Copenhagen climate change talks must consider effect on poor

By  Barbara J. Fraser, Catholic News Service
  • December 4, 2009
{mosimage}World leaders and negotiators participating in the UN Climate Change Conference must remember that the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people will suffer most from environmental factors, church activists say.

“This is a pivotal point for all people of faith and good will,” said Cliona Sharkey, policy and advocacy officer for CIDSE , an international network of Catholic development agencies. “We simply cannot accept the continuation of a situation that is impacting on the people who have contributed least to the problem.”

Church groups are calling for negotiators meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, Dec. 7-18 to sign a legally binding agreement that includes sharp cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by industrialized countries and long-term funding to help developing countries adapt to the effects of climate change.

It may be an uphill battle. Climate activists say that to slow climate change, industrialized countries must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — that trap heat near the Earth’s surface by 40-45 per cent from 1990 levels. Brazil, a developing country whose economy and energy needs have grown rapidly in recent years, has expressed willingness to cut emissions by 38 per cent from 1990 levels.

U.S. President Barack Obama has offered to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels, which are substantially higher than the 1990 benchmark. China offered a 40-45 per cent cut from 2005 levels, with further reductions if the United States agrees to more.

Emissions must be reduced enough to keep global surface temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius, Sharkey said. Global warming could affect food and water supplies, public health, infrastructure and political security, she said.

“It’s all interrelated,” she said. “The implications are felt first by people living in poverty, but those implications will filter up with huge, devastating impacts for everybody if it’s not controlled now, when we have the chance.”

Island nations and countries with coastal cities are threatened by rising sea levels, while mountain farmers who depend on glacial runoff in dry seasons are seeing glaciers disappear. Other regions, including northeastern Brazil and parts of Africa, are suffering increased drought.

African countries also are suffering from decreasing water supplies, which affect hydroelectricity, drinking water, tourism, irrigation for crops and water for livestock, said Janet Mang’era, national executive secretary of Caritas Kenya, the Kenyan bishops’ development and social services agency.

Climate changes have severely affected food production, she said, exacerbating poverty, particularly among women, who form the majority of the poor and a big proportion of the subsistence farmers.

The semi-arid northeastern part of Brazil has suffered from both drought and “political neglect,” according to Sr. Delci Franzen, a member of the the Brazilian bishops’ commission on social service, justice and peace.

“There’s more desertification and more poverty,” she said.

Church activists in developing countries have doubts about some of the programs likely to be central to negotiations in Copenhagen, especially market-driven schemes such as carbon trading and payment for avoided deforestation.

“The carbon market can deliver some things, but it can’t deliver sustainable and equitable development,” Sharkey said.

The Kyoto Protocol’s “clean development mechanism,” which allows countries to continue emitting greenhouse gases in exchange for “offsetting” the emissions with low-carbon projects, often in other parts of the world, shows that “the carbon market sends money where there’s profit to be made, not where the human development or environmental need necessarily is,” she said.

If radical steps are not taken in Copenhagen, Sharkey fears that the world’s developing countries — whose emissions will also increase in the future — could be heading down a path toward unsustainable development.

“What is necessary is a fundamental shift in our models of development,” she said. “Climate change is exacerbating and increasing poverty and inequality. The more we delay taking effective action, the greater the impacts of climate change are going to be.”

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