On Saturday night, parts of the world descended into darkness as the lights went out in homes and public buildings for a painstaking 60 minutes. Millions of people went without electricity to mark Earth Hour, the WWF’s annual voluntary blackout to highlight environmental issues. (Some even took to Twitter to document their valiant efforts, thereby missing the point somewhat)
Shortly after Earth Hour finished I celebrated the end of what shall henceforth be known as ‘Earth Week’. That evening my neighbourhood in Freetown emerged from a seven-day power cut. While power outages are a daily occurrence here in Sierra Leone, this week-long stretch marked my longest spell without electricity at home.
It wasn’t easy. Forced to abandon my obsessive-compulsive ironing habits, I adopted a slightly dishevelled look at the office. My electric fan lay abandoned in my bedroom, leaving me bereft of any breeze during the hot, clammy nights. I monitored my mobile phone battery at 15-minute intervals. I read my Kindle by candlelight.
Only nine per cent of people have access to mains electricity in Sierra Leone, so I’m one of the lucky ones. The country uses 96 per cent less power than the UK, consuming 134.9m kWh a year compared with 329.3bn in the UK and a staggering 3.9tn in the US. While the UK and US emit 7.7 and 16.4 metric tonnes of Co2 per capita a year respectively, that figure is less than a tonne in countries like Sierra Leone, the Philippines, Malawi and Kenya.
It’s an imbalance I hope our government acknowledges as it reflects on the landmark climate science report published yesterday: Part Two of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
If I lost you at ‘Part two’, all you need to know is this: the world’s leading climate scientists have put their mighty brains together to produce the most comprehensive study to date on our changing climate, outlining the monumental risks we face if temperatures rise more than 2°C above the pre-industrial average.
Put simply, it’s looking grim. ‘Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change,’ IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri said at Monday’s press conference. The 2,600-page report warns that if temperatures and Co2 levels continue to rise (aided by deforestation and fossil fuel burning), then lives and livelihoods will suffer.
We can expect more extreme and volatile weather patterns; shrinking glaciers and rising sea levels; damaged or submerged coastal areas; falling crop yields and threats to food security; greater risks of conflict and displacement on a massive scale, driving mass migration and economic instability.
Climate change perpetuates poverty, exacerbates existing inequalities and hampers development efforts. And while wealthier nations are the highest emitters, it’s the poorest countries who suffer most. This is a ‘deep injustice’, says former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, in his foreword to Christian Aid’s new report, Taken by Storm: Responding to the impacts of climate change.
The report shows us the ‘human faces’ of people already suffering from scarcer resources, more frequent natural disasters and more intense droughts, rainfall and floods, with which they are ill-equipped to cope. Typhoon Haiyan is a case in point.
And we only have ourselves to blame. The IPCC is 95 per cent certain global warming is down to human activity. As a friend recently pointed out, 95 per cent is how certain scientists are that smoking causes lung cancer. So in effect, developing countries have been lighting up for decades, forcing the world’s poorest people to inhale our passive smoke and choke on the consequences.
But all is not lost. While the IPCC report does make for grim reading, it tells us there is still time to create a safer planet: if governments take bolder, more ambitious steps to manage and reduce the climate risks, there is still hope.
That’s why Christian Aid is urging us to stand up, speak out and lobby our leaders to take urgent, decisive action to tackle the root causes of climate change. Governments must clean up their act, cut emissions, pursue greener energy sources and find ways to ‘climate-proof the future’ (as Christian Aid nicely puts it).
‘Further inaction amounts to a betrayal – not only of future generations, but a betrayal of some of the poorest communities in the world,’ Dr Williams warns.
This is not the time for climate fatigue or climate fatalism. Political inertia will only broaden the path towards two degrees of devastation. The Earth’s hour has come: let’s try to turn back the clock before it’s too late.