Statement by Achim Steiner in response to Hurricane Gustav and the devastating Indian floods

from UN Environment Programme
Published on 02 Sep 2008 View Original
The evacuation of New Orleans in advance of hurricane Gustav and the displacement of two million Indians to the worst flood in 50 years underline the increasing vulnerability of humanity to natural disasters-vulnerability that is set to rise under the scientific scenarios if climate change if left unchecked.

According to Munich Re, one of the world's leading insurance companies and a member of the UNEP Finance Initiative, 2008 is already shaping up to be a significant, disaster-prone year.

By June, an estimated 400 natural disasters had occurred costing $82 billion. And while the earthquake in Sichuan Province, China cannot be laid at the climate change door many of the others are in line with the scientific predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

"The year is following the long-term trend towards more weather catastrophes, which is influenced by climate change," said the German-based re-insurer last month.

Significant weather-related disasters in 2008 include Cyclone Nargis and related storm surges that impacted Myanmar in May leaving 138,000 people dead or missing; winter storm Emma which hit Europe in March costing an estimated $1.5 billion and the floods along the Mississippi in the United States in June that have cost around $10 billion.

As our hearts go out to the victims and the families affected by current exodus and impacts-the death toll in India stands at 75 but is likely to rise- our heads must focus on the urgency to act on rising greenhouse gas emissions.

There is now less than 500 days before governments meet in Copenhagen in 2009 to agree on a new climate deal to kick in post 2012.

Nothing less than firm, legally binding commitments to significantly reduce pollution linked with the burning of fossil fuels will suffice alongside increased funding to climate-proof vulnerable economies and communities.

Indeed the way we manage-or fail to manage-our cities and coastal infrastructure up to transport networks; agricultural lands; forests; mangroves and wetlands will be as critical as managing a big decline in carbon dioxide, methane and other key pollutants.

The IPCC, whose 20th anniversary we mark in Geneva this week, has provided the sobering assessments and the clear direction that detours and delay and are not options.

It is not just weather-related catastrophes that are of concern.

Other far-reaching phenomena threaten lives, livelihoods and economies. These range from the melting of glaciers and snow-pack in the Alps and the Andes to the Himalayas and the Sierra Nevada mountains up to sea level rise threatening the livelihoods of millions across Africa, Asia indeed the entire world.

Some small island states have already drafted permanent evacuation plans which means entire cultures are at risk of extinction unless we unite to stop climate change.

The current calamities facing the planet, from the serious threat of famine in Ethiopia to the misery and loss of life in India and the disruptions to the people of New Orleans, underline the kind of economic and human suffering the globe is facing within the coming years.

But the IPCC assessments have shone an even brighter light on the costs of action-indeed it clear that it will not cost the Earth to save it, perhaps as little as a few tenths of a percent of global GDP a year over the next 30 years.

In doing so the globe can also address other running sores from the loss of forests and biodiversity to delivering clean energy to the rural poor and conserving water supplies.

So the IPCC remind us that we have challenges but we also have choices. It is time to make those.

In Bali last year at the climate convention meeting, governments agreed to negotiate a package of actions to be finalized by, or at, the Copenhagen climate convention meeting.

While some progress was made in August at a meeting in Accra, Ghana, the level of consensus is failing to match the magnitude of the challenges nor the opportunities to Green the global economy.

The start of the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season should serve as a reminder and catalyze that urgent response.

According to the United States National Oceanography and Atmospheric Administration, there is now an 85 percent probability of an above-normal season as a result of atmospheric and oceanic conditions.

The IPCC said in its fourth assessment last year that there has been an increase in hurricane intensity in the North Atlantic since the 1970s, and that increase correlates with increases in sea surface temperature.

The IPCC also said it is likely that we will see increases in hurricane intensity during the 21st century-it is not too late to act, first at the climate convention meeting in Poznan later this year and decisively in Copenhagen a year later: we have some 500 days left.