CENTURIES after defences were first built around many Irish towns, we face the prospect of having to rebuild them. The fear this time is not political conflict but something that is already all around us: our climate.
Flooding and storms last winter submerged towns, destroyed property and left thousands of people without power. As we begin the journey towards another winter, people in coastal regions all over Ireland will be bracing themselves for a repeat of the scenes that inflicted over €60m worth of damage to the country.
The damage, of course, was not limited to Ireland. Much of southern England was flooded, while hundreds of millions of people were affected by storms and freezing conditions across America, the Middle East and Asia.
Nor, sadly, was it an isolated incident. Every day, I speak with colleagues around the world who are dealing with the consequences of extreme weather, be it helping communities in Latin America to resist storms or assisting farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to produce food in the face of almost constant drought.
The reality is simple: climate change is no longer a singular issue, it is the entire context in which the world exists.
When world leaders, including Taoiseach Enda Kenny, meet in New York on Tuesday September 23 at the UN Climate Summit, they face an urgency for genuine action has never been greater. The decisions we take now and over the coming years will have huge implications on a plethora of issues, from food production to mass migration, for decades to come.
Despite dire predictions from experts who warn that we are running out of time to avoid a future of mass displacement and growing hunger, political leaders have until now chosen to ignore long-term issues in favour of short-term gains.
Collectively, the world has chosen to adopt the position of the person falling off the sky-scrapper muttering “so far, so good” with each passing floor, without a care for the impending impact.
This approach is no longer sustainable, nor is it morally acceptable. An estimated 600 million people live less than 10 metres above sea level, while almost half the world’s population — more people than inhabited the entire globe in 1950 — live within 150 kilometres of the coast.
Six of the world’s seven most populous cities are located along coasts. The growth of populations along coasts is particularly alarming in Asia, where the combined population of Bangkok, Mumbai, Tokyo, Shanghai, Karachi, Seoul and Jakarta alone amounts to approximately 74 million people. Likewise, some of Africa’s most populous cities, including Lagos, Mogadishu and Dar es Salaam, are coastal.
The economic threats of rising tides are enormous — up to €40bn a year by 2050 according to the OECD — but the human costs are incalculable.
A mere 45cm rise in sea levels could displace 5.5 million people in Bangladesh.
The latest Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change report stated that sea levels may rise by as much as 98cm by 2100, threatening the lives of tens of millions of people across the globe. In a report last year, the World Bank identified Guangzhou, Miami, New York, New Orleans, Mumbai, Nagoya, Tampa, Boston, Shenzen, and Osaka as the 10 cities most at risk of rising sea levels.
People living in many coastal cities are at huge risk from climate change. Ironically, climate change is also a key factor behind the population growth of these cities.
Two thirds of the poorest people in the world live in rural areas and rely on agriculture for their livelihood, yet increased drought, particularly in Africa, is calling the very survival of many communities into doubt. Rain-fed crop production is predicted to fall by up to 50% in some African countries by 2020. It is no wonder young people are flocking to cities.
The great injustice of this situation is that developing countries have done least to create this problem, yet they suffer the most. The average person in Ireland is responsible for emitting 8.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year — 88 times the amount of the average Ugandan.
All industrialised countries need to cut carbon emissions as a matter of urgency. Ireland’s long-awaited Climate Change Bill, due to be passed into law during this Dáil term, sadly fails to set any long-term carbon emission reduction targets. Without targets, what have we to aim for?
As Enda Kenny sits with other political leaders at the UN Summit on Climate Change, he should be willing to seize the opportunity for Ireland to become climate champions and push the world community to agree fair and binding global targets to reduce emissions and support developing countries dealing with climate change.
We have no choice but to respond to climate change. The longer we delay, the higher the defences around our cities are going to have to be.