Climate change is the greatest humanitarian crisis we face

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By Winnie Byanyima
This week I have the honor of speaking on behalf of civil society at the Global Climate Action Summit, hosted by California Governor Brown in San Francisco. It’s a chance to build new momentum in the fight against climate change. Momentum that is desperately needed.

As I write, Hurricane Florence is hurtling towards the US East Coast. The North Carolina Governor has called it a “disaster on the doorstep”. US weather reporters say they have never seen anything like it. The poorest, the most vulnerable will be hardest hit – they always are. That’s the reality of extreme weather all over the world, even in the richest countries on Earth.
This week we learned that the number of extreme climate-related disasters in poor countries has shot up in the last 25 years. Worse still, the UN confirmed that global hunger is rising again, with our changing climate a leading cause.

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We’ve seen close to 10 years of progress in ending hunger reversed in the last 3 years. Oxfam has been warning for years that climate change would put the fight against hunger back by decades. It’s now happening before our eyes.
I see the human face of climate change in Oxfam’s work all over the world. More often than not, it’s a woman’s face I see. In unequal societies, women are far more likely to die in natural disasters. By some estimates, 80% of those forced to leave their homes by climate change are women.
So I’ll carry two big messages with me to the Global Climate Action Summit this week.
The first is that there is a devastating human cost to every delay to bring greenhouse gas emissions down and to support those on the frontlines of extreme weather.

The second is that quick fixes won’t work. The root cause of this crisis lies in our broken economic model. It’s the same economic thinking that produces extreme inequality in our societies, where just a handful of very rich, mostly male elites own more wealth than half the global population!
It’s the same thinking that prioritises GDP growth above all else – masking the lives of people in poverty, obscuring the cost of economic activity to the environment and hiding from view the unpaid care work of billions of women around the world.
It’s an economy – bluntly put – in which the environment and ordinary people – most of all women – are exploitable resources for the super-rich.
So if we are serious about keeping global warming below 1.5C – meaning net zero global emissions by mid-century – we need to re-think the very purpose of our public policies and of our businesses. We need a more human economy – one that prioritises the many over the few, and keeps within the boundaries our planet can bear.

We have reason for hope
In driving emissions down, it is increasingly developing countries that are leading the charge. Later this year, 49 of the most vulnerable are hosting the world’s first virtual climate summit to keep the drum-beat for climate action going. They’ve agreed a vision of 100% renewable energy by 2050.
We’re seeing those least responsible for causing climate change, committing to do the most to tackle it. They are breaking down the old international order. It’s energising. So too are the marches for climate action we’re seeing around the world. They show there is popular pressure for a new kind of economy.

No more coal
One way for leaders to step up this week and in the months ahead is to finally renounce coal power, the most polluting of all fossil fuels. Oxfam believes it is time for a worldwide end to coal – not a single new power plant should be built anywhere any more. Our research shows that every dollar invested in coal in Asia, for example, means $10 in damages from climate change. Health costs from local pollution come on top. It’s the economics of self-harm, and it’s time to end it.

Climate change is the greatest humanitarian crisis we face. The time for tinkering with our economies is over. We must rise to the challenge, or watch hard-won progress against poverty slip away.
The writer is the , Executive Director, Oxfam International.

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