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Facing climate change and its consequences

By Anna Kramer

With a dramatic flourish, Maria Mutagamba, Uganda's Minister of the Environment, unveiled Oxfam's art exhibit at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia.

The audience of conference delegates and reporters applauded as the curtains parted to reveal a collection of 17 drawings and paintings. Some were lifelike and elaborate; others used bold colors and simple lines. But all were created by children and young adults from Bangladesh, Mozambique, or Uganda—and all depict the effects of climate change on vulnerable communities.

After the applause died away, Mutagamba pointed to a drawing by Buyongo Niccolus, a 16-year-old from her home country. "What we see here is a mother and her children," Mutugamba said. "They are frustrated, with no food, and they are malnourished. And they are in the middle of nowhere because everything has been exposed to drought."

Mutagamba and her fellow delegates had a long road ahead of them when they came together at the Bali climate conference last month. Representatives from over 180 countries were tasked with updating the Kyoto Protocol and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which expire in 2012. Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, members of Congress also spent last month grappling with the implications of a changing climate. It has been a busy few weeks for people who care about the human consequences of climate change—a period marked by both encouraging progress and lingering challenges.

A roadmap for the future in Bali

Millions of people worldwide are already deeply affected by climate crises like drought, floods, severe weather, and increased disease. Even if the world stopped polluting today, climate change would continue to have negative impacts on the world's poorest people. To tackle this problem, Oxfam is campaigning for rich countries to stop harming by dramatically cutting their carbon emissions and start helping by providing the necessary financing so that people in the most vulnerable countries can adapt to a changing climate.

While Oxfam's "Children's Voices" art exhibit was a success, overall progress at the Bali conference was not always smooth. The US and other wealthy countries often resisted setting clear negotiating terms, and many representatives from developing countries grew frustrated with what they saw as an avoidance of making real commitments on the issue.

After two weeks of negotiations, the Bali delegates agreed to an action plan, or "roadmap," for international negotiations over the next two years. The roadmap hints at new resources and innovative funding for adaptation in developing countries, and finalizes an unresolved plan to implement an international Adaptation Fund. The amount generated for this fund will be far less than what is needed for poor countries to adapt to climate impacts—about $200-$300 million, compared to Oxfam's estimate of over $50 billion—but it is a beginning.

The Bali roadmap outlines how nations can work together to implement these adaptation plans, and provides opportunities for transfer of clean energy technology to developing countries.

Precisely where the roadmap will lead, and how fast countries will work to get there, remains uncertain. But as the UN makes progress toward a final agreement, Oxfam will work to ensure that opportunities created in the Bali roadmap become a reality.

Climate change action in Congress

As world leaders in Bali put together a roadmap for global climate change negotiations, US leaders in Washington, DC were also making progress on climate-related legislation.

On December 5, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved the Climate Security Act of 2007, also known as the "Lieberman-Warner bill" after the lead Senate sponsors of the legislation. While far from providing a complete solution, the bill sets an important precedent by allocating funds for adaptation to climate change impacts.

On specific issues related to developing countries, the Lieberman-Warner bill calls for an "International Climate Change Adaptation and National Security Program" to set aside a portion of the revenues from a government auction of greenhouse gas emission permits. These funds would be used for creating and implementing adaptation plans in poor countries, supporting investments to reduce people's vulnerability to climate impacts, and identifying ways for developing countries to use low-carbon and energy-efficient technologies.

Later in the month, Congress and the president signed off on the 2008 Omnibus Appropriations Bill, a massive funding bill that outlines US spending in the year ahead. Within this bill was another landmark for adaptation funding: a requirement that the State Department convene a committee to evaluate and report on developing country adaptation needs and to define a strategy for the US to meet those needs.

Both bills represent forward progress on the need for adaptation funds, but the Lieberman-Warner bill has yet to become law--though it may be considered by the full US Senate this year. Like-minded legislators may also introduce similar laws in the US House of Representatives. Oxfam will continue to follow and strengthen this legislation to make sure adaptation remains a priority.

A clear picture of the human impact

Not long after unveiling "Children's Voices" at the Bali climate conference, Minister Mutagamba of Uganda met one-on-one with US Senator John Kerry, the only member of Congress in attendance.

After their meeting, Mutagamba presented Kerry with Buyongo Niccolus's drawing from the exhibit. Smiling, the senator held up the drawing for the media's cameras, revealing its rich colors in the bright sunlight. The picture was clear, and so was its message: climate change is a reality, and many vulnerable people are already feeling its effects.

As Mutugamba told the Bali audience earlier in the week, global leaders must take action on behalf of the world's poorest people. "They have no hope. We must restore their hope as a global community."