We’ve seen this in the US, with unusually strong hurricanes hitting New York two years in a row. Bopha is the second storm to hit Mindanao in 12 months and the strongest to ever hit the island. While we can’t yet link specific storms to climate change, the trend is clear – storms are getting worse and hitting new places.

So, what did happen at this year’s negotiations? And is the world going to do something to prevent more Sandys and Bophas?

The meeting in Doha, which holds the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases, was the latest episode of a long-running farce. For 20 years rich and poor countries have been at loggerheads over what to do about the fact that the lifestyles of the former are destroying the future of the latter.

It’s not that simple, of course. China, which still considers itself a poor country, is now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Meanwhile nearly all high emitting rich countries, including Australia, are regulating emissions or reducing the carbon intensity of their economies.

As always, there were some good, some bad and some mediocre outcomes.

Let’s start with the bad. There were no new pledges from rich countries to cut their emissions by the amount required to avoid dangerous shifts in the climate and barely any new funding for poor countries to deal with it.

In 2009, rich countries promised to provide $100 billion annually by 2020 to help poor countries cut emissions and manage the impacts of climate change. The funding was to progressively increase in the intervening years. $30bn was pledged for three years from 2009. While this promise was largely delivered, including $600 million from Australia, it seems climate apathy at home, not to mention economic woes in most countries, has resulted in a shying away from commitments.

Poor countries requested $60bn from now to 2020, but less than $6bn was committed by a handful of rich countries. Australia was not among them, despite the fact our initial commitment expires in six months.

On the mediocre front, the Kyoto Protocol – the only legally binding agreement on emissions reductions – due to expire in a few weeks, was extended for eight years. This has, however, merely locked in the cuts already announced, and it only covers 15 per cent of global emissions.

Even the good news comes from a bad place. For years poor countries have been fighting to have the impacts of climate change from rich country emissions legally recognised. This issue, called Loss and Damage, has been subject to tense negotiation, but, in a rare victory for the poor, countries agreed that the poor deserve compensation for the damages they have, are and will suffer from climate change.

The fact the concept has been legally recognised means little in the broader scheme of things. Rich countries, including Australia, made sure the language in the Doha outcomes document does not imply a legal obligation on rich countries to pay compensation. Despite this it may help poor countries argue for more adaptation support.

And so, the negotiations drag on and the circus will roll into Warsaw this time next year with even more pressure to make decisions on the shape and nature of the global agreement, where promised support for adaptation will come from, and how to breathe life into the dwindling hope of keeping temperature rises below the 2C threshold that policy makers have decided the world can live with.

All of this is exceedingly disappointing for an organisation like Save the Children, which works to make the world a better place for children. Our elected leaders are mortgaging our children’s future for short-term economic gain and political expediency. With stronger tropical storms, higher temperatures, more flooding and longer droughts, children in poor countries are already feeling the heat. Do we really want to see just how much more they can take?

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