From global to local: Climate change post-Copenhagen.

Speech by Stephen O'Brien, Minister of State for International Development.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Sir Stephen O’Brien

As Minister for International Development, my mandate is to help eliminate poverty around the world.  It is the world’s poorest people who will be hit first and hardest by climate change, who are least responsible for its causes, and are least able to cope with its effects. This is why addressing climate change is a key priority for DFID and why everyone in this room should be driven to do something about it.

Before continuing, let me thank the organisers for their kind invitation to speak and for their work in putting this conference together. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is an excellent forum for parliamentarians from across the Commonwealth to share ideas, work together and foster better relations between our countries. This event promises to be a productive one, on an essential topic.

This session is looking at vulnerability to climate change. My focus today will be on the vulnerability of the poorest countries to climate change, how the UK is supporting poor countries to tackle climate change and why we must continue to work together to address this major global challenge.

Vulnerability around the world and the UK’s response

I said a moment ago that the poorest will be hit first and hardest by climate change. The truth is they have already been hit first, and will continue to be hit hardest.  For many people around the world climate change is not a future threat, it is a current reality. 

The poorest people are most vulnerable for a number of reasons. They are heavily dependent on agriculture and have few resources to draw upon when hit by a flood or drought. Poor people are also more likely to live in areas at risk to climate change, such as the tropics, which are already being affected worst by climate change. Furthermore, poor people are often marginalised from decision-making processes and their needs are often overlooked by governments.

This is why a global deal on climate change that limits emissions is so important for the poorest people in the poorest countries. We will all have a role to play in forming country positions which make a deal fair and achievable.

But even if we succeed in the hugely challenging goal of limiting the temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, as set out in the Copenhagen Accord, millions of people, especially the poor, will still face enormous challenges.


Let us begin by turning to Africa. I was born in Tanzania and raised in Kenya and am lucky enough to have visited the continent often as part of All Party Parliamentary Groups on Tanzania, Trade and Debt as well as Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases.

Two thirds of the surface of Sub-Saharan Africa is desert or dry land. On the continent as a whole, around 200 million people - a quarter of the population - currently experience high water stress. As global temperatures increase, so too does the scarcity of water. Indeed, by some estimates, by the 2050s the number of Africans experiencing high water stress could triple.

Testimonies from pastoralists in Kenya tell a vivid story of their changing climate. They speak of higher temperatures and a reduction in the flow of the Ewaso Nyero river.
Water is getting scarcer and pastoralists find themselves digging deeper and deeper wells. This sometimes means finding water “9-people” deep - in that it takes 9 people, one above the other, to pass the water out. Life is tough for pastoral communities in Kenya and it is getting tougher.

This is why the UK government is supporting communities to adapt to the impacts of climate change. In Malawi, the UK is helping farmers to plant more drought-resistant maize. Similarly, in Ethiopia, we are helping farmers to adapt their farming practices to different weathers and rainfall patterns.

Climate change also has a knock-on effect on other development challenges. For example, in some places, the pattern of vector-borne diseases such as Malaria and Dengue Fever will change. In Kenya, UK support is helping to predict new peaks in malaria outbreaks before they happen - this is in addition to providing 17 million insecticide treated bed nets over the last 8 years, reducing under-5 mortality by nearly a half.

South Asia

In South Asia, rising sea levels also pose an enormous threat. Agricultural plains are increasingly threatened by saltwater intrusion and some low-lying islands face a threat to their very existence. Flooding in Bangladesh and India alone results in an estimated 4 million tons of rice per year being lost - enough to feed 30 million people. More will be lost as floods become more frequent and more severe. With nearly half of all children in South Asia under-nourished, this will take a mighty toll.

This is why the UK is supporting the government of Bangladesh to adapt to climate change. For example, UKaid has helped to raise 90,000 homes onto earth platforms, protecting more than 400,000 people and their possessions from severe monsoon floods.

Forests are also important globally and in South Asia. They play a key role in storing carbon but also providing livelihoods and acting as sponges, holding water and releasing it slowly.

UKaid is helping over half a million households in Nepal - equivalent to a tenth of Nepal’s population - to make a living from the nation’s forests. This has helped to increase average household income by 60% over the last 5 years and helps to save an estimated 1.2 million tonnes of carbon every year.

Future policy

As we ramp up our efforts to tackle climate change we should therefore focus on four things.

First and foremost, we must work towards an ambitious global climate deal that will limit emissions. If global action is not taken it will be impossible to limit the global temperature rise to two degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels and avoid potentially catastrophic climate change.

The international community needs to come together to agree a deal that is fair for the developing world and makes available substantial financial resources for adaptation and mitigation. The UK government has committed to provide £1.5 billion in Fast-Start finance from 2010 to 2012 as well as help the very poorest developing countries to take part in international climate change negotiations.

Secondly, we must make certain climate change is considered a key priority for all our governments. Countries such as Bangladesh are showing the way by integrating climate change into national development plans. Others should learn from them. And the international community must help by providing expertise and finance.

Thirdly, we need to ensure all our aid is ‘climate smart’. This means ensuring all development interventions take into account, and are resilient to, the impacts of climate change. Making aid ‘climate smart’ will help ensure that for every pound we spend, we demonstrate 100 pence of value. Value for money means every hospital, school or road we build is built where it will last and not where it is susceptible to being washed away or blown away.

Within my own Department we are also integrating climate change into all our development planning and ensuring programme decisions respond strategically to the impacts of climate change. Tanzania, Ethiopia, India and Nepal are amongst the first to pilot different approaches with Rwanda and the Caribbean embarking on similar exercises soon.

Fourthly, we need to improve our understanding of the impacts of climate change. I have already outlined some major trends and implications across regions but we need to continue to build understanding of what climate change means on the local level, where will be affected and when.

The UK is supporting programmes to improve climate change analysis in Africa and identify how countries can become more resilient to its impacts. In Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi, DFID has funded ground breaking studies to help identify the current and potential future economic costs of climate change.

Closing summary

Poverty and climate change have been described as the two defining challenges of the 21st century. Failure to tackle one means failure to tackle the other. I believe we all have a role to play in ensuring an outcome that brings a better, more prosperous future for the world’s poorest, and for the global community as a whole.  Addressing climate change requires strong leadership and political will. And that is where we, as parliamentarians, can all play our crucial role.

Thank you.

Updates to this page

Published 13 July 2010