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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Climat. Les pays du Sud face à l’urgence climatique

by Marie-Noëlle Bertrand

Climate. Countries in the Global South face climate emergency

Translated Monday 18 September 2017, by Annette Mitchell

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Both the French and Dutch parts of the island of St. Martin have suffered enormous damage – 95% of the infrastructure has been destroyed. Anna Mazur/Twitter/AFP

Hurricanes or floods: Last summer delivered a severe blow to developing countries and returned to the spotlight the challenge of supporting them in the face of climate change.

Its name is already engraved in history: Irma, the most powerful hurricane to hit the Caribbean, has ravaged the region with winds of more than 350 km/h.

The toll is heavy. Yesterday, French aid services reported at least 5 people killed and around fifty people wounded on St. Martin Island, where 95 % of the infrastructure has been destroyed. Classed as a category 5 storm, Irma has not yet dissipated. The hurricane is expected to reach Florida this weekend, after aiming for the north of Haiti. If it reaches the island, the losses may be greater than those suffered anywhere else as the island is ill-prepared to handle the devastating winds. The last episode in a fatal summer, Irma is emerging as a window on a disturbing future in which climatic events will become even more lethal, especially among the poorest countries. Inevitable? No, when adaptation options are out there and the number of victims to date reflects primarily culpable political inaction.

It’s a little phrase that went around the world in the space of several hours and drew everyone’s attention. “I didn’t know that a cyclone was coming. We don’t get electricity here, so we can’t get any information”. On Wednesday, when Irma swept across the Caribbean and seemed to charge for Haiti, Jacquie Pierre, a resident, showed everyone – at least the western world – the harsh reality of his country. Left to their own devices in the face of the worst hurricane the region has known, Haitians were not able to prepare, because they lack access to even the most basic infrastructure.

Have the winds finally flooded the Island? We didn’t know yesterday, at the time of publication: the hurricane was expected to reach it only at night-time. In any event, we fear the worst. Although only the north-eastern part of the country was threatened, 2.2 million people (see below), who have the distinction of being among the most vulnerable people on the planet, were nevertheless affected. One thing is clear in the case of natural disasters “Whether it involves a hurricane or an earthquake, the number of victims is directly related to the level of development of the region” according to Stéphane His, climate expert at the AFD (French Development Agency). As Haiti is one of the poorest countries on the planet “there is a great risk that if Irma strikes, she could kill a lot of people, perhaps more people than anywhere else”.

3000 people killed this summer – 1500 of them in India

The comet tail (a priori) of a season in which the weather has been particularly lethal in countries in the Global South, the hurricane throws a spotlight on the other reality of climate change. If the rise in global temperatures causes an increase in the number of meteorological events everywhere, they do not kill at random.

« The last few months have dramatically reminded us » said Armelle Le Compte, climate campaigner for the Oxfam-France development NGO. Characterised in the North, as in the South, by a series of unusually powerful rains and storms, summer has been particularly deadly for developing countries. Of the more than 3000 deaths since June, only 70 have been recorded in industrialised countries. India, Bangladesh and Nepal alone account for more than 1500, Sierra Leone, more than 500 (see below).

This is also true for the same region and the same event. Last October, Hurricane Matthew swept through Haiti and the United States. Toll: 1000 deaths for the former, compared to 19 for the latter.

Finally, this holds true for the same country, including France, whose overseas populations are particularly vulnerable. Certainly, it is a truism to say – these territories are more exposed to hurricanes than the metropolis. “But the State policy of abandonment and the rate of poverty, which are among the highest in France, make the inhabitants even more vulnerable” said Françoise Vergès, a political scientist specialising in overseas territories and Chair of the “Global South” at the House of Human Sciences. “As soon as there is a cyclone, people rush to stock up on water and other necessities like gasoline because they rightly fear running out,” she says, criticising the management plans of “good post-colonialism”. “Buildings are often constructed on a French model. In general, urbanisation does not accommodate for cyclones, or the strength of rains, and the use of concrete everywhere increases the effects of floods” she continues, not hesitating to denounce the discrimination between black and white people. “The Anthropocene (this new era that sees human activity becoming a geological force which transforms the weather, Editor’s note) is racialized,” she adds. “The most discriminated populations are obviously the poor, who in these territories, are black, and the descendants of slaves”.

Even if this last issue is only salient for French policy, the challenge of supporting the poorest countries in the face of the effects of climate change has been the subject of international debate for several years. As global warming continues, it has even become a focal point for climate negotiations, which have been underway for nearly 25 years under the aegis of the UN. “In 1997, when the Kyoto protocol (1) was signed, there was very little discussion about it” said Stéphane His of AFD. “At that time, it was hoped that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could be reduced in time to prevent rising temperatures”. Disillusion emerges in the 2000s. « When it became obvious that we would not avoid a rise in temperatures (at least 1.5˚C, Ed.) it also became evident that “it was necessary to devote the means to adapt to it”. Recognised as the main contributors to global warming because of their historically high emission rates, industrialised countries have since been asked to provide aid to developing countries, to help them cope with the vagaries of climate change.

In 2015, the COP21 and the Paris Climate Accord were dedicated to this issue. That year, “Northern” countries made a formal commitment to pay $100 trillion a year in climate aid to support the “Southern” ones. Where are we two years later? Nearly $60 billion is paid each year by industrialised countries to developing ones. “But of this sum, only 16% is dedicated to adaptation” says Armelle Le Comte, of Oxfam. “The OECD estimates that by 2020 this share will not exceed 20%. The rest is for so-called mitigation measures, mainly aimed at the development of clean energy.

The United States drops $2 billion in aid

A notable imbalance, when the donors of the Paris Agreement sought a more equitable distribution. “A large proportion of this money is in the form of loans and comes from the private sector” explains Armelle Le Comte. “But it expects returns on its investments” adds the manager. While it is easy to hope for a solar powered planet, the construction of urban infrastructure and population alert systems are less promising sectors, she notes, emphasising the demand expressed by many: “Developing countries urgently need public money”.

The next round of discussions to be held in December in Bonn, Germany, will foreground this topic. With this added difficulty in the debate since COP21: that the United States, which promised to pay $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund by 2019, withdrew from the Paris Agreement, after having provided credit for only $1 billion. As the reality of climate change is severely hitting home, will Congress, which meets in the fall, revisit their decision not to participate in the international effort? If they do not, as we have seen, it will be a painful loss for developing countries.


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