10 reasons why you should care about the UN climate talks

Diplomats from 193 countries gather in Warsaw next week for two weeks of talks on climate change. What’s all the fuss about?

UN climate chief Christiana Figueres and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the 2012 talks (Pic: UN)

UN climate chief Christiana Figueres and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the 2012 talks in Doha  (Pic: UN)

By Sophie Yeo and Nilima Choudhury

The international climate change process is a hard one to sell.

It’s slow, complex , heavy with UN jargon and suffers from having to please over 195 ‘parties’ around the negotiating table.

Every year countries gather for a lavish summit, bicker a little and agree to disagree for another 12 months.

But if the science is to be believed, diplomats at the UN climate talks have a vital – perhaps life-saving – role to play.

To mark the start of the 2013 summit, taking place in coal-friendly Poland, we’ve come up with 10 reasons why the man (or woman) in the street should take note.

Human rights: Climate change isn’t going to have the same impact on everyone. It will affect the poorest people first, who carry the least historical responsibility for the emissions that have caused the problem in the first place.

“[T]he impacts of climate change are undermining a whole range of human rights: rights to food, safe water and health and education,” Mary Robinson, former UN Human Rights Commissioner, told RTCC in September. The rush for resources is also having an impact on indigenous people, whose habitats are being destroyed. The President of Iceland recently said that the threat to the human rights of the Arctic Inuits was just as serious as what took place in Tibet.

Gorillas: Climate change is threatening some of the world’s most biodiverse landscapes, as the increasing heat throws ecosystems into disarray and previously unspoilt land is mined for resources.

Africa’s oldest national park, the Virunga, is currently under threat of oil exploration from UK company Soco. The work would threaten a host of creatures, among them the mountain gorilla. This iconic animal is critically endangered, with the park harbouring a quarter of the world’s remaining stock.

(Pic: Tam_z/Flickr)

(Pic: Tam_z/Flickr)

Cancer: For those who still think that climate change is something that happens to other people, consider this: the very air that we breathe causes cancer. This is due to the pollutants that are pumped into the air as a result of burning fuels like coal and oil.

Last month, the World Health Organisation classified the air itself as a carcinogen, rather than just the various toxic elements of which it is composed. Around the same time, another report showed that the air downwind of Canada’s tar sands heartland has higher levels of contaminants than some of the world’s most polluted cities, corresponding with excess levels of cancer in the area.

Pirates: When is a pirate not a pirate? When it’s a Greenpeace activist. Since Russia arrested the Arctic 30 for protesting against a Gazprom oil rig in what Greenpeace insist were international waters, there have been concerns raised about the heavy handed approach that could be taken in the future against activists as states seek to protect their own interests.

Russia is already increasingly militarising, said former UK Defence Secretary Liam Fox, which points to the possibility of increasing suspicion between countries competing for Arctic resources.

Greenpeace's Arctic Sunrise is currently impounded in the Russian port of Murmansk

Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise is currently impounded in the Russian port of Murmansk (Pic: Greenpeace Chile)

Children: If you have kids (or considering it) then it’s worth thinking about the kind of world they could grow up in. The UN’s latest climate science study said average global temperatures could rise 4C above pre-industrial levels by 2100.

This would lead to a rapid rise in sea levels, extreme weather events and crop failures, placing all life on earth under intense levels of stress. That’s the good news. According to the Daily Mail, a warming world could lead to “giant snakes as long as buses”.

Holiday destinations: Fancy a quick break to the Maldives? Keen to relax in Tuvalu? Or maybe you want to visit California’s lush vineyards? The best advice is go now. There’s no guarantee these gems will be with us forever.

Rising sea levels are placing Pacific Island communities under immense pressure, as their homes are washed away and farmlands poisoned by salt water. California could lose up to 60% of its vineyards by 2050 say researchers, with Australia, Italy, France and Spain also set to be affected.

Hunger: Child malnutrition is the underlying cause of 3.5 million deaths each year. An increasing frequency and intensity of climate hazards, floods, drought and hurricanes destroy the food they eat and limits the amount of clean water available to them. Sub-Saharan African farmers are losing millions of hectares of agricultural land to European companies who are seeing to profit from the EU’s biofuel policies.

Shellfish: Are you a fan of oysters? Is moules frites your plat du jour? Clams, mussels, sea urchins, lobsters and crabs will find themselves stripped of their shells as the ocean becomes more acidic from increasing levels of greenhouse gases.

The world’s oceans are deteriorating so quickly scientists say there may not be any oysters left to eat in coming decades. Another great concern is that seabird numbers are down 50% worldwide due partly to ocean acidification, overfishing and habitat degradation.

Countries based on the Equator are at particular risk of climate-driven conflict, given the extra stress these areas are likely to face

Countries based on the Equator are at particular risk of climate-driven conflict, given the extra stress these areas are likely to face

War: Last week, Prince Charles raised some eyebrows when he linked the droughts in Syria caused by climate change to war. Some scoffed and some applauded. Soaring temperatures as a result of climate change have been linked to violence as people protest against poverty as a result of extreme weather events destroying crops, homes and taking lives.

In June governments added short line of text in the G8 communique linking climate change to global security concerns. Leaders cited it as a “contributing factor in increased economic and security risks globally.” A report by the American Security Project NGO in April revealed 100 countries now regard climate change as a national security concern.

Cities: Vast urban areas are now the frontline of climate change, according to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. Across the developing world, approximately 180,000 people move into urban landscapes every day, which are typically less resilient to natural disasters.

In October, cyclone Phailin hit the Bay of Bengal, forcing India to embark on its largest civil evacuation in 23 years, with over 550,000 people leaving their homes. Meanwhile,  Dhaka in Bangladesh has been named the city set to suffer more from climate change by 2025 than any other. Other cities at risk include Manila, in the Philippines. According to a recent survey, the impacts of climate change are a daily reality for eight out of ten Filipinos.

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