Jonny Elliott, from COP18
We've all been there...
if you're anything like me, you probably thought you had climate change sussed when you learnt the difference between your NO2 and your CO2, that simple greenhouse effect diagram they teach you about in GCSE Chemistry, or felt like a genius amongst mere mortals when the Kyoto Protocol was mentioned in conversation.
But then you're asked for your views on the Bali Roadmap, or a sample NAPA for a non-annex country, and suddenly you've gone blank and all you can muster is a smile... Welcome to Doha, and to the 18th UN Conference on Climate Change.
Over the next two weeks, I hope to be able to share with you the ins and outs of what can certainly be a tricky process to get your head around: but don’t let that put you off. I am by no means an expert on the whole UNFCCC process - but as Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC reiterated earlier at an event this week, ‘none of us are, but we all have our niche.’
As a health professional I strongly agree with the UCL-Lancet commission's statement that ‘Climate change could be the biggest global health threat of the 21st century’ . Our health is essentially dependent on stable, functioning ecosystems and a healthy biosphere. This bedrock for global health is under enormous threat from climate change and ecological damage that we are causing.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve known about this problem for quite a few years since early secondary school, but have generally felt powerless to act - and at times questioned whether my efforts would really have an effect. However, as I have connected more deeply with other social justice issues, development and public health I've found that the message of climate change and the irrefutable science behind it keeps reappearing. This isn’t just confined to articles we read on PubMed or the Lancet, but is important in our daily lives. It's there in extreme weather events, such as a record-breaking heat wave that I experienced in Washington D.C.; quite possible the flooding that inundated the streets of my hometown Belfast this summer and saw an unlikely hero on a surfboard rescue victims from their homes; the flooding happening across the UK. And it's there in the general trends too.
As students, healthcare professionals and people interested in global health, I believe that engaging with this issue really is a case of now or never. We are in a situation in the UK where most are aware of climate change, but all too often turn a blind eye. This is an unavoidable moral responsibility and an issue that will affect ourselves and our children: it's not something in the distant future, it's already happening. And we have to act fast.
I urge you over the coming days and weeks to take a second take at what climate change means for you, your family and every single person on this planet. Join me on the journey in Doha where I’ll be creating a bit of a stir on the ground; meeting with negotiators, delivering workshops, training young people from all over the world and leading publicity events such as flashmobs. Forging partnerships and trying to be as accessible as I can will be my allies.
Drop me a line, follow me on facebook, or send me a tweet and let’s create a huge wave of change at the UN.
It’s our responsibility, so let’s act now!
Below: Jonny on the ground in Doha partnering with IFMSA (left) to plan a stunt and with Ex-President of Ireland, Mary Robinson (right)
Also published in Stakeholder Forum's Outreach Magazine for COP18
Possibly the biggest problem we face now as a globe is how to cut carbon as fast as possible. That will require massive scaling up of renewables and scaling down of fossil fuel usage.
As PwC recently reported, without unprecedented carbon intensity reductions, we are probably heading for a 6 degree rise by 2100. That will be much harder to avoid if we seek to end nuclear power. It is extremely low carbon, much cheaper than renewables, and the risks to health are much smaller than most people think. It could give us the time we need to carry out research in order to improve the efficiency and economic viability of renewables; increase their working lifetimes; and, crucially, to develop adequate storage capacity, which is essential given how intermittent they are.
As James Lovelock, one of the world’s most highly respected climate scientists, explains, “opposition … is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the green lobbies and the media.”
The prominent and well-respected environmentalists Mark Lynas and George Monbiot have also publicly explained their pro-nuclear positions, and the reasons make sense. So I was quite disconcerted earlier this year when talking to German young people overjoyed at their anti-nuclear movement’s political success in the wake of Fukushima. The result will probably be a doubling of the coal-fired power stations Germany will build over the next ten years: not the sort of change we can afford to be making now.
The people I met had been acting in good faith – but it’s a shame if that idealism is ill-informed, when we so urgently need to be pragmatic.
Nuclear has by far the lowest number of deaths per unit of energy generated, from accidents or air pollution, compared to any fossil fuel or biomass. Chernobyl caused 28 deaths from acute radiation sickness, and the WHO’s Expert Group’s Report concluded that over the long term the statistics suggest an 4000 additional cancer deaths among the 626000 people in the three highest exposed groups, less than 1/20th the baseline cancer rate.
Fukushima has been predicted to contribute to approximately 100 early deaths from cancer in the long term but so far none have been recorded. Both are tragic: of course we must avoid future Chernobyls, but other much bigger health risks receive only a fraction of the attention. 19 205 life-years were lost per million in China due to air pollution from electricity production, in 2010 alone, whilst every year indoor air pollution kills almost 2 million people (2004 figure).
In a 2007 article on electricity generation and health published in the Lancet journal, Markandya and Wilkinson conclude that nuclear power ‘has one of the lowest levels of greenhouse-gas emissions per unit power production and one of the smallest levels of direct health effects … it would add a substantial further barrier to the achievement of urgent reductions in greenhouse gases if the current 17% of world electricity generation from nuclear power were allowed to decline.’
