Refugees, Disease Big Risk from Global Warming, U.N. Says
BEIJING -- The world is not doing enough to combat global warming which, left unchecked, could trigger a mass movement of people and have serious consequences for security, the United Nation's environment chief said on Thursday.
"For those of us who look at the science and look at the indicators, it's not enough yet, but it is more than we would have hoped for maybe a few years ago," Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the U.N. Environment Programme, said.
In an interview with Reuters, he raised the possibility of climate refugees and the huge disruption this could cause.
Experts have said that millions of people in densely populated, low-lying, developing countries such as Bangladesh and parts of China, Indonesia and Vietnam might be forced to move by rising sea levels.
In the South Pacific, this has already begun to occur in some low-lying islands.
"If global warming trends continue at the moment, and the models suggest that they are and maybe doing so more rapidly, they will have significant impact on where people can live, grow food and whether people will have to leave," he added.
"We will have disease spreading and it will have implications in terms of global trade, perhaps," Steiner said in an interview on the sidelines of a maritime protection forum in Beijing.
"Nations that don't play their part in terms of a climate regime -- how do they work with nations who are investing in setting their CO2 emissions?" he added, referring to carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas released by burning fossil fuels in transport and smoke-stack industries.
"The potential for conflict arising from the consequences of global warming are major trends that we now see," said the diplomat, who took up his current position in June.
REEFS A PERFECT EXAMPLE
One area particularly threatened by climate change and rising temperatures is the world's coral reefs, an important fishing and tourism resource that the United Nations estimates has an annual economic value of $30 billion.
Since the late 1990s, when unusually high water temperatures killed off up to 90 percent of reefs in some parts of the world, there have been signs of recovery, according to a new U.N. report released on Thursday.
But reef recovery after so-called bleaching episodes depends on clean water, and in Asia and East Africa up to 90 percent of sewage is discharged directly into rivers and the sea, the report said.
"If you ever wanted a sign that something happening up in the atmosphere can have a fundamental impact even on an ecosystem we know relatively little about, you have it with coral reefs," said the Oxford-educated Steiner, former head of the World Conservation Union.
World environment ministers meet next month in the Kenyan capital Nairobi for talks on climate change to search for ways to map out longer-term cuts in greenhouse gases once the first phase of the Kyoto climate change pact runs out in 2012.
Last year's Kyoto meeting in the Canadian city Montreal set no deadlines for negotiations but some want a clearer timetable on the next phase of cuts.
"I think industrialised nations and developing nations are coming close to the point where they recognise that the time has really run out in looking for impasses," he said.
"Nairobi is going to be a litmus test on whether governments are seriously addressing this challenge," added Steiner.
"The notion of a contested phenomenon is really no longer there. It is universally acknowledged that climate change is occuring, that global warming is occuring and that we must act," said the Brazil-born German national.
"We can only act as an international community."