“Sustainable development - these are two words that the existence of all (the) human race depends on. It (climate change) is becoming a calamity that we have to turn our attention to,” Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena told the 5th Asia-Pacific Climate Change Adaptation Forum, hosted by his government in Colombo this week.
Sri Lanka, like many other developing nations is increasingly being knocked back by climate extremes. Heavy rains in May this year led to flooding and landslides, killing over 100 people. Drought has also taken hold in much of the country, affecting more than 1 million people and leaving a quarter of Sri Lankans without access to drinking water.
“It is the women and small children who have been hit the hardest,” Maithripala said. “They now have to walk 10 to 15 kilometres to find water.”
But with so many pressing issues on the desks of government ministers around the world, is climate change really getting the attention it needs?
Harsha de Silva, Sri Lanka’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, echoed the president’s commitment to climate-resilient development through the Paris climate change agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals, which will be implemented in Sri Lanka through a new inter-agency committee on climate change.
But he warned there is a serious danger climate change issues are not being heard outside of climate circles. He cited the 8th BRICS Summit he and the president had attended in India a few days before. “Around the table, 60 percent of humankind was represented. Climate change hardly came up. The global focus is on terrorism and economic growth,” he said.
The solution to the problem is simple economics, he argued. “Get the private sector on board and align the incentives. Government, NGOs and civil societies alone cannot fix this,” he said.
Changing the behaviour of businesses so that they see the benefits of protecting the environment is key, he argued. He cited the example of a seafront hotel wanting to protect a coral reef so tourists would continue to visit. “It’s a win-win situation,” he said.
In the Cook Islands, Finance Minister Mark Brown, said households in the Pacific nation that source their energy from solar panels can sell excess energy back to the grid, providing them with an additional source of income.
Cristina Rumbaitis del Rio from Climate Action Today, a five-year programme tackling climate change impacts in South Asia, stressed the importance of framing the effects of climate change in areas that people, government ministers and businesses are most focused on - health, jobs, tourism or energy - and outlining how those sectors will be adversely affected .
“We need to be asking: What is your tipping point? Beyond which threshold would you not be able to function ‘normally’?” she said.
Sri Lanka approved the Paris Agreement in September, which now has enough support from nations to enter into force on November 4. The focus will then turn to implementing the agreement aimed at limiting the average rise in global temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius.
Without action to curb climate change, temperatures in the Asia Pacific region could rise as much as 6°C, warned Kira Vinke, a research analyst at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
But as climate change is already happening, even if the Paris goals are met, adaptation is not optional, said Rumbaitis del Rio, and solutions must be provided in a tangible way.
“This requires us to speak a different language,” she added, appealing not just to the analytical mind but to the emotions too.
The clear message from the Colombo forum was that focusing on the opportunities in adapting to climate change - and relating this to everyday activities so that decision makers, citizens and businesses can integrate resilience into their investments – will help sustain the momentum of the Paris Agreement and avoid the calamitous effects of climate change.