Climate Change

Paris Climate Talks Must Address ‘A Total System Stressor’

December 1, 2015  • Catherine Lutz, Guest Blogger

Above, watch Rachel Kyte, the World Bank Group’s special envoy for climate change, and Larry Brilliant, chairman of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, give their thoughts on practical steps to battle climate change, and how people can get involved.

This article originally appeared on the Aspen Ideas Festival website.

With growing urgency and a lot of bottom-up action around the world, a solid and effective global agreement is needed at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, which opened today, to keep the momentum going, and to achieve the necessary goals to slow global warming. That’s according to two experts who spoke at the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival, in a session called “When Systems Collide: Health, People, and the Planet.”

In their discussion, Rachel Kyte, the World Bank Group’s special envoy for climate change, and Larry Brilliant, chairman of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, connected the dots of how climate change affects more individuals in more ways than most people think — and underscored the urgent need for definitive action now.

“The cost of inaction is so much higher than the cost of action,” said Kyte, who cited an estimate by the European Union that the benefits from emissions reductions to health spending and health outcomes could be at least 38 billion euro per year. “So if we do act, we have the opportunity to have healthier lives.”

With changing rainfall and temperature patterns in many places, disease-carrying mosquitos are moving into areas that haven’t seen them before, and mosquito-borne diseases are on the rise in general. Climate change is causing wheat rust to move north, potentially threatening crops in the wheat basket of Ukraine and Russia, while making wheat more difficult to grow in Africa’s rising temperatures.

Beyond its effects on the economy, health, and food supply, climate change is impacting entire populations in dramatic ways.

“The poor are the most vulnerable to climate, but the vulnerable will be made more poor by climate change,” said Brilliant. He gave the example of potentially millions of Bangladeshi climate refugees — fleeing devastating floods and crop destruction from salinated fields — throwing themselves on their Hindi and Buddhist neighbors. “I don’t think that will go over very well.”

Brilliant also pointed to the ever-increasing fallout from the Syrian civil war, which he said was triggered by extreme drought, water shortages, and food scarcity. Perhaps of even greater concern is the impending issue of water availability and allocation in Himalayan countries, which include three nuclear-armed countries: India, Pakistan, and China. With the Himalayas melting and 2.5 billion people dependent on water from those mountains, Brilliant posits that water scarcity will exacerbate already strained political relationships there.

“If these sovereign nations, particularly the ones with nuclear weapons, are not able to produce the water to water the crops and feed the people, they’re not sovereign nations any more, and it’s issues of sovereignty that cause war,” he said.

More extreme weather in rural areas is pushing the poor to migrate in large numbers to cities, many of which are on or near coasts, Kyte pointed out, putting them even more in harm’s way. And these kinds of things are happening in countries that typically don’t have the health or other social systems to support such large-scale human movements nor the ability to mitigate for destructive climate events.

“It’s a total system stressor in ways that we can’t predict,” said Brilliant.

Still, both Kyte and Brilliant have reason for optimism.

Kyte sees a growing sense of urgency around the world and lots of countries setting targets for themselves, not willing to wait for 193 countries to agree on something.

While he worries that time is running out quickly, Brilliant said he’s seen more and more people rally to the climate change action cause, including young people who are tomorrow’s leaders and, in the United States, Republicans who are coalescing around the idea of a revenue-neutral carbon tax. He believes the business community has solutions and that the cost of renewable energy is at a point where it’s becoming more desirable than carbon, which is a spur for investment.