“Human influence on the climate system is clear”, this is the reality we must all accept. The recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) fifth assessment report has given us all the clearest answer yet on the nature and cause of climate change. There are some interesting and powerful headlines that have come out of it. There are of course, and will always be some doubters about the reality of climate change, or to what extent it is Anthropogenic (caused by humans). However the report is clear. “Scientists are 95% certain that humans are the dominant cause of global warming since the 1950’s” Let us not linger on a 5% chance that humans are not responsible as representing some sort of legitimate doubt. It does not. In science there is always doubt and never a 100% certainty, this is a key and vital attribute of science. However, climate change is not an academic and intellectual preoccupation of a few scientists in a lab. It is the pressing issue of our age, dare I say, of any age.
The science can now be considered “unequivocal”, and we can be sure that global warming will result in “changes in all aspects of the climate system”. The IPCC has called for “substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions”. Why is it important that we tackle this issue especially if as predicted by the sceptics there are such high cost to global development and prosperity (which the green sector would argue is wrong)? There is a simple answer given in the IPCC report. Climate change interferes with “the two primary resources of humans and ecosystems, land and water”. It is a threat not just to our prosperity but to our very existence. We, as humans, often think we are the masters of nature, but we live by its grace and favour. If we do not change our course we are heading towards catastrophe that no level of economic development will defend against.
Beyond the long term impact of climate change on our very existence there are more immediate issues. The impact on the vulnerable and often poor peoples of this world is a very real concern and has already begun. Global warming is “leading to changes in regional weather patterns, with extreme events on the increase”. This can be seen in all parts of the world. Another effect that is having immediate impact is seen in sub-Saharan Africa. Drought and desertification is a pressing concern which is greatly increased by global warming. It “adversely impacts on health and food security”, which it appears, affects women disproportionately bring with it questions of gender equality. As is so often the case with such perils, the most vulnerable people in the world and in society pay the price for the excesses of others. There is also major concern around the issue of sea level rises and the impact this will have on the low lying islands of the world. Indeed the IPCC projects more and faster sea level rise by the end of the 21st century. Representatives of these islands recently took to the podium at the United Nations calling for “international support to mitigate the perils”. As was pointed out, these islands and their citizens have contributed least to the climate change problem but suffer the most. We, as part of the developed world must shoulder our “moral, ethical and historical responsibilities”.
The United Nations is doing what it can with regards to these problems including the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) which aims “to forge a global partnership to reverse and prevent desertification/land degradation…” Giving those countries affected by climate change a platform to air their grievances is also a vital tool. There are also international agreements to aid the poorest countries mitigate and adapt to climate change via funds and technology transfer. However, these actions will come to naught if the international community does not deal with the underlying cause of the problem, greenhouse gas emissions.
All these effects of climate change have associated human rights issues which are far reaching but still little understood. Indeed there is much academic debate regarding the impact of climate change on human rights. This debate includes how to interpret the responsibility of individual countries, companies and the international community to those whose rights are violated. However, the effects of global warming on the resources of food, water and land will make achieving human dignity for all and the advancement of human rights (a vital part of the United Nations charter) an increasingly difficult proposition. Anthropogenic climate change with all its possible effects is our legacy and one we must acknowledge and act upon, now.