This piece was written with Polly Ghazi, Writer/Editor for the World Resources Report.
Delegates from around the world attending the UN climate conference in South Africa got two unfortunate, but timely reminders this week of what is at stake. First the host city of Durban was deluged in torrential rainfall, which claimed at least eight lives, destroyed 700 houses, and left thousands homeless along the east coast. According to media reports, the South Africa Weather Bureau recorded 2.5 inches of rain in Durban on Sunday night, topping off a month in which the city had already recorded 8.2 inches of rainfall, almost double its average for November.
In a year in which extreme weather has captured the headlines from Texas (record drought) to Bangkok (flooding) to Sao Paulo (floods and mudslides), the Durban flooding is less severe by comparison. But with the basement of the climate summit's conference center flooded by the continuing downpour, and nearby beaches covered in debris, its timeliness is striking.
The second reminder of what is at stake in these negotiations to slow the greenhouse gas emissions fuelling climate change came from the Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization. Michel Jarraud announced in Durban on Tuesday that global temperatures in 2011 are currently tied as the tenth highest since records began in 1850. This means that the 13 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1997. 2011, according to WMO, also has the dubious distinction of being warmer than any previous year featuring a La Niña event - which has a cooling influence on the climate.
At a press conference releasing the findings, Jarraud said:
"Our role is to provide the scientific knowledge to inform action by decision makers. Our science is solid and it proves unequivocally that the world is warming and that this warming is due to human activities."
It’s an open question whether the COP17 negotiators will act with the urgency that climate change requires. The thousands of delegates at the conference are already keeping late nights as they debate the finer points of negotiated text, but it is unclear yet whether the political will is present to chart a successful pathway forward.
This is unfortunate, as a rash of recent reports indicates that greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. Whatever the outcome of Durban, governments and societies need to get serious about cutting emissions, and adapting to the inevitable climate change impacts on the horizon, including the likelihood of more extreme weather events.
Developing countries will be on the frontline of these impacts. South Africa, for example, is forecast to suffer more droughts, intense rainstorms and flash floods, and wildfires.
How can these countries begin to prepare?
Research from the World Resources Institute looks at how to answer that question. The World Resources Report 2010-2011, recently published with UN Development Programme, UN Environment Programme and World Bank, is a major new resource to help developing country governments integrate climate change risks and adaptation strategies into national policies and planning. WRI's ongoing Vulnerability and Adaptation Initiative also focuses on practical, collaborative approaches to help poor communities adapt to a changing climate.
There has been some genuine progress in the climate negotiations in past years, but it is still not enough to reduce emissions to the level necessary, nor is it enough to help poor countries adapt to a changing climate. Meanwhile the evidence is mounting, in research studies and in the negotiators’ backyards, of the urgent need to address the situation.