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We are already suffering damage from climate change, and what will happen at higher temperatures is unimaginable
At the ongoing climate talks in the German city of Bonn, poor developing countries are arguing that the goal of keeping global average temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius will not be sufficient. They are demanding that a lower 1.5 degree goal be set so as to avoid devastating climate change impacts.
A joint statement issued last week by United Nations human rights experts, referring to the 2014 landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), emphasised that an average increase in global temperature of even 2 degrees would adversely affect a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, and water, among many others.
The current draft text of the climate agreement, due to be concluded in December this year in Paris, contains both temperature options, but there seems to no political will to set an ambitious temperature goal.
Instead, the national action plans - contributions rather than commitments - presented so far indicate that we are on course for a temperature rise of 4 degrees or more above pre-industrial levels.
So far the average global temperature has risen by about 0.8 degrees, and we are already observing damaging impacts.
In just the last five years, thousands have died and millions have been affected by unprecedented extreme weather events such as the Eastern Horn of Africa drought in 2011, the food crisis in the Sahel region caused by erratic weather, Hurricane Sandy, a series of high intensity typhoons in the Philippines including Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu this year and the recent heat wave in India.
A U.N. report released earlier this year states that climate change accounts for 87 percent of disasters worldwide.
But having seen the devastation from a temperature rise of just 0.8 degrees, can we bear nearly double the current temperature rise in even a 1.5 degree warmer world?
In reality, the impacts of increasing temperature levels will not be linear, but will multiply what we face now several times over. What will happen at 2, 3 or 4 degrees Celsius of warming is unimaginable.
The call from vulnerable countries to reconsider the threshold of what we believe the planet can take is based on planetary and scientific realities, and not arbitrary politics. These countries also remind us that the strongest action must be taken by richer nations that have made the biggest historical contribution to the problem, and that if poorer states are expected to make a just transition, they need support to do so.
There are three key points as we move towards finalising a climate deal at Paris:
Lag in climate systems
Scientists say that even after atmospheric concentration of CO2 and other greenhouse gases stabilise, surface air temperatures and sea levels are still projected to rise for a century or more. This is underlined by the fact that while emissions have been rising steadily since the industrial revolution in 1850s, two-thirds of the warming has occurred since 1975.
This means that even if we achieve a target of 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, which many green groups have been campaigning for, climate change will continue to impact the people and ecosystems past the end of the century.
Adaptation is referred to as a process of adjustment to actual or expected climate change and its effects. Inadequate mitigation and insufficient adaptation have already brought us to an era of 'loss and damage', where adjustment in all situations is no longer possible and there will be irreversible impacts.
As temperatures rise, in many parts of the world, the limits for adaptation to deal with glacial melt, rising sea levels and increasing extreme weather events, are being reached.
In spite of this, the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, established at U.N. climate negotiations in 2013, was placed under the Cancun Adaptation Framework. This means it is currently treated as a part of adaptation – instead of a separate process to deal with the consequences of the failure of adaptation and mitigation.
It is now a key demand of developing countries that loss and damage must be recognised separately from adaptation in the climate change agreement at Paris. Institutions like the Warsaw International Mechanism will be required to generate knowledge, develop strategies to address new challenges, and provide financial and technical support to apply solutions.
Pivot for climate action
Rich nations, in particular the United States, Canada, Japan and Australia, have been brushing off the demands of developing countries and civil society to act according to their responsibility for and fair shares of planet-warming emissions.
For decades, they neither reduced greenhouse gas emissions at home, nor provided adequate resources to developing countries to transform their energy systems and build resilience.
Future mass-scale litigation by developing countries in the International Court of Justice is not an impossibility.
Demanding compensation and reparations for the loss and damage caused due to rich nations’ inaction remains the only pivot to hold them to account. It will also drive action on mitigation and provide timely resources for adaptation to prevent further loss and damage.
The success of climate action will be determined by whether we acted in time to protect the human rights of present and future generations from the imminent threat of climate change.