As the latest UN climate change summit comes to an end in Cancun, Mexico, there is a feeling of optimism towards an agreement of a new fair climate fund to help poorer countries deal with a changing climate. However, progress is still desperately needed to ensure that crucial decisions are made on how to raise this money as well as setting targets for countries to reduce their carbon emissions.
For many of us in the UK, the year has been business as usual. But there have been many reminders that for every year we fail to take action on climate change, the problem is getting worse for millions around the world. The unprecedented flooding in Pakistan and major food crisis in the Sahel region of Africa were stark warnings that it will get harder and harder for the people on the front line of climate change. I saw at firsthand how climate change is having an impact on the coastal fishing communities of Bangladesh when I returned last month to my country of birth.
Attending a “climate tribunal” organised by Oxfam and attended by climate scientists, lawyers, and governmental and political observers from both the UK and Bangladesh, I heard from women such as Mumtaz Begum. Married to a fisherman, Mumtaz remembers well the day in 1999 that her world turned upside down – as she received the news that her husband’s boat had capsized in a sudden storm. ‘It was a gloomy day, I asked him not to go, but he never listened’ she told us. He never returned home. When in 2007 her mother also died in cyclone Sidr, she was left barely able to provide for her four children by doing domestic work in the village. We also heard from parents mourning the loss of sons, survivours who are now staddled with debt from the boats they bought only to be wrecked by the increasingly rough seas, and even a fisherman who spent several years in an Indian jail after being blown into foreign waters.
Of course fishing has never been without its risks, but evidence from climate scientists attested that the Bay of Bengal was experiencing increased sea surface temperatures leading to sudden rough seas, storms and tidal surges – all as a consequence of climate change. The evidence caused the tribunal to say that the suffering of the coastal fishers’ community of Bangladesh is the “direct consequence of climate change”; and that the government of Bangladesh is required to help its people rehabilitate and adapt to its effects.
Crucially, the tribunal also said that the rich, industrialised countries have responsibility for climate change and therefore the sufferings of the victims. This is an important argument because it helps us understand why the issue of climate finance is such an important one for international climate negotiations like those that took place in Cancun.
Climate finance is quite simply the transfer of wealth from rich countries to developing countries to help them cope with the effects of a changing climate. It cannot only pay for mitigation schemes to help these economies develop in a low carbon way but also for adaptation schemes so that communities affected by a changing climate, such as the coastal communities of Bangladesh, can invest in new livelihoods and protect themselves. Agreeing on the issue of climate finance – working out where the money will come from and how it will be governed – is the key to moving forward on a global climate deal.
As a Shadow Minister for International Development, I am pleased to see that the UK Government has said it will honour our international aid commitment to spend 0.7 percent of GNI as aid – and I intend to press for this promise to be kept. However what was made evidently clear from my experiences in Bangladesh is that climate finance must be seperate from aid. It is not a gift to developing countries and it is not simply a moral duty or charity. Instead it is an entitlement for poor people who are suffering from the effects of the climate change they largely did not cause. This is why it is so important that the climate finance that the UK provides is genuinely new money – additional to our 0.7 percent commitments. Under the last Labour Government, we were committed to ensuring that no more than 10 percent of the aid budget was allocated to climate change finance and this pledge must be maintained. Even at a time of austerity at home this is possible without extra burden on the taxpayer if innovative sources can be found and an international commitment. Indeed, I raised this issue with the Secretary of State for International Development in Parliament before the start of the summit.
It was hard to hear Mumtaz’s story, but it will be even harder to hear of more women widowed in the future as another year goes by without action. Developed countries like the UK need to take a leadership role in the fight against climate change and ensure we see real action. We have to stop the situation getting worse, and so emissions reductions are vital. But we also have to meet our responsibilities now to the world’s most vulnerable people, and so the issue of providing new and additional climate finance must be top of the agenda.
Rushanara Ali, is a Bangladesh-born British MP, House of Commons, British Parliament and Shadow Minister for International Development.