The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report released earlier this year suggests that there is ‘virtual certainty’ for the global mean sea level to keep rising for the remainder of the century, even if there is significant reduction in future greenhouse gas emissions. This means that climate action not only needs to be taken by developed countries to cut emissions, but also by low-lying and island nations to protect their homes from the effects of rising sea levels.
Ocean warming contributes to rising sea levels in two main ways: the expansion of seawater as the ocean becomes warmer, as well as the melting of glaciers and polar ice sheets. Ocean warming is the direct result of the burning of fossil fuels, which increases greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere. With energy from the sun trapped by greenhouse gases, 90% of this excess heat energy is stored in the ocean, leading to increases in seawater temperature. Since 1880, the global mean sea level has climbed from approximately 21 centimetres to 24 centimetres, with about one third of this increase occurring in the past 25 years. It is estimated, considering different greenhouse gas emission pathways, the global sea level is likely to rise between 0.3 and 2.5 meters above levels seen in 2000 by the end of the century, potentially leading to 200 million people across the world losing their homes and livelihood, as well as an additional 160 million affected by consequently higher annual flooding.
Despite facing similar environmental challenges, the consequences that countries experience as a result of rising sea levels are dependent upon their economic and social situations, which determine the variety of climate change responses they have access to. Back in 2012, Hurricane Sandy inflicted mass damage in Manhattan, resulting in damage of approximately $63 billion along the East Coast. New York City was reminded of their unpreparedness for the effects of rising sea levels and more severe weather storms as a result of climate change. Therefore, a $1.45 billion East Side Coastal Resiliency Project was launched, which included the installation of a 3.9 km flood wall, flood gates and other barriers to protect lower Manhattan.
Nevertheless, not all countries are fortunate nor wealthy enough to have the ability and resources to invest billions of dollars into climate resiliency projects as the United States. For instance, Tuvalu, a country between Australia and Hawaii, is one of the first nations to be severely impacted by rising sea levels. In fact, two of its nine islands are already on the brink of going underwater due to increases in sea levels and coral erosion. Even though there is ongoing construction of a sea wall, funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), progress has been greatly delayed. On the other hand, another plan, proposed by the local town council to build high-density housing on a Tuvalu islet, has yet to receive funding. Therefore, whether Tuvaluans will become the world’s first climate change refugees still depends on the support provided by global organisations and the effort that developed countries decide to make.
With the increasing severity of climate change, various measures have been put in place to combat climate change and its harmful consequences. These include international agreements and treaties, such as the Kyoto Protocol and the United Nations Climate Change conference (COP). International conferences, such as the COP, attempt to mitigate the present and future repercussions of climate change through a collective and cohesive strategy developed in unison of member countries. For example, the United Nations Climate Change conferences have been running since 1995, with annual meetings where countries assess their progress in achieving climate action goals set in previous meetings. In particular, the Kyoto Protocol outlines guidelines and targets for industrialised and developed countries. The results of the Kyoto Protocol, which has been in effect since 2005, has yielded mixed results. The European Union for instance was successful in reducing its carbon emission rates by 2012, but the greenhouse emissions of China and the United States effectively cancelled out any of this progress. It is important to note that the United States had not ratified the Kyoto protocol in 2001, and China was not one of the initial countries that were required to lessen emissions, meaning two of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases did not actually participate in this protocol.
The upcoming Cop26 Climate Conference will be held in November in Glasgow, where numerous world leaders are expected to attend to formulate plans to reduce temperatures and global warming. However, Scott Morrison is unsure of his attendance, owing to his consideration of “other priorities”, such as the Covid-19 situation in Australia. This, as well as the fact that Australia has yet to sign a pledge to reach carbon-zero (net-zero) by 2050, has led to several criticisms internationally, notably from Prince Charles and the United States. In 2021, Australia was ranked last for climate action amongst 170 United Nations member countries. Despite this, state governments are implementing their own individual projects which point towards a more green future. Queensland, for example, has just confirmed that they will be building the “world’s largest green hydrogen manufacturing facility”, where hydrogen fuel can be developed without any fossil fuels.
