Joanne Cappa-Gunduz – Climate change: The most complex global challenge in human history.

Climate change: The most complex global challenge in human history

By Joanne Cappa-Gunduz

Deputy Head of Mission, British Embassy to the Holy See

Six inches of water is the difference between existing and not existing…

At only two meters above sea-level, the Marshall Islands risk disappearing all together.



This was the reality presented by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, poet and climate change activist following her compelling poem at the Laudato Sii conference in July. 

We now need to wake up to the fact that the rest of us are not so far behind.  This year, hundreds of extreme weather events – record heatwaves, floods, droughts and storms – affected hundreds of millions in every region of the world.

The risks to food, water and energy security mean that the poorest countries will be hit hardest. 

We have had 1 degree Celsius of warming since the 1850s, but this could dramatically accelerate to 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next twelve years, which could mean irreversible loss of ice sheets, resulting in multi-metre sea level rise – a disaster for the Marshall Islanders and others like them.  

Beyond 2 degrees Celsius of warming, all bets are off.  Coral reefs will all be dead, hundreds of millions more will suffer compared to 1.5 degrees, and there will be unimaginable impacts on the natural world and ecosystems on which we depend.  Scientific research says this could happen within the next 12 years and based on UN projections, if we continue on our current path, we would need two Earths to keep up with consumption and population growth.

We must act now to prevent disaster later.

What must we do differently? Pope Francis’s prophetic words from LaudatoSii loom large:

What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?

New approaches in politics, economics and society are critical.  On one level, climate change is the most complex global challenge in human history.  On another level, it is simple: cleaning up the world economy will tackle climate change, while making us happier, healthier and wealthier.  That looks like a good option.

Coal-fired power contributes to around 8 million premature deaths globally each year.  Clean and sustainable energy, transport, agriculture and industry means cheaper energy, more and better jobs, cleaner air, better health and nutrition, more liveable towns and cities, and an enriched natural environment.  The low carbon sector is an unbeatable innovation story growing four times faster than the rest of the economy.  

Meanwhile we must do much more to support the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, who did not cause this mess; and help those workers who will need to transition from old to new industries, learning lessons from the past.

Everyone must play a partChildren are showing parents the way with recycling and care for animals and the environment.  Scientists must communicate evidence effectively.  Media must report what is happening, especially in the poorest parts of the world.  Businesses must clean up their supply chains and embrace a low waste circular economy.  Civil society must help every community engage and act.  Governments must create frameworks that underpin these efforts.  

On the 26 November, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the UK 2008 Climate Change Act– the world’s first climate legislation.  We have reduced carbon emissionsper capita and had our first day without coal-fired power since 1882.

The UK boasts 40% of the world’s offshore wind capacity. Our expertise in a wide range of fields means that we can be a global green hub. 

But there is so much more work to be done, at home and engaging countries around the world. 

This week’s UN COP24 climate change conference in Poland must agree a single ‘rulebook’ to enable all countries to measure and monitor climate action going forward; and countries must commit to further raise their ambition. 

We have to be honest about the damage we have done, and the scale and urgency of the challenge.  But we also have to be energised to act. We can and must move from an approach that destroys our ecosystem, to one that thrives within it.

Cardinal Piero Parolin said at COP24:

We know what we can do, and what we have to do becomes an ethical imperative. 

This obliges us to think seriously about the meaning of financial and economic investments, orienting them towards sectors that really affect the future of humanity, safeguarding the conditions of a worthy life ona “healthy” planet.

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