After superstorm Sandy, climate change debate stalls in Doha

The devastating impact of climate change on the world economy has risen to 1.6 per cent of global GDP.

Typhoon Bopha hit the Philippines, taking as many as 600 lives and leaving millions homeless [AFP]

The climate change debate remained deadlocked in Doha at COP18, despite the toll of damage from superstorm Sandy continues to climb and the efforts of civil society activists go to waste. The changing opinion in the US that the devastating effects of climate change are now pocketbook issues will perhaps force President Obama to tackle it in the second term.

After Sandy, many skeptics certainly in the Northeast corridor have become converts. No longer considered just another “Gospel according to Gore” people are feeling the sheer dread of being at the mercy of nature, notwithstanding the environmental “truthers” who deny the role of human activity as a scientific cause.

Recently, Carol Browner, former EPA Chief and White House Climate Czar, laid the blame directly on the climate deniers in the House of Representatives. “I think unfortunately, right now a majority in our House of Representatives appears to not even think the problem is real,” Browner told Think Progress. “It’s sort of stunning to me because I’ve never seen the breadth of scientific consensus on an environmental issue like there is on this,” she said.

Sandy’s devastating trail

Even for environmental “truthers”, it is difficult to deny the damage caused by the storm of the century. The damage is now estimated to be in hundreds of millions of dollars all along the Eastern seaboard. I witnessed it firsthand in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts. 

Communities all along the coastline, especially in New Jersey, will take many years to rebuild. Much of the prime real estate considered unshakable has been washed away by the sea. The storm has also revealed the vulnerabilities in the existing infrastructure: outdated electrical grid, including 20th century train, subway and switching system. 

According to a recent poll, superstorm Sandy has been associated with climate change by 69 per cent of New Yorkers, including 73 per cent of independents. Governor Cuomo of New York anticipates that New Yorkers may have something to learn from Hollanders after all. The Dutch who lost lower Manhattan to the English in 1667, then known as New Amsterdam, know a thing or two about the building of dams, dikes and canals to safeguard against floods.

‘The Island President’

In the meantime, half a world away in the Indian Ocean, the former island president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, sits in the capital Male under travel restrictions imposed during a coup that ousted him in February 2012. A documentary – The Island President – chronicling his attempts to get a strong climate change bill passed during the Copenhagen 2009 talks is playing in theatres now. It is a sobering and chilling film. 

After bringing democracy to his country, the lowest-lying country in the world, Nasheed took up the fight to keep his homeland from disappearing under the sea, only to be deposed by his political opponents who accused him of overreaching his mandate. Critics have hailed the movie as visionary for Nasheed’s conviction and ability to champion the cause of the least-developed coastline countries, who have much to lose from the slightest uptick in carbon emissions and global temperatures.

Will President Obama, who was also raised on a set of islands in the Pacific, throw Mohamed Nasheed – who is planning to run for a re-election next year – a lifeline? Can Obama do for the Maldives in his second term what he has not been able to do for climate change in the first?

Climate vulnerability monitor

The report by DARA International, an independent organisation committed to improving the quality and effectiveness of aid for vulnerable populations suffering from climate change, describes the plight of the coastal people in the least-developed countries.

In anticipation of the Doha COP18 talks, DARA International released a report in September 2012. It describes the damage caused by current levels of carbon emissions and rising temperatures.

A carbon-saturated economy is a leading global cause of death, responsible for 5 million deaths each year (4.5 million deaths due to mainly air pollution and 400,000 due to hunger and communicable diseases associated with climate change), according to the report.

The devastating impact of climate change on the world economy has risen to 1.6 per cent of global GDP, amounting to $1.2 trillion in lost wealth a year, which will double by 2030. Lower-income countries already face extreme costs, reaching approximately 11 per cent of GDP by 2030. 

The report argues that major economies will suffer heavy losses. China will incur the greatest share of all losses at over $1.2 trillion in 20 years, the US economy will be held back by more 2 per cent of GDP and India over 5 per cent of its GDP.

The cost of tackling these changes is modest: “Emission reductions at just 0.5 per cent of GDP for the next decade and support to the vulnerable: a minimum of $150bn per year for developing countries,” according to the report. 


 Storm Sandy batters US east coast

Bangladesh – one of the most vulnerable nations to climate change in Asia – represented by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, officially launched the report at the 67th session of United Nations General Assembly. Commenting on the report she said: 

“One degree Celsius rise in temperature is associated with 10 per cent productivity loss in farming. For us, it means losing about four million metric tonnes of food grain, amounting to about US $2.5bn. That is about 2 per cent of our GDP. Adding up the damages to property and other losses, we are faced with a total loss of about 3-4 per cent of GDP. Without these losses, we could have easily secured much higher growth…. After 17 years of international negotiations, we are still without any meaningful agreement or action to reduce global warming. As a climate vulnerable country, every day we see and feel the ramifications of that inaction as outlined in the Climate Vulnerable Monitor.”

Doha 2012 stalls

For the past two weeks, as the delegates from 194 countries gathered to work out a legally-binding global climate deal, they arrived at no substantive agreement except to extend the existing treaty.

One of the best summary of what went on in Doha for the past two weeks appeared in a blog on on the final day of the discussions: “There were some winners here – the coal industry won here, the oil industry won here, the fossil fuel industry won here. This wasn’t an environmental or science-driven discussion. This was a trade fair,” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace International stated: “We came to Doha with low expectations, but those low expectations got even lower. Any government coming out of these meetings suggests that this was a success is suffering from a case of cognitive dissonance…. We heard yesterday that the entire cost of reconstruction in New Jersey alone is $60bn. This is the entire sum we were trying to negotiate here for the whole world.” 

Tim Gore of Oxfam believed, “We have seen a climate finance drought in Doha. Poor countries arrived here facing a financial fiscal cliff. They did not know what was on the table…. At the end of it, the poorer countries are hanging on by their nails on the fiscal cliff. The rich countries have committed nothing to fight climate change, except for a few.”

The talks ended with an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, which the US has never supported. Now, Kyoto agreement has an extension, but the coverage will include only 15 per cent of global emissions. Several developed countries, including Japan and Canada, have opted out of the protocol.

Connie Hedegaard of the European Union suggested that the US now has to take the lead. The US negotiators did not block the negotiations, yet it’s “still difficult to know whether they will actually invest political capital in committing to a new international deal”.

According to Associated Press, Hedegaard said that the members of the European Union hope Obama “will present not only an enhanced domestic climate policy, but also an enhanced US engagement and willingness to commit more in an international climate context”.

Even as the Doha talks were stalled, another major Typhoon Bopha hit the Philippines, taking as many as 600 lives and leaving millions homeless. The head of the Philippine delegation, Naderev Sano, in his closing remarks, urged world leaders to “open their eyes to the stark reality”.

Dinesh Sharma is the author of Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President, which was rated as the Top 10 Black history books for 2012. His next book on President Obama, Crossroads of Leadership: Globalization and American Exceptionalism in the Obama Presidency, is due to be published with Routledge Press.