Under Donald Trump’s leadership, the United States had withdrawn from the Paris Agreement citing economic concerns. The Paris Agreement is yet another protocol which attempts to reduce emissions in all signed nations. This agreement is part successor to the Kyoto protocol, however, it was ratified into effect in 2016, earlier than the initial 2020 date. Under Joe Biden’s leadership, the United States rejoined the Agreement in February 2021, signifying the Biden Administration’s commitment to the goals of the Agreement as per Biden’s ‘Climate Plan’ policies.
BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) have also pledged to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. China, in particular, has the world’s largest carbon footprint, but has pledged to reduce emissions by 2060 to reach net-zero. Only time will tell if all these protocols and projects will actually help to meet a net-zero carbon emission rate by the set time.
The future of climate change induced displacement lies starkly on a tilted stage. Andrew Harper, the UNHCR’s Special Advisor on Climate Action points to the inherent inequality at the centre of this issue, ‘Climate change is the defining crisis of our time and it particularly impacts the displaced’.
“The Cost of Doing Nothing”, a 2019 report by the world’s largest humanitarian network, The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, sets out a troubling forecast for the future. Every year, an estimated 108 million people worldwide are in need of humanitarian assistance as a result of climate related disasters. This figure is expected to double to over 200 million people annually needing assistance due to climate related disasters by 2050.
However, the human toll will not rise equally across the board. Vulnerable groups such as women, children, the elderly, those with disabilities and indigenous peoples are already disproportionately affected. In terms of geography, the UNHCR, a refugee protection agency, states that the most vulnerable areas are conflict stricken zones.
To make matters worse, climate change has a multiplier effect; rapid global warming and extreme weather events can drive instability. Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, points out the need for the international community to protect the vulnerable, “forced displacement across borders can stem from the interaction between climate change and disasters with conflict and violence, or it can arise from natural or man-made disasters alone. Either situation can trigger international protection needs”.
A clear example of the deepening divide is access to energy resources and how global warming is much deadlier for poor nations. A rich nation such as the United States has the luxury of air conditioning, which is widely available to 90% of its population. This is in contrast to only 5% of the Indian population who have access to such a resource, considering the extreme nature of their climate. On a global level, half of the population will be forced to suffer, simply because they don’t have access to the right technology or the right resources, something we take for granted in Australia.
Unfortunately, in Australia, the amount of air conditioners we possess won’t save us. Australia is ranked fourth among G20 countries for those most at risk of economic loss and seventh highest when it comes to the risk of weather related fatalities.
Monash University climate researcher, John Cook, dispels the myths of Australia’s aversion to climate policy and instead points to the opportunity the country has in becoming a world leader, “we’re a rich country, we have more capacity to reduce our emissions, and we have the opportunity to take a leadership role in the world.”
Governments around the world, especially those of developed and industrialised nations, keep waiting around anticipating a miracle to rid the world of the effects of climate change, whilst vulnerable populations are forced to face displacement. The Cost of Doing Nothing Report demonstrates that taking determined and ambitious action could mean the number of people in need of international humanitarian assistance annually could fall by 90% compared to the figures we see currently.
The consequences of climate change target the most vulnerable people at the bottom of a sinking ship. Scott Morrison’s response of shrugging off questions relating to setting climate targets and avoiding climate conferences such as Cop26 has placed the onus on businesses and individuals to drive meaningful change.
The upcoming federal election will present an important opportunity for the Australian population to choose the legacy and future of our nation when it comes to climate action.
The CAINZ Digest is published by CAINZ, a student society affiliated with the Faculty of Business at the University of Melbourne. Opinions published are not necessarily those of the publishers, printers or editors. CAINZ and the University of Melbourne do not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of information contained in the publication.
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I'm a Bachelor of Commerce student in my final year majoring in Finance and Management. My key interests are in public policy, regulation and inequality. As a writer at Cainz, I hope to produce pertinent pieces of work that will help people think critically about the pressing issues of our time.