As global warming brings wilder weather, more harvest failures and the risk of growing migration and poverty, “sustainable development as we think of it today may be out of reach”, a top United Nations specialist in climate change losses warned on Wednesday.
Nations around the world in 2015 agreed to pursue a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aiming to end poverty and hunger, as well as provide safe drinking water and affordable clean energy to all – among many other aims – by 2030.
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But with the planet heating up fast, innumerable serious threats – from expanding cities facing rising seas to small islands watching their coral reefs die – mean those “worthy” global goals may no longer be the best focus, said Koko Warner of the UN climate change secretariat.
“These [climate] changes out in the world are in some cases unfolding at a pace that’s a bit surprising,” the economist told a conference on researching climate-related damage at Lund University in Sweden.
With Indonesia already planning to shift its flood-prone capital and other nations grappling with problems such as worsening water shortages, pushing to meet the SDGs could be a matter of “trying to solve the problems of the 20th century” even as grave new 21st-century challenges loom, she said.
Leaders and societies seeking to protect the wellbeing of their people may need to refocus on tougher issues, Warner added.
Those could include lifestyle changes people are willing to make to reduce climate risk and protect things they prize, such as securing their children’s futures or being able to stay in their home nations rather than be forced to move.
“We need to understand what people value and what’s acceptable or not,” said Warner, who leads work on climate change impacts and risks for the UN climate body.
As more protesters take to the streets around the world, demanding faster climate action, governments will need to make policy shifts that are acceptable to both activists and the broader public – and “that’s a hard needle to thread”, she said.
Dealing with growing climate threats also might require reshaping international institutions, she added.
The UN climate secretariat, for instance, which oversaw the adoption of the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015, focuses primarily on national-level action on climate threats.
But with cities growing so fast – about 70 percent of the world’s population will be urban by 2050, the UN predicts – much of the work to cut carbon emissions and build climate-safe infrastructure is happening at the city level, Warner said.
Today’s international processes to fight climate change do not necessarily focus “where action needs to occur”, she added.
Reinhard Mechler, a scientist who looks at the socioeconomic aspects of disasters and climate change, said discussions on climate-related losses will need to include damage to culture, traditions and heritage, as well as economies.
Already, there is a move to examine “existential” threats, said Mechler of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis based in Austria.
UN climate talks in 2013 established the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, to explore ways of dealing with climate-related harm to people, property and nature.
That mechanism is up for review at the next round of UN climate talks, scheduled for December. But the venue for the COP25 conference is in the air, meanwhile, as Chile on Wednesday told the UN it cannot host due to political unrest.
Digging into the wider implications of climate losses is important now – as they have started to surge, Warner said.
From small islands facing a decline in tourism as coral reefs deteriorate, to Germany seeing its famed forests die off, “we are talking about profound change,” she noted.