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Paris talks come at an urgent moment for the planet

This year’s El Niño is just part of the rapid climate change affecting the world’s poorest countries

December 1, 2015 2:00AM ET

Last month, when Oxfam issued a report warning that this year’s El Niño weather pattern puts more than 10 million people at risk for food insecurity, I was concerned. Then the numbers were revised upward. Now I’m alarmed.

Already, up to 18 million people facing a lack of food and water urgently need further assistance, and it’s predicted that 40 million to 50 million people will face hunger, disease and water shortages in 2016. UNICEF warns that 11 million children are at risk in eastern and southern Africa. This is a crisis on a global scale.

In the midst of the worst mass migration the world has experienced since World War II, with political instability wreaking havoc around the globe, the last thing our humanitarian system needs is more pressure. But that’s exactly what’s happening. Climate change is only making things worse.

Last year was the warmest year on record, leading to drought, crop failure and extreme weather in regions such as Central America and sub-Saharan Africa and threatening to tip the most vulnerable further into extreme poverty. This year is on track to beat 2014. This year’s El Niño, a natural weather phenomenon involving periodic heating of the tropical Pacific Ocean surface, is one of the strongest — perhaps the strongest — ever measured. While El Niño happens cyclically, this year is different because of the predicted magnitude of weather conditions exacerbating existing climate chaos and humanitarian disasters around the world.

One of the worst-affected countries is Ethiopia, where 8.2 million people are in need of support because of a drought. In Zimbabwe, maize production in the past two years decreased 35 to 38 percent from the five-year average. The country is now facing a national cereal deficit of 1.7 million metric tons, causing food prices to skyrocket and creating fewer opportunities for the poor to earn a living wage.

Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and other African states such as Malawi aren’t the only countries dealing with the pains of high temperatures combined with El Niño. Central American countries such as Honduras and El Salvador are also suffering losses to their growth and development.

This week international leaders are meeting in Paris to hammer out a global climate agreement that could set the world on a path to avoiding catastrophic levels of climate change. Hopefully, they will reach a deal that includes increased support for the world’s poorest people and sufficiently deep emission reductions over time.

Paris won’t be the end of the fight, but hopefully, it can be the start of a new era of climate action.

President Barack Obama has shown an important commitment to addressing the financial needs of vulnerable communities by providing support to the Green Climate Fund, which was established to channel money to help build low-carbon, climate-resilient economies in the developing world. Congress must follow through on that commitment in the coming weeks. The United States can step up in other ways to scale up financing alongside other developed and developing nations.

If all of today’s public adaptation finances were divided among the 1.5 billion people working small farms in developing countries, they would get the equivalent of just $3 per year to protect themselves from floods, severe droughts and other climate extremes — the cost of a cup of coffee in many rich countries.

While more than 160 countries have committed to emission reduction contributions after 2020, they need to agree to review their emission reduction commitments every five years and to strengthen those commitments. Robust measurement, verification and transparency standards are at the core of securing a durable and measurable framework for success.

Over the past year, governments and private companies have stepped up to make commitments, but more is needed to tackle the crisis at hand. Countries must not only come together to agree to a strong global deal but also reach bilateral agreements that address the overall emission gap.

The Paris deal has the potential to bring us a long way, but even in the best-case scenario, we will have much further to go. Paris won’t be the end of the fight, but hopefully, it can be the start of a new era of climate action.

Heather Coleman is the climate change policy manager at Oxfam America.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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