Partisan politics and political point-scoring in the United Kingdom and United States are blinding us to the most important issue of our time: the race to secure a livable future on our planet.
As UK voters go to the polls in today, they can be buoyed by the fact all the major political parties are supporting a transition to net-zero carbon economy within a few decades. It is a major step forward but unfortunately not enough. We must invest to adapt to the higher temperatures, rising seas, fiercer storms, water scarcity, wildfires… conditions that are now inevitable. This doesn’t mean we should give up on our efforts to stop global warming, but for communities on the frontlines of climate change, adaptation is their only hope of survival. Failure to act could end up destroying up to $20 trillion in asset values, according to the Bank of England.
In the United States, the decision of the current administration to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change has exacerbated this divide, even as millions of Americans are suffering from the impact of global warming. Extreme weather events have inflicted more than $350 billion in damage to America’s coastal communities in the last decade. With each year that passes, California’s forest fires grow fiercer and more deadly, and have already caused the bankruptcy of one of the state’s largest utilities – a casualty of unmanageable climate risk.
So climate change is an economic crisis, but it is a national security issue too: competition for increasingly scarce resources such as water is ramping up conflict and migration in many parts of the world, including Africa, Central America and the Middle East.
Above all, this is a human crisis: lives and livelihoods are at risk. So is access to clean air and safe drinking water – just ask the residents of the Bay Area this summer, who for a while had the air quality of New Delhi.
Only by rising above party lines and treating climate change as a human issue can we hope to build consensus on how to address this common existential threat.
For if the impact of climate change in the US is alarming, poorer countries have it worse. Take Honduras, where rising temperatures are fanning the spread of coffee rust, a fungal crop disease that is destroying the nation’s main export. The consequences? Plummeting incomes for rural families, mass emigration, and hunger. According to the World Food Programme, up to 40 percent of children in Honduras show signs of stunting.
But climate change does not respect borders. It imperils rich and poor alike. Miami, Venice and Jakarta live under the constant threat of disappearing beneath rising sea levels. The fresh water reserves of Florida and the Bangladesh delta – home to 156 million people – are also being poisoned as the sea penetrates their water tables. The difference lies in the resources available to rich and poor communities as they struggle to adapt to climate change.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently called climate change “the apartheid of our times”. Those who have done the least to cause it are the ones who are suffering most. Ending apartheid in South Africa, the Nobel Peace Prize winner said, required a change of mindset. The same is true for our climate emergency, and more prosperous nations such as the United States have a moral responsibility to help poorer nations adapt.
For all these reasons, we must put partisan politics aside – to help others and invest in their own climate resilience. Beacon projects around the world show us what is possible when there is a will to tackle the problem head on. In 2017, the citizens of Miami voted to increase their own taxes to invest in climate adaptation. They raised $400 million to pay for better storm and flood defenses and more resilient infrastructure. In Honduras, farmers are being introduced to drought-resistant crops and new ways of conserving water. Bangladesh leads the world in early-warning systems for cyclones. In China, “sponge cities” along the coast are experimenting with new defenses against storm surges and flooding, such as water-absorbing pavements, wetland areas and rooftop gardens that soak up heavy rains and help avert floods. We can all learn from each other.
Investing in resilience is not only the right thing to do, but it also makes economic sense – the Global Commission on Adaptation estimates that investing $1.8 trillion would yield more than $7 trillion in net benefits over a decade.The world must unite. The current UN Secretary-General António Guterres has issued a stark warning: the planet is close to a point of no return, he said. Global movements like #MAD4survival, which calls for enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions in 2020, are important as we are running out of time.
Saving our planet for our children and the generations to come will only be achieved if we work together for the greater good. Playing politics over climate change is tantamount to toying with the survival of our species.
Ban Ki-moon is the 8th Secretary General of the United Nations and Patrick Verkooijen is CEO of the Global Center on Adaptation.