Source: Markandya and Wilkinson, 2007
What about waste?
CO2 tends not to be thought of as hazardous waste, but it certainly poses a severe threat to the health of future generations. Even renewables like solar have their problems, and a push for more biomass could spell ecological (and climate) disaster.
With nuclear, as with climate, ‘doing the math’ is key: a typical background level of exposure is 2-3 milliSieverts/year, of which approx. 0.4mSv naturally occurs in food such as bananas. Regulations limit extra exposure from man-made radiation (other than medicine) to 1 mSv/y for members of the public, and most are exposed to far less. For comparison, the radioactivity of a single banana (the 'Banana Equivalent Dose'), due to the potassium it contains, is about 0.3mSv. Most of us are exposed to far more in our own homes due to naturally occurring radon gas: 2.7mSv/year for the average person in the UK according to the HPA; some people have much higher levels of exposure. I'm not pretending there aren't risks if multiple safety procedures are violated as at Chernobyl or plants are sited in dangerous places as at Fukushima, but good governance and well-chosen sites are both essential and possible; fear should not prevent us from using nuclear as a bridging technology.
George Monbiot summarises the unavoidable trade-off around renewables: ‘we could meet all our electricity needs through renewables. But it would take longer and cost more”. The trouble with climate change is precisely that: we’re fast running out of time. Work by the Committee on Climate Change shows that the maximum likely contribution to UK electricity from renewables by 2030 is 45%; the maximum from CCS 15% - and the gap must be made up.
In the short term, nuclear seems to me a far better way to fill that gap, for climate and for health, than fossil fuels.
A Week before COP18's gender day: why meeting the unmet family planning need is key for human rights, gender equality - and tackling climate changeRead Now
The State of World Population Report 2012 Credit: UNFPA
The most important point made in the recent UNFPA report, The State of World Population 2012 - perhaps even its foundation - is that access to family planning is a human right. If it can be realised globally, this will be a big step not only in terms of environmental sustainability but also and more importantly, reducing poverty, exclusion, poor health and gender inequality.
It is a travesty and an abuse of human rights that there are currently 222 million women without access to family planning who want it, largely for lack of a few billion dollars per year - about a tenth of the tobacco industry's annual profits.
According to the UNFPA's Press Release which accompanied the report's release, making voluntary family planning available to everyone in developing countries would reduce costs for maternal and newborn health care by US$11.3 billion annually, as well as helping to stabilise the global population more quickly. In the longer term this would contribute reducing climate change (although this is not at all to imply that consumption is not at least as or probably much more important) and problems of resource scarcity.
In addition to finance, to ensure that every person’s right to family planning is realised, the report also calls on governments and leaders to:
Family planning delivers immeasurable rewards to women, families, and communities by enabling healthier, longer lives. If an additional 120 million obtained access to family planning - just over half of those who currently don't have access and want it - the report estimates 3 million fewer babies would die in their first year of life.
The State of World Population 2012 says that governments, civil society, health providers and communities have the responsibility to protect the right to family planning for women across the spectrum, including those who are young or unmarried. But financial resources for family planning have declined globally and contraceptive use has remained mostly steady. In 2010, donor countries fell US$ 500 million short of their expected contribution to sexual and reproductive health services in developing countries. Contraceptive use prevalence has increased globally by just 0.1 per cent per year over the last few years.
Signs of progress
In July, at the London Summit on Family Planning, donor countries and foundations together pledged US$2.6 billion to make family planning available to 120 million women in developing countries with unmet needs by 2020. Developing countries themselves also pledged to increase support.
But, according to the report, an additional US$ 4.1 billion is necessary each year to meet the unmet need for family planning of all 222 million women who would use family planning but currently lack access to it. This investment would save lives by preventing unintended pregnancies and unsafe abortions.
I’m going to Doha in exactly five days.
The last few months have been a whirlwind of planning, saving up and pulling together fundraiser events, giving talks to students and campaigners about climate change – and best of all, helping train and working with the six other awesome people who are coming with me.
Why am I going? To meet the young people from all over the world who are campaigning for solutions to climate change. To work with them, share stories with them and learn from them. Oh yes, and the UN climate talks are happening there – but we aren’t just going to follow the process, or to support negotiators. We are there to build our own movement, the international youth climate movement, and to remind politicians that they are accountable to us. Over the next few weeks we will call for raised political ambition – the current carbon cuts are less than half what is needed to commit us to a safe future according to the scientific consensus.
We will show that there are innovative solutions to climate change – what we are lacking is political will, not the technology or ideas.
We will show that the UN climate talks are an opportunity for positive action to be taken on climate change.
Sounds much better than UN jargon, right? Follow our blog, follow our twitter (@ukyccdelegation), sign up for the hotspot, do our ‘Doha Dares’, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org – get in touch! See also http://ukycc.org/2012/11/17/were-going-to-the-un-climate-talks/
Image courtesy of tcktcktck
He may not have achieved much on the climate front in his first term in office, but unlike Mitt Romney, Obama does at least seem to understand the extent of the threat posed by climate change. And - although constrained by the Senate and political will on the ground - he is likely to make more progress on emissions reductions or at least have a better chance of it than Romney.
