Government workers clear debris from a road following a landslide that occurred at the height of Typhoon Utor in Baguio city, in northern Philippines, August 12, 2013. The most powerful typhoon to hit the Philippines this year triggered landslides and floods on Monday, disrupting power and communication links to leave one man dead and 13 fishermen missing, weather and disaster officials said. Photo: Reuters
As a non-government organisation serving individuals and families in the poorest communities in the world, CARE Australia has long recognised and responded to the serious threat posed by climate change.
The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world's top climate science body, is another stark reminder of the challenge that climate change creates.
The IPCC Physical Science report, to be released in Stockholm on Friday, shows that global temperatures are increasing, sea levels are rising, oceans are warming and acidifying, rainfall patterns are changing and both glaciers and Arctic sea ice are in decline. In short, climate change is happening right here, right now, and the IPCC is more certain than ever that humans are responsible.
For the countries in our region, these findings will come as no surprise. Vulnerable women and men in Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and Vanuatu, thousands of whom are supported through CARE Australia programs, hardly need to be reminded of the serious and worsening impacts that extreme and unpredictable weather and longer-term climatic changes are having on their lives.
A quick survey of CARE's recent emergency operations shows that in the last five months alone, a typhoon ripped through the Philippines displacing 100,000 people and torrential rain and flooding in Mali in West Africa killed 30 and uprooted thousands. Extremes and unpredictable events are becoming the new normal, but the true impact is greater than the statistics reveal.
Many more people are being affected by less obvious changes to rainfall, wind and hot and cold weather. In Timor-Leste for instance, farmers are increasingly seeing more rain concentrated into fewer months, which means more intense periods of precipitation followed by a longer dry season. These events may not make the news headlines, but they damage the crops, livestock and resources which people rely on to feed their families and make a living.
It's no exaggeration to say that the world's poor, who are already vulnerable to shocks and have the least resources to cope, are recovering from one emergency, only to find themselves facing another. This makes it harder and harder for people to lift themselves out of poverty.
While the poor may be bearing the brunt of climate change, as Australians we should know better than dismissing climate change as somebody else's problem. The past 12 months have been defined by new records. In just 90 days last summer, 123 weather records were broken, including the hottest January on record. The month started with bushfires in Tasmania, and ended with severe flooding in Queensland and northern NSW. This past winter has been the third warmest in Australia since records began.
How many more of these wake-up calls can we afford to dismiss?
The changes that we are already seeing are the result of 0.9°C of warming since the world started using coal, oil and gas for fuel. Two thirds of this warming has happened since 1950.
Australians, and the global community, all need to take the findings of this report, prepared by 255 scientific experts from universities and research institutes in 38 countries, very seriously.
At CARE Australia we are already working hard to ensure that valuable gains in the fight against poverty are not reversed by a changing climate. In Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam for instance, we are helping people to plan, prepare and adapt to climate-related risks so that the impacts of extreme weather events don't tip them back into a life of extreme poverty. This work brings tangible benefits to communities – including improvements to food and water availability, and enhanced income in the face of change.
This work is helping communities to adapt to some of the now unavoidable changes to the climate. However, we know that for Australia and our nearest neighbours to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, we have to do everything that we can to keep global warming to less than 2°C warming above pre-industrial levels.
The Abbott Government, and the previous Rudd and Gillard Governments, all share a commitment to reducing emissions by five to 25 per cent on 2000 levels by 2020. However, it's only the 25 per cent target that is consistent with global action needed to avoid an increase greater than 2°C.
Tackling global warming is a shared global responsibility and it is in our national interest. Australia – one of the most prosperous countries in the world – has the resources, the technologies and the capacity to take action to reduce our own emissions. We also have an international duty to help those who are contributing the least to global greenhouse gas emissions, but who bear the greatest burden of climate change.
Dr Julia Newton-Howes is CEO of CARE Australia