Once-in-a-century storms and floods will become annual events if urgent action is not taken to end the fossil fuel era. That’s the latest warning from the UN’s climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
But we don’t even have to look into the future to see the devastating impact the climate crisis is having on people’s lives here and overseas.
Bare supermarket shelves in flood-isolated communities in the Top End. Vanuatu hit by an unprecedented two Category 4 cyclones just days apart. More than 500 people in southeast Africa killed by Cyclone Freddy — the most energetic and possibly the longest storm ever recorded.
The IPCC — whose findings are endorsed by governments including Australia — are unequivocal: greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels are the single largest threat to people and nature.
And last year, for the first time, the IPCC made an important statement about the great inequality that is inherent in the climate crisis.
At least 3.3 billion people, its February 2022 report stated, are “highly vulnerable to climate change”. And in considering which parts of the world were most vulnerable, the IPCC looked not just at geography and climate, but “lack of capacity to cope and adapt”.
This is the fundamental injustice of climate change: the people who have done the least to cause it — including people living in poverty — are feeling the effects the most.
Not only are some low carbon emitting countries like Vanuatu extremely vulnerable to climate shocks because of their geography and climate, but people living below or close to the poverty line simply have fewer resources to prepare for and recover from a disaster.
They’re less likely to be able to build secure homes able to withstand cyclones and floods. They’re more likely to grow their own food and rely on that for their meals or for some extra income — and we know floods and droughts and storms play havoc for anyone engaged in agriculture. And they’re less likely to have savings for — quite literally — a rainy day.
There is also a gender dimension to this. Women are more likely to live in poverty, and as a recent CARE report found, 150 million more women than men are going hungry, and that gap is widening. All around the world, there is also strong evidence that violence against women spikes in the aftermath of a disaster.
As an international humanitarian organisation, CARE has staff and partners on the frontlines of the climate crisis all across the world. From Vanuatu to Mozambique and Malawi, at any one time we are responding to multiple climate change fuelled crises around the world, as well as helping communities to prepare and adapt.
We are guided by the principle that locals know their communities best, and their knowledge and networks should always guide aid priorities. But high per-capita carbon emitting countries like Australia have a responsibility to assist.
The Australian Government’s recent increase in overseas aid is a start — it begins to undo almost a decade of neglect of our aid program — but there is more we can be doing.
First, Australia must increase its share of the climate finance that high-income countries have promised to lower-income countries to help them prepare for climate shocks and adapt to the new normal. Our fair share has been calculated to be at least $3 billion per year. In recognition of the unprecedented and serious nature of the climate crisis, this must be in addition to the aid budget, not just part of it.
We also need to be talking about additional compensation for loss and damage. Preparation is one thing, but some of our Pacific neighbours are facing the fact that the land to which they are deeply culturally connected will become uninhabitable within a generation.
Lastly, the assistance we provide must take into account the needs of marginalised groups — such as women, girls and people with disabilities — and provide opportunities for them to participate in and lead decision-making about the way forward.
These three actions can begin to make right the fundamental injustice of climate change, by helping our Pacific neighbours and other climate vulnerable countries to cope with what’s to come.
But of course, the most significant thing Australia can do is to stop contributing to the problem. We are the world’s ninth highest per-capita emitter of CO2 — higher than the US, UK, most of Europe, China, and much, much higher than most of our Pacific neighbours.
Our current emissions reduction targets do not align with the internationally agreed limit of 1.5°C of global warming. We must do better.
The continent we live on and the Asia Pacific region that we are a part of are both extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
The IPCC makes it clear that this is a crucial decade for action. For ourselves, our neighbours, and all those who lack the resources to cope with climate shocks, we must heed the call.