27/11/2011 19:51 GMT | Updated 29/11/2011 22:13 GMT

Durban Conference: 'Climate Change - It's Upon Us Now,' Says Head Of NGO

“The prevalence of extreme weather is becoming more and more apparent,” says Ross Mountain, a former United Nations specialist on humanitarian and peacekeeping operations.

The 67-year-old, who currently heads up DARA, a Spanish–based NGO committed to providing humanitarian aid for vulnerable populations, most notably those suffering from the effects of climate change, is also clear that countries are facing problems now, particularly in climate vulnerable areas, such as the Maldives, Tuvalu and Bangladesh.

And it’s not just rising sea levels that threatens populations. A lack of water is also a serious problem, along with diseases, such as malaria. Erosion, which leads to flooding, is another concern, with population displacement giving rise to further issues of malnutrition and draught.

As Mountain points out: “Bangladesh has seen has 100,000 people displaced just from flooding, while Tuvalu suffers from minimal rain fall, meaning the island’s Pacific neighbour have to fly in desalinised water.”

“Climate change is not about the future and what may happen - it’s upon us now,” he says, adding: “Extreme weather is even evident in more developed countries – witnessing snow in September the eastern US was a bit of a surprise.”

There are two dimensions to the problem, he argues.

On a micro level, technology has a role to play, particularly giving smaller countries access to tools that can predict the weather or control rivers and water flow. This is what he calls “adaptation”. In short, helping those feeling the effects of climate change to “take measure to prevent health issues, displacement, draught, flooding and disease.”

But he is clear that on the macro level, more must be done around the world to stop the temperature from rising. Mountain is particularly critical of “the lack of attention that is being paid to climate change in North America", where acknowledgement of the problem appears to be "declining” at least on a national level, though he says he is encouraged that more US cities and states are taking up the issue independent of national legislation.

"It is also discouraging to see what’s happening on the American political scene,” he says, referring to the Republican presidential nominations in which most of the candidates refuse to accept a climate change problem even exists, let alone how best to deal with it.

“Like all who recognise that there’s a problem – that’s 98% of scientists, the same percentage who accept that AIDS is caused by HIV – when you see a number of serious potential leaders denying there’s a problem, this is not good news for the planet. The role of the US in these negotiations is indispensible, so the noises currently coming out of the US are of an extreme concern.”

But there is hope and from an unlikely source, with indications that China has started to take environmental issues more seriously.

“The whole notion of clean technology is something the Chinese are looking at, particularly seeing the commercial benefits that are available,” says the DARA chief.

"I think this comes from the Chinese recognising that they are having problems themselves in a number of cities, plus they have a population that’s becoming more aware.

“They are also hearing voices such as those raised by the president of the Maldives on behalf of these smaller countries who are telling them this is not a future problem. It’s a problem we’re facing now.”

Mountain will be attending this week’s Durban conference on climate change, and he remains cautiously optimistic about what can be achieved.

“The major issue for Durban is the fate of the Kyoto Protocol, along with the whole issue of financing adaptation measures,” he says.

“The urgency will hopefully permeate the rest of the delegates, some of whom seem to see this as just another meeting on the globe.”

I ask if it will take a major crisis for the world to focus on the climate change crisis.

“I hope not,” he says. “However, most politicians’ terms are limited and the world won’t end in five years so it’s hard to get them to look down the track but the evidence is a crisis is increasingly before us.”

The world's most climate vulnerable countries:

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