Climate Change Threatens to Undermine Progress on Development

Ten years ago, 189 nations united behind eight ambitious development goals for 2015, known as the Millennium Development Goals. Despite financial crises and natural disasters, we have made dramatic advances toward targets such as halving global poverty and achieving universal primary education.

Even as we race to achieve these targets by 2015, we must take urgent steps to ensure that our achievements remain sustainable long after. That means factoring climate change into our long-term development strategies.

Here's why: On a range of crosscutting issues from global hunger to global health, changing global temperatures and weather patterns will inject a new element of chaos into the already-fragile existences of the world's poorest people. Among the predictions are more famine and drought, expanding epidemics, more natural disasters, more resource scarcity and significant human displacement. Ominously, the poorest and least equipped to respond are likely to be among the hardest hit.

It's next to impossible to attribute any single natural disaster or weather event entirely to climate change. But the pattern of recent events provides insights into the challenges we will face in a warming world. We may not know if flooding in Pakistan was worsened by climate change, but the best scientists tell us that climate change will bring more flooding and extreme weather events. We don't know the precise role that competition over water played in intensifying conflict in Darfur, but we do know that climate change is projected to alter freshwater flows around the world.

To understand the stakes, consider the progress -- however mixed -- we have already made toward meeting two of our Millennium Development Goals for 2015. Then consider the likely impact of unchecked climate change over the next few decades.

First, let's think about infectious diseases like malaria. This ancient scourge kills approximately three quarters of a million children under five a year. But the world is making progress: Thanks to bed nets, insecticides and improved access to medications, one third of the countries confronting malaria have seen the number of cases drop by at least half since 2000. Unfortunately, as mosquitoes expand their range due to climate change, malaria is now reappearing in areas where it was once eliminated, like the Kenyan highlands. Nor is malaria the only climate-affected health challenge. Changing weather patterns also spread disease by counteracting efforts to provide adequate sanitation for the 2.6 billion people currently lacking it -- another reason why The Lancet has warned that "climate change could be the biggest global health threat of the 21st century."

Second, while progress in the fight against global hunger has been more uneven, the Obama administration has made unprecedented new investments in food security. In 2009, the ranks of the world's hungry actually declined for the first time in fifteen years. But Pakistan's floods and Russia's wildfires show how dramatic weather events -- which climate change will likely increase -- threaten global food availability and prices. As climate change alters weather patterns and increases droughts, our crops will suffer.

Clearly, the impacts of climate change threaten the stability of our development strategies. It's time we craft a path forward where our development and climate goals are mutually reinforcing.

I continue to believe that the most effective step we can take to address climate change is to pass strong domestic legislation that limits greenhouse gas pollution and facilitates efforts to achieve a forceful global climate change treaty. Difficult as this is, we must and will continue to pursue these vital long-term goals. But in the meantime, we should also take advantage of near-term opportunities to address climate change and advance our development goals at the same time.

As the world's leaders gather at the UN, the time is right to craft a formal strategy for integrating climate change -- both mitigation and adaptation -- into our development plans going forward. New climate financing to support low-carbon development strategies must be coordinated with similar development investments -- not working at cross purposes. Recipient nations must be active players in developing strategies that meet their needs as well. And we should partner with emerging nations and others to ensure that all with the capacity to contribute are doing so.

A holistic approach to development and climate zeroes in on scientific and technological innovation that addresses our climate and development goals at the same time. For example, if we replace old, dirty cook stoves with affordable, fuel-efficient alternatives, that will reduce deforestation, protect public health and even reduce flooding by strengthening soil.

The Millennium Development Goals remain as good an organizing framework as we have for how to meet the shared and urgent needs of people everywhere.

But we must look beyond 2015. To ensure that our achievements are enduring and sustainable, we must increasingly consider the growing threat of climate change in our development policies.