Time is running out for action to stem climate change. While the world is still debating whether the change is real, weather migrants and refugees are becoming a reality.
In just a couple of months’ time, Cape Town will become the first major city in the world to completely run out of water, if nothing changes before then, as a result of drought. Other parts of the world are facing weather-related crises on a similar scale.
There is insufficient urgency in meeting the goals on climate change set in the Paris Agreement and more radical measures are required to address the issues, experts told a session on environmental risks at the World Economic Forum.
The issues of environment and sustainability need to be pushed to the top of the corporate agenda as the problem is too large for governments alone to tackle. “We need a new contract between capital, corporations and government,” says Philipp Hildebrand, vice-chairman of BlackRock.
He says he was starting to see a “sea change” in the way corporations are looking at climate issues. This relates, in part, to the transfer of wealth to a generation that cares about sustainability and climate issues, and also to the growing commitment by companies to environmental, social and governance principles, especially as research is starting to show that these practices, when integrated into business, may actually offer better returns to investors.
Al Gore, vice-president of the US (1993-2001); Chairman and co-founder of Generation Investment Management, says humanity still has the opportunity to take control of its destiny but it will only happen if more people accept the imminent danger and cost of climate change. This is beginning to happen.
“There is a building wave. We are in the early stages of a sustainability revolution. It has the magnitude of the Industrial Revolution but the speed of the digital revolution,” he says. However, he cautions, time is of the essence.
Peter O’Neill, prime minister of Papua New Guinea, says the climate issue had become more mainstream in conversations over the past few years but this did not help countries such as his, which recently experienced a long drought that precipitated serious food shortages. He warned that climate change not only threatened communities but also nations. At least a third of countries in the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, to which Papua New Guinea belongs, are in danger of disappearing as a result of climate change.
“The world seems to think they have time. But there are real communities already suffering,” he says.
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, co-ordinator for the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad (AFPAT), Chad, says the rainy season was now much shorter, causing hardship for local farmers. Lake Chad is an example of an extreme weather development, with 90% of the lake having evaporated over the past 40 years. This has resulted in food shortages and an increase in conflict among lakeside communities over resources.
She says local solutions to the problem are necessary as countries cannot wait for solutions to be crafted at a global level. “It is difficult to change the consumer behaviour of people trying to survive. Energy is a luxury for a country like mine.”
A spotlight was shone on the consumer as a driver of change. If individuals insist on climate and environmentally friendly alternatives, it will pressure manufacturers and other companies to change the way they operate and what they provide. Governments can also use incentives and legislation to change behaviour.
Renewable energy is widely seen as a significant part of the solution in the fight against climate change, particularly as costs have dropped dramatically. However, the reality is that more than 30% of energy is provided by fossil fuels and this will not change dramatically in the near future unless cheap and easy solutions are found to store alternative energy.