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Extreme weather is claiming lives and destroying livelihoods
by World Meteorological Organization (WMO)
22 Mar. 2018
The high impact of extreme weather on economic development, food security, health and migration is highlighted in the WMO Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2017.
Compiled by the World Meteorological Organization with input from national meteorological services and United Nations partners, the report provides detailed information to support the international agenda on disaster risk reduction, sustainable development and climate change.
The Statement, now in its 25th year, was published for World Meteorological Day on 23 March. It confirmed that 2017 was one of the three warmest years on record and the warmest not influenced by an El Niño event. It also examined other long-term indicators of climate change such as increasing carbon dioxide concentrations, sea level rise, shrinking sea ice, ocean heat and ocean acidification.
Global mean temperatures in 2017 were about 1.1 °C above pre-industrial temperatures. The five-year average 2013–2017 global temperature is the highest five-year average on record. The world’s nine warmest years have all occurred since 2005, and the five warmest since 2010.
The start of 2018 has continued where 2017 left off – with extreme weather claiming lives and destroying livelihoods. The Arctic experienced unusually high temperatures, whilst densely populated areas in the northern hemisphere were gripped by bitter cold and damaging winter storms. Australia and Argentina suffered extreme heatwaves, whilst drought continued in Kenya and Somalia, and the South African city of Cape Town struggled with acute water shortages,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.
“Since the inaugural Statement on the State of the Global Climate, in 1993, scientific understanding of our complex climate system has progressed rapidly. This includes our ability to document the occurrence of extreme weather and climate events, the degree to which they can be attributed to human influences, and the correlation of climate change with epidemics and vector-borne diseases,” said Mr Taalas.
“In the past quarter of a century, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have risen from 360 parts per million to more than 400 ppm. They will remain above that level for generations to come, committing our planet to a warmer future, with more weather, climate and water extremes,” said Mr Taalas.
Direct measurements of atmospheric CO2 over the past 800 000 years showed natural variations between 180 and 280 ppm. “This demonstrates that today’s CO2 concentration of 400 ppm exceeds the natural variability seen over hundreds of thousands of years, “ said the Statement.
Socio-economic impacts
2017 was a particularly severe year for disasters with high economic impacts. Munich Re assessed total disaster losses from weather and climate-related events in 2017 at US$ 320 billion, the largest annual total on record.
Fuelled by warm sea surface temperatures, the North Atlantic hurricane season was the costliest ever for the United States and eradicated decades of developments gains in small islands in the Caribbean such as Dominica.
The National Centers for Environmental Information estimated total U.S. losses from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria at US$ 265 billion. The World Bank estimates Dominica’s total damages and losses from the hurricane at US$ 1.3 billion or 224% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Climate impacts hit vulnerable nations especially hard, as evidenced in a recent study by the International Monetary Fund, which warned that a 1 °C increase in temperature would cut significantly economic growth rates in many low-income countries.
The overall risk of heat-related illness or death has climbed steadily since 1980, with around 30% of the world’s population now living in climatic conditions that deliver potentially deadly temperatures at least 20 days a year, according to information from the World Health Organization quoted in the Statement. It also included a section on the relationship between climate and the Zika epidemic in the Americas in 2014–2016.
In 2016, weather-related disasters displaced 23.5 million people. Consistent with previous years, the majority of these internal displacements were associated with floods or storms and occurred in the Asia-Pacific region.
Massive internal displacement in the context of drought and food insecurity continues across Somalia. From November 2016 to December 2017, 892,000 drought-related displacements were recorded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
In the Horn of Africa, the failure of the 2016 rainy season was followed by a harsh January–February 2017 dry season, and a poor March-to-May rainy season. In Somalia, as of June 2017, more than half of the cropland was affected by drought, and herds had reduced by 40–60% since December 2016 due to increased mortality and distress sales, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Programme.
Floods affected the agricultural sector, especially in Asian countries. Heavy rains in May 2017 triggered severe flooding and landslides in south-western areas of Sri Lanka. The negative impact of floods on crop production further