The following article appeared in the Huffington Post on Friday 19 June:
“We have to hear both the cry of the earth, and the cry of the poor”.
Yesterday’s Papal encyclical, Laudato Si, is a radical challenge to politicians and people across the world. Pope Francis, has taken the climate debate away from arid scientific arguments between climate “believers” and “deniers”. He has framed climate change and ecosystem destruction as moral choices. He has pointed out that “The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together”. He has taken abstract ‘green’ issues, regularly sidelined and dismissed by mainstream media and politics, and linked them to ethical questions of human poverty and human dignity. His stark warning that we must act to avert the “unprecedented destruction of the ecosystem” is a clarion call to action for people of all faiths and none.
Climate change is a threat not just to the environment, but to people. And it’s the poorest people who are most exposed. Tens of millions have been lifted out of poverty in the last 15 years, but more than one billion people still live in absolute poverty on less than $1.25 a day. Changing weather patterns, rising sea levels and desertification has left millions of people living a precarious existence.
In Bangladesh, one of the lowest lying countries in the world, 18million people could be displaced by rising sea levels by 2050. Millions more face food insecurity and water insecurity.
In 2009, the Maldives held an underwater Cabinet meeting to highlight the dangers of climate change. Most of the island nation lies just three feet above sea level and scientists have warned it could be swamped by rising seas in less than 100 years.
Climate change also presents a growing danger to Britain. Flooding is the greatest threat to the UK from climate change, with up to 3.6 million people at risk by the middle of the century. The 2007 floods in Britain were a powerful reminder that, even in developed countries, climate change is national security issue. In the largest civil emergency since World War II, 13 people lost their lives, and 40,000 homes were flooded, including 1,000 in Wakefield. The clean-up operation cost the insurance industry £3billion.
After those floods, Labour commissioned the 2008 Pitt Review and invested in flood defences to ensure that Britain was prepared to deal with increased flood risk from a changing climate.
I am proud that under the last Labour government, the UK led the world on climate change. We became the first first country in the world to enshrine a long-term emissions target into law with the 2008 Climate Change Act. The Stern Review was a landmark document which spelled out the economic costs of failing to act on climate change. We supported developing countries adapt to climate change, helping protect more than 300,000 Bangladeshis from flooding by raising their homesteads above sea level.
Sadly that record has been allowed to fade. After the 2010 election, the Tory-led government ripped up the consensus on flood protection and cut flood defence capital investment by 30%, leaving businesses and communities exposed to flood risk.
On Tuesday the EU reported that the UK is set to miss its target of sourcing 20% of energy from renewables by 2020.
And today we heard the news that subsidies for onshore wind energy are being cut by the government. Onshore wind is the cheapest and most developed form of clean energy and there are 1,000 projects which could be affected by the Government moving the goalposts.
Eradicating poverty will only be possible with a serious commitment to tackling climate change. The progress of the last 15 years in tackling poverty, improving health, on food security and access to sanitation could be wiped out if global temperatures are allowed to soar. 2015 is an historic year as the countries of the world come together to agree two plans.
The first, the Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs, will be agreed at the United Nations in September. They will set the global development agenda for the next fifteen years and will apply to all countries equally.
The second plan, the UN climate change negotiations in December, are our last best chance to achieve a legally binding agreement on climate change to ensure temperatures do not rise more than two degrees.
There is a real opportunity here. The United States, the EU and, most importantly, China, are all showing a willingness to act. That is an opportunity which must not be missed.
There is a clear injustice to the poorest countries being hit hardest by climate change. Historically they have barely contributed towards to the man made emissions driving climate change.
The UK and the developed world has a moral duty to tackle climate change and its effects.
Pope Francis has made a powerful case for tackling climate change.
“There is no room for the globalisation of indifference”.
I agree with Pope Francis.