2012 has, so far, been a momentous year for the world’s climate. Record heat in most of North America and widespread drought in much of the corn belt, along with the "big melt" of Arctic sea-ice, were followed by the devastation— one week before the U.S. presidential elections— of Superstorm Sandy.
Rightly, experts and pundits are all quick to point out that it is not sound science to attribute any single extreme weather event to climate change. On the other hand, it would be truly foolish to continue to close our eyes to the mountain of evidence that our climate is changing as a result of human activity, and that urgent action is required to avert irreversible damage to our planet.
This argument was succinctly made by Dr. James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Center for Space Studies, before Superstorm Sandy, when he said (in reference to past heat waves in Europe and Russia and U.S. droughts in 2011 and 2012): "These weather events are not simply an example of what climate change could bring. They are caused by climate change. The odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small. To count on those odds would be like quitting your job and play the lottery every morning to pay the bills."
Poor communities are already seeing changes in rainfall patterns
Research that our two organizations (CARE and the United Nations University) have conducted over the last two years in eight countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America provides further evidence from the ground that poor communities are already seeing changes in rainfall patterns that are negatively affecting their livelihoods, which are largely dependent on rain-fed agriculture. In a sign of things to come, our field research in the fall of 2011 coincided with the historic flooding that affected Bangkok and much of central Thailand, and our research villages in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam were under water as a result of the worst floods in a decade.
Our “Where the Rain Falls” initiative explored not only the impacts of a changing climate on food security, but how those changes might also lead to future increases in the numbers of “environmental migrants.” We found that current efforts to support poor communities to adapt to climate change and increase their resilience are woefully inadequate, which could contribute to accelerating out-migration if global warming remains unchecked.
A majority of citizens are worried about climate change consequences
All these signals are sending us the same message. Recent public opinion research, including a 13-country survey done by IPSOS and commissioned by the AXA Group, shows that, even in the U.S., a majority of citizens believe that climate change is real (pdf), that it is caused by human activity, and that the potential consequences are very worrying. An overwhelming majority also say politicians in their country are not taking sufficient action to deal with the threat posed by climate change.
Will 2012 turn out to be the turning point in this debate? Can growing public awareness of the threat posed by climate change join hands with a broad scientific consensus to convince our political leaders to act before it is too late? While only time will tell, we can hope to see some early positive signs at the end of the year as world leaders gather in Doha, Qatar for the 18th annual Conference of Parties climate change negotiations.
World leaders must take actions in Doha
We will be there to present the findings of our research and to join our voices with many others calling for bold leadership and decisive action. We hope that all those gathered in Doha will heed the recent call to action by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who said: "There can be no looking away, no persisting with business as usual, no hoping the threat will diminish or disappear. This should be one of the main lessons from Hurricane Sandy. Let us make this wise investment in our common future."
The clock is literally ticking. Current greenhouse gas emissions and trends put us on a path that could lead to global warming of as much as 6 degrees C or more by 2100. Unless urgent action is taken soon to reduce global CO2 emissions, we will not be able to limit global warming to the 2 degrees C. that scientists tell us is necessary to avoid irreversible damage to the natural systems on which all of humanity depends. For the sake of future generations, we ask political leaders from across the globe to join hands, beginning in Doha and continuing for years to come, to simultaneously address global poverty and promote environmental sustainability. Their constituents deserve nothing less.
Photo copyright: Care