The polar vortex that made life dangerously cold for tens of millions of people in North America this month is the latest in a long list of extreme weather events that are becoming increasingly common.
Last year alone saw some of the most extreme weather in decades. Typhoon Haiyan, the most powerful storm on record ever to hit land, killed thousands of people and caused economic losses of billions of dollars in the Philippines. Australia had record heat waves, Brazil’s northeast suffered its worst drought in decades, southwest China experienced its heaviest rainfall in 50 years and flooding in Canada was the most expensive natural disaster in that country’s history. And this is only the tip of the (melting) iceberg.
Proving with absolute certainty the link between climate change and an individual extreme weather event is beyond the current capabilities of science. But we do know that climate change is loading the dice: the best risk assessments point to an increase in the severity and frequency of such disasters over the coming decades without urgent action to cut greenhouse gas emissions and transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.
In short, climate change is a threat multiplier in a world already stressed by declines in natural resources such as forests, rising scarcities like freshwaters and increased vulnerability linked for example to the building of homes in risky locations such as steep mountain-slopes and flood plains.
While some impacts of climate change are likely to be extreme and sudden—with events like Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan perhaps a foretaste of things to come—others are creeping up on communities, whether it be loss of crops to a flood or drought that can send food prices soaring or the risks many coastal cities face from rising sea levels.
That is the bad news. The good news is that people everywhere are not standing idly by. Indeed the world is rich with initiatives, projects and entrepreneurship that are illuminating the pathways to a low-carbon world with more capability to adapt to the rising impacts.
The United Nations Momentum for Change initiative has selected 17 of these as "Lighthouse Activities" in order to empower and to catalyze even more action on the ground that is innovative, practical, scalable and replicable. These activities prove that shifting from fossils fuels to clean energy is not only feasible but that it is already happening all over the world.
For example, in Australia, the organization 1 Million Women has a simple goal: to get one million women to pledge to take small steps in their daily lives that save energy, reduce waste, cut pollution and lead change. The goal is to cut one million tons of carbon emissions—the same as taking 240,000 cars off the road—and shows that ordinary people taking small steps can make a big difference.
In Ghana, the Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative is tackling climate change by building high-quality bamboo bicycles. It reduces emissions by taking people out of cars and getting them into the saddle as well as using far less electricity than making traditional steel bicycles.
In Mexico, a program called ECOCASA is helping Mexico tackle climate change by unlocking financing to build low-carbon housing and increasing the number of mortgages for low-carbon housing, helping to build 27,600 homes in its first seven years.
In Guatemala, one Lighthouse Activity supports women farmers who are planting trees to sequester carbon and improve farming techniques. The project has planted more than 150,000 trees in one region, preventing mudslides and soil erosion, as well as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
In India, one project aims to bring solar energy to Bangalore’s slums and create green jobs with a micro-entrepreneurship program that has provided solar systems to over 10,000 people living in urban poverty.
Finally, Redavia leases innovative solar farms that can be deployed 85% faster than standard solar power systems displacing some of the diesel power used to generate electricity in remote locations. In addition to reducing the carbon dioxide emissions associated with using a diesel generator the power supplied is 20% to 40% cheaper.
Each of these activities—often using existing or re-tooled technologies—proves what can be accomplished when ordinary people work together and innovate to tackle or adapt to climate change on their doorstep. In doing so they are generating solutions tailored to their cities and communities while offering opportunities to others across the globe to join in this groundswell and momentum for change.
Although these small, entrepreneurial activities are making a big difference, action on climate change needs to take place at all levels and in all sectors of the economy to match the scale of the challenge. The good news is that large efforts are also underway. We’ve highlighted a few projects making transformational change as part of the Momentum for Change initiative. For example, in Brazil, China and India, climate friendly transit solutions, such as bus-rapid transit services, are increasing transportation access and the opportunity for sustainable economic growth in expanding urban centers. Another one involves a multi-million dollar effort to fund climate-smart agriculture, reaching millions of smallholder farmers around the world.
In the U.S., research by Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, shows the potential to move to 100% renewable energy in the coming decades. Clean energy is creating thousands of jobs every year and growing far faster than the economy. A one million dollar investment in solar or wind creates nearly 10 jobs, compared to less than 4 in oil and gas. There is plenty of evidence for optimism.
But the longer the world delays in tackling climate change, the higher the price of inaction will become with that price tag increasingly handed on to the next generation if the world warms beyond a 2 degree Celsius temperature rise.
We know that a new and universal climate change agreement by 2015 is going to be vital to spur global efforts to the deep emission cuts that will be needed over the 21st century.
But we also know that real and decisive action is underway, with cities to citizens and companies to communities sparking activities towards a healthier, job-generating and less climate-risky world.