Is climate change over-hyped? Scientific malfeasance or not, it cannot be denied that weather patterns are changing around the world, becoming ever more erratic.
Take 80-old Mr Silumezi, a beneficiary of our programs in Zambia: "Farming now is different and difficult," she told us. "Sometimes rains start in November or later. When it comes, it rains and rains continuously for almost three days, which is bad for our crops. This time we had a mix of persistent droughts and floods. The weather pat-terns have gone completely mad. The rains destroy houses and wash away fields. It is getting worse each year."
The United Nations Climate Change Conference under-way in Copenhagen has a sig-nificance and relevance that will now resonate with many. The confirmation of atten-dance by many heads of state -- including, significantly, President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao -- and the commitments made in the run up to the summit have served to raise hopes that a deal may be hammered out to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
China, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has agreed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions per unit of economic output -- its so-called carbon intensity -- by 40-45 per cent by 2020. India thinks it is pos-sible to cut its carbon inten-sity by 24 percent by 2020 com-pared with 2005 levels. The U.S. has agreed to offer a provisional emissions reduc-tion target of 17 percent com-pared to 2005 levels by 2020.
Still, these targets fall short of what is needed to keep global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. It is also unclear how much new money will be earmarked to help poor countries adapt to the impacts of climate change, a key issue for the success of any deal.
By 2050, summer temperatures are likely to rise by 4-5 degrees in north-west Asia and be 3-4 degrees higher over much of India. Increases in temperature will reduce soil moisture, bring additional health problems and a proliferation of pests.
Climate change is also ex-acerbating water scarcity. The United Nations Environment Program estimates that up to 25 percent of world food pro-duction could be lost as a re-sult of climate change, water scarcity, pests and land degradation.
These various factors connect directly with the challenge of achieving global food security which was the focus of the recent World Food Summit in Rome. By 2050 the world population is projected to rise to 9.3 billion from its present 6.7 billion. The increased population and rising incomes will increase the demand for food by 70 to 100 percent over current production levels. Scientists and policy makers face a major challenge in achieving such a production increase while reducing the carbon intensity of that production over the coming decades.
The political expectations of what Copenhagen may achieve have been scaled back in recent weeks. The initial ambition had been to agree a legally binding deal between rich and poor nations about who should cut emissions, by how much and who should pay. While a high-level political commitment now seems the most likely outcome, a legally binding treaty needs to remain the ultimate focus. The political framework agreed at the conference must lay clear foundations for a formal treaty in 2010.
A legal commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is crucial. A target of at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 is required if we are to have a reasonable chance of keeping global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius, above which the consequences for our world will be catastrophic.
Sufficient adaptation funding -- economic, technological, etc. -- needs to be made available to help developing countries cope with the impacts of climate change. Without such financial support and richer, developed countries sharing the burden of funding mitiga-tion, developing countries are unlikely to agree to an ambit-ious global target for emission reductions. Any funding should be separate from over-seas development assistance.
While it is vital that the international community reaches a consensus on emissions in Copenhagen, addressing climate change is more than just tackling emissions. What's at stake is the fate of the people that are already being affected by climate change and about the communities that are in very serious and imminent threat of being affected, devastated and even wiped out. Copen-hagen is an opportunity that must be seized. Success or failure will determine the dif-ference between the most ba-sic subsistence and absolute poverty, between life and death.
Tom Arnold is CEO of Concern Worldwide, an international humanitarian organization. A former economist with the Irish Department of Agriculture and Food, he was a member of the U.N. Millennium Project Hunger Task Force.