The Future is Equal

Facing up to climate reality

As we rush to help survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, we also need to look at the bigger picture.

By Barry Coates, Executive Director, Oxfam New Zealand

Survivors in the worst affected areas of the Philippines, where the monster typhoon struck, describe their experience with disbelief – winds of over 300kph and a storm surge five metres high that carried all before it. Typhoon Haiyan was the most powerful, most horrific storm to make landfall since records began.

The humanitarian response from New Zealand has been inspiring. People across the country have donated generously to help Filipinos whom they have never met. Oxfam and other NGOs are on the ground providing life-saving food, clean water, toilets and shelter to help people survive and stop the spread of disease amongst those who survived the storm. But the need is still immense – over 11 million people have been affected.

Climate reality

As we rush to help survivors, we also need to look at the bigger picture. Yeb Saño is the lead negotiator for the Philippines at the UN climate change talks taking place in Warsaw, and this week his plea has been carried around the globe. He challenged anyone who continues to deny the reality of climate change to get out of the comfort of their armchair and visit the places around the world where communities are being devastated by the changing climate – by sea level rise, heatwaves, melting ice caps and glaciers, floods and deadly storms. He suggested people may also want to visit the Philippines.

When his speech was reported in our Parliament, there was heckling and denial. Apparently some of our MPs believed it was inappropriate to share Saño’s words and point out the connection between greenhouse gases and super typhoons. But if we aren’t honest about the causes that are increasing the frequency of devastating storms, we are failing to respect those who suffer the consequences and protect future victims.

It has been known for more than a century that burning fossil fuels emits greenhouse gases, and those gases warm up our planet. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reveals that 90 per cent of the warming has been absorbed by the oceans. Warmer water, which was around 2°C higher than normal before the typhoon, provides the fuel for more dangerous tropical storms. This makes typhoons like Haiyan more likely.

Need for binding agreement

The people of the Philippines have done little to cause climate change. It is rich nations that have burned fossil fuels and emitted greenhouse gases, including us in New Zealand – our emissions per person are amongst the highest in the world. But Yeb Saño’s plea to end the madness of rising emissions is unlikely to change our government’s position in climate change negotiations. New Zealand pulled out of commitments under the Kyoto Protocol and then reduced our target for emissions reductions to only 5 per cent below the 1990 level. Domestically, the Emissions Trading Scheme has become a farce, fuelling deforestation, and our economic development plan seems to consist of more roads and a scramble for coal, oil and gas. The irony is that most of the world’s fossil fuel reserves can never be used – they would fry our planet

We urgently need a global agreement to tackle climate change and prevent more devastating disasters. The current negotiations in Warsaw could lay the foundations for a safer climate. New Zealand needs to play our part as a good global citizen, rather than joining those who are blocking progress.

Change begins at home

A better future is possible for us as well as vulnerable communities across the world. New Zealanders are already tackling climate change. Opportunities are opening up for solar power, electric cars and low carbon agriculture. People are realising the health benefits of walking, cycling and home insulation. Local authorities are creating more liveable cities. Energy efficiency and waste minimisation are saving money for companies and households. There are inspiring examples of New Zealand businesses leading the world in the shift to low carbon opportunities. We have exciting opportunities for building our economy of the future, but we cannot achieve our potential without supportive government policy.

At the time of his speech in Warsaw, Saño’s brother in the Philippines had not eaten for three days. In support, Saño has undertaken to fast until he can foresee a meaningful outcome of the negotiations or until the end of the climate change conference on November 22nd. As well as being generous in the relief effort, some of us may want to join him.