Time to ‘get real’ on building resilience against climate threats, former Irish president says

UN Special Envoy for El Niño and Climate, Mary Robinson, visiting Ethiopia in July 2016. (Credit: Liam Burke, Trocaire/Flickr)

NEW YORK — World leaders need to focus on helping to protect those communities that are most vulnerable to the effects of El Niño and other climate threats, said Mary Robinson, former Irish president and U.N. special envoy for El Niño and climate, at a U.N. event in New York on Sunday.

“The El Niño impacts are a window into a future that I call the ‘new normal,’” said Robinson. “And it’s going to continue to be worse and worse in poor countries, in poor communities, and therefore, we need to get real about dealing with it.”

While we need to continue working on efforts aimed at reducing carbon emissions and other drivers of climate change, she said, the international community needs to help those poor and especially at-risk communities adapt to the inevitable changes already underway such as droughts and shifting weather patterns that undermine traditional agricultural practices.

What the world needs, Robinson said, is a climate change ‘resilience’ strategy.

The impacts of the most recent El Niño, which began near the end of 2014 and subsided this summer, magnified the effects of climate change around the globe. For example, Honduras and other countries of Central America’s “Dry Corridor” experienced a drought that resulted in 3.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

Droughts, floods and other types of extreme weather often cause shortages of safe, clean water and lead to declines in agricultural production. These events can also exacerbate the world’s massive refugee crisis. Such climate-related challenges are expected to worsen in water-stressed regions such as the Caribbean, which will see an increase in the intensity and frequency of climate change-related droughts, according to a recent U.N. report.

The injustice of these devastating effects, Robinson said at Sunday’s summit, is that the populations hit the hardest by climate change are also those least responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants that caused it.

Scientists have identified a fairly predictable pattern of the El Niño and La Niña phenomena, which cycle every three to seven years. Human rights advocates are urging policymakers and other officials to use that time to prepare and reduce the devastating effects that the next La Niña will have on the tens of millions most vulnerable to it.

Since the last El Niño, there appear to be increasing efforts toward building climate resilience in vulnerable communities. Recently approved multimillion-dollar grants will help the government of Belize to strengthen the climate resilience of its energy sector, as well as flood-ridden Mozambique to improve urban sanitation, drainage and solid waste management.

The Paris Agreement on climate change, however, is expected to enact such changes on a global scale. Human rights advocates hope to see the agreement detail a clear line of action to build resilience by investing in disaster-risk reduction and by addressing gaps in international legal framework for those forced to flee their homes because of the changing climate.

Twenty-seven countries have joined the agreement, and at least 20 countries have indicated they will do so at a United Nations event in New York on Wednesday, U.N. officials said. If these nations fulfill that pledge, experts say, the deal could come into force by the end of this year.

“If the European Union can get its act together and ratify, I think we’re done. We have enough countries,” said Robinson at Sunday’s summit. “It is the biggest issue of human solidarity in the world today.”

Lisa is attending U.N. Week as a United Nations Foundation Global Issues Press fellow.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com