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Future generations will inherit a hotter, more meteorologically turbulent planet beset by intense flooding, famine, and drought.  If we don’t correct course soon, conditions are likely to become very bad. But recent trends indicate that the future may have already arrived.  

Across the planet, the bitter harvest brought on by excessive fossil fuel consumption and environmental destruction is taking its toll. An historic four-year drought has beleaguered California. Chile had its driest January in five decades. China was hit with heavy flooding that impacted 75 million people. In the Pacific, a record 13 cyclones occurred in a single season. In southern Africa, damaging flooding early in the year has been followed by a severe drought that is now threatening 49 million people with hunger and starvation. That is just part of the global pattern of extreme weather.

The Doomsday Scenario

In 2012, the World Bank warned of a “doomsday scenario” if the Earth’s temperature increased by a mere four degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Just one year later the Bank warned that “consequences are already being felt on every continent and in every sector.... More droughts, more floods, more strong storms, and more forest fires are taxing individuals, businesses, and governments.”

Global temperatures are indeed rising fast, setting new records year after year. In 2015 temperatures shattered previous records by a wide margin (overall 1.62 degrees higher than the twentieth century average). It also marked the 39th consecutive year (since 1977) that the annual temperature has been higher than the century average.

The current El Niño weather pattern is part of the problem, worsening an already bad situation. (El Niño is a normally occurring global weather phenomenon that originates from warm ocean currents in the southeastern Pacific.) This El Niño is among the most severe weather cataclysms to have ever occurred, creating intense droughts in some parts of the globe and severe flooding in others. Southern Africa has been hit the hardest this season. At least one million children are already suffering from severe malnutrition due to crop losses resulting from drought.

In Lesotho, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, entire crops were lost because the rainy season abruptly halted, leaving the population with nothing to eat. Food has become alarmingly scarce and expensive; the price of white corn has risen by 150 percent from last season in South Africa alone. Countries have begun requesting immediate aid to alleviate widespread suffering.

The tragedies unfolding on the world stage will spread if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced quickly. It is with this backdrop that an international climate treaty was adopted in Paris in December 2015.

The so-called Paris Agreement, signed by 195 nations, went further than previous agreements by setting a limit on the rise of global temperatures to no more than a two degree Celsius increase above preindustrial levels. However, it is not at all clear how this limit will be achieved or if it is even possible. There are no mechanisms or plans within the agreement itself to avoid exceeding this two degree ceiling.

Developing Countries Seek Climate Justice

The Paris negotiations also confronted the issue of compensating those who suffered loss or damage resulting from climate change. Poorer developing nations, who have been bearing the brunt of climate impacts, had demanded that rich developed nations, whose wealth had been acquired through intensive fossil fuel use, compensate them for losses. However, developed countries, particularly the United States, refused to accept any legal remedy in the agreement that included compensation for losses. 

In the end, the developed nations prevailed. The agreement acknowledged that loss and damage were issues, but it denied legal compensation. To help sway developing nations to accept the agreement anyway, the United States offered to double the money available for sustainable development grants that helped reduce the risk of loss and damage. The offer was accepted by vulnerable nations, but there remains a dispute as to whether the additional funding will do enough.

Climate change is the most pressing challenge of our time. The question of richer nations compensating  developing nations will intensify and grow more contentious until a fair and equitable settlement is achieved.

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