Weather alert: an introduction to climate change

Climate Change

Climate change affects many of the communities with which Oxfam works. The impacts on people’s lives are real and dangerous. Here John Magrath, Programme Researcher, provides an overview of how our approach to climate change has evolved and how we are now responding to it in our work. 

When I joined Oxfam in 1985 not many people were talking about ‘climate change‘. But Oxfam workers had already become very aware that the climate was behaving extremely oddly, with catastrophic effects on poor people. Just two years before, in 1983, Oxfam had published a report that on re-reading today, feels ominously prophetic.

It was entitled Weather Alert and it described ‘a world-wide climate of change‘ and ‘unprecedented climatic extremes‘. In it Oxfam said: ‘Millions of the world’s poorest people are threatened by freak weather conditions…. [I]n the poor world a chain of weather disasters has brought to crisis point many societies already struggling under serious economic and social problems and, in some cases,
civil war. More than 40 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America are currently suffering from the effects of flood or drought. Oxfam is confronted with more requests for emergency aid than at any time in its entire history. Aid officials cannot recall a period when so many people were faced by disasters over such a large area of the globe’.

Oxfam programmes everywhere are seeing climate change impacts right now…This, in Oxfam’s view, necessitated a fundamental re-appraisal of how national and international agencies did disaster relief work, abandoning short-term fixes and linking relief much more closely to long term rehabilitation and development programmes; it was a far-sighted and influential approach, although many would say it still does not happen often or consistently enough.

I’ve seen and researched the impacts of climate change on Oxfam’s programmes for much of my career, including at first hand in Uganda, Malawi and Zimbabwe, and the more I’ve
seen and heard, the more alarmed I’ve got.

Oxfam programmes everywhere are seeing climate change impacts right now and the laws of physics explain why. Rising temperatures mean more heat waves. Hotter air can carry more moisture, leading to more rainfall and heavier falls. Changing temperature and pressure gradients cause climatic patterns to shift, changing rainfall patterns. In general, wetter parts of the world are getting wetter and drier parts, drier. The seasons are shifting, causing bewilderment to farmers – a development that Oxfam was one of the first agencies
to highlight.

Now 30 years later the frightening thing is that the phenomena described just continue to get worse. There has been no abatement of greenhouse gas emissions despite almost daily warnings from scientists and seemingly endless international conferences. 2014 has seen the hottest average global temperatures yet – and with an El Nino coming on strong, 2015 could be even hotter.As
climatic events become more extreme, the potential for major shocks increases

As climatic events become more extreme, the potential for major shocks to occur and trigger humanitarian disasters increases. The impacts on people’s lives right
now are real and dangerous; but what alarms me much more is that the biggest impacts will come in 20 years from now, because we are just not making enough progress in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. We risk becoming like the proverbial frogs, unable or unwilling to notice that we are sitting in water gradually coming to the boil. If the worst outcomes turn out to be true, the consequences for humankind could be catastrophic.

This all means that Oxfam has got it right when it comes to how we work on climate change. On the one hand, we work directly with poor people and their organisations to help them become more resilient – as in this recent example from Asia or from Africa. And as in 1984, we continue to provide humanitarian assistance as climate change exacerbates crises. Simultaneously Oxfam works through campaigning and advocacy to put pressure on governments and other actors, including the business community, to cut greenhouse gas
emissions to reduce future climate change and to face up to their responsibilities, as historically the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, to increase funding for adaptation in developing countries.

As Pope Francis said recently, ‘We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental’.

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Photo: Shamim, 12, washes cloths in the standing flood water next to the village of Geo Kaloi, in Digree, Meerpur Khas. Credit: Asim Hafeez/Oxfam GB

Author: John Magrath
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.