UNITED KINGDOM - Britain's development and aid agencies joined together yesterday to recognise formally that climate change is the most serious problem facing the poor of the world.
In a new report on the effects of global warming on developing nations, Up In Smoke, a coalition of 18 aid and green groups, from Oxfam and Action Aid to Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, agreed that the warming climate could wipe out all the hard-won development gains of the past half century, and that poor countries would suffer worst of all.
This was a significant shift in position for the development movement, parts of which have in the past seen environmental concerns as a side issue, compared with the immediate and pressing task of relieving mass poverty in Africa and other developing regions. But the agencies said yesterday they could no longer ignore their own evidence that the effects of global warming were already being directly felt by the world's poorest people and countries.
They are being seen in changing rainfall patterns, severer droughts and, in particular, in the increase in extreme weather events, which are predicted to be one of climate change's most damaging features. "Food production, water supplies, public health and people's livelihoods are all being damaged and undermined," the report said. "We fear that global warming could threaten the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals and even reverse human development achievements.
"The devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch that hit Central America in 1998, or the 2004 floods in Bangladesh and India, show that an acute danger now exists for many. The slow, hard-won gains in human development of the last few decades, in places, these could be swept away in hours."
The report called for a global risk assessment of the likely costs of adapting to climate change in developing countries something that has never been done and said that rich nations should put up "commensurate" funds for measures such as flood defences. It recommended that in future all development projects should bedone with the possible effects of global warming very much in mind. They should be "climate-proof" and "climate-friendly".
Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who wrote the foreword to the report, said that agricultural research for developing nations would have to change significantly.
Much of it, Dr Pachauri said, was still "unfortunately" focused on "green revolution" crops strainsthat give ever-increasing yields but now there would need to be a focus on crops that could resist the changes that are going to take place, such as drought-resistant and salt-tolerant varieties.
Yet the most significant thing about the report was that it was being issued at all, as in the past a number of leading figures in the development movement, up to ministerial level, have regarded environmental concerns such as climate change as merely a distraction.
Several developmentalists at the launch agreed that some of their number had been slow to accept the significance of global warming, the science of which has been in the public domain for nearly 15 years.
Andy Atkins, the advocacy director of Tearfund, which operates in 60 countries, said: "I think it's come fairly late to some, but I also think there's a question of also having to wait for a moment. We're not scientists. We wait for the evidence that poor communities are being affected, and we could have predicted that on the basis of science perhaps many years ago, but we weren't yet seeing the evidence. We are now, and as development agencies we cannot ignore it."
Antonio Hill, global environment adviser for Oxfam, made a similar point. "It's not just about science any more, it's about social science, and that's where development agencies actually have something to say."
Andrew Sims, of the New
Economics Foundation, which co-ordinated the report with the International Institute for Environment and Development, said he thought that parts of the development movement had woken up late to the climate threat because people had simply concentrated on their own specialities and not seen the bigger picture.
"I think they have been sitting in their silos for too long," he said. "But there's an awareness now that the issue has arrived. People have joined up the dots on climate change and they realise how things are. I'm celebrating the fact that everybody's here now."
© 2004 Independent Newspapers, Ltd.