But at the same time, PwC's recent report argues that we are on course for a catastrophic 6C rise by 2100 without urgent measures, and finds that we need deep reductions in carbon intensity of 5.1% per year to 2050 - over six times greater than the 0.8 per cent average annual cuts achieved since 2000 - to avoid dangerous climate change. Such cuts will be a real challenge for even the most committed nations and the US - whether under Romn.
And all the while, fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil are funding pseudoscience that will help to keep the public in a state of doubt and confusion for some years longer so their profits aren't compromised. The libertarian US Cato Institut based in Washington, DC, recently published its new report, Addendum: Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States - and it is designed to look just like the U.S. government’s official 2009 National Climate Assessment:
This was presented to Congress in 2009 as the federal government's best single evaluation of the science and potential impacts of climate change. Eleven authors of the original government report wrote a recent letter protesting what they called the “deceptive and misleading” Cato report:
“The Cato report is in no way an addendum to our 2009 report. It is not an update, explanation, or supplement by the authors of the original report. Rather, it is a completely separate document lacking rigorous scientific analysis and review.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists' 2007 report, Smoke, Mirrors, and Hot Air, detailed ExxonMobil’s campaign to use front groups to fund misinformation about climate change. They documented that Michaels was affiliated with no fewer than eleven groups funded by ExxonMobil. Two of the six-member author team on this new Cato report were also highlighted in their 2007 report - Robert Balling was affiliated with no fewer than five “front groups” funded by ExxonMobil. See also DeSmogBlog for other great pieces of investigative journalism on how vested interests have clouded awareness of climate science and impacts - we need to know what we're up against, as they have plenty of money and for a number of the fossil fuel companies it's certainly not matched by their scruples.
Just after Hurricane Sandy, a new report shows that North America has experienced the largest increases in weather-related economic loss eventsRead Now
As the US starts to pick up the pieces after the recent battering by Hurricane Sandy, many commentators have been discussing its relationship with climate change. Somehow, for the first time since 1984, climate change didn’t come up in any of the three American election debates, whilst Romney's effectively stated his intention to step up where he perceives Obama's failed - and become ''Mr. Oil or Mr. Gas or Mr. Coal'' - or more likely all three.
So it comes as no surprise that the NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg has now come out against Romney's position and endorsed Obama on the basis of his environmental track record. Ok, so he may not have achieved much - but he sure stands a better chance of curbing carbon than Romney, who a few months ago got a 30-second applause for using climate change as a punchline.
Of course, it is never possible to put single events down to climate change - but this new report released recently by the insurance group Munich Re about long term trends shows that shows that North America has been most affected by weather-related extreme events in recent decades (terms of economic losses - in general, far more lives are lost in poorer regions, due to lower adaptive capacity), and that climate change is part of the reason:
''For the period concerned – 1980 to 2011 – the overall loss burden from weather catastrophes was US $1060bn (in 2011 values).The insured losses amounted to US$ 510bn, and some 30,000 people lost their lives due to weather catastrophes in North America during this time frame.
Among many other risk insights the study now provides new evidence for the emerging impact of climate change. For thunderstorm-related losses the analysis reveals increasing volatility and a significant long-term upward trend in the normalized figures over the last 40 years. These figures have been adjusted to account for factors such as increasing values, population growth and inflation. A detailed analysis of the time series indicates that the observed changes closely match the pattern of change in meteorological conditions necessary for the formation of large thunderstorm cells. Thus it is quite probable that changing climate conditions are the drivers. The climatic changes detected are in line with the modelled changes due to human-made climate change''.
The relationship between climate and hurricane formation is complex: hurricanes aren't caused by climate change as such - the IPCC recently concluded in its SREX report that there is ‘low confidence’ in an observed long-term (40 years or more) increase in tropical cyclone activity – but there is good evidence that such storms are made stronger by its other effects: rising average sea and air temperatures due to climate change mean more moisture in the atmosphere resulting in heavier rain and climate change also drives rising sea levels which result in increased risk of storm surges.
For every 1°C that the temperature of the air increases, it can hold 7% more moisture - increasing the potential for flooding. Moreover, Sandy's coincided with an extra-high tide, which increases the threat even further, and flooding has started even before the hurricane has reached.
Yet in fact the impacts of natural disasters are some of the easiest health impacts of climate change to quantify. Determining the role of climate change in promoting the spread and (re)emergence of infectious diseases is dramatically more complex. In turn, investigation of how climate change is likely to affect food and water security or - further down the line, economic stability or conflict – is even more fraught with difficulties.
The causal chain for such effects is so much more multi-dimensional, depending on so many variables, and the effects less visible - but they could potentially have much bigger effects on health, at least in the long term, than direct impacts of natural disasters. Here we can think of climate change, to some extent as with its effect on hurricanes, as a threat multiplier - and Hurricane Sandy is a call to action.
Link to press release about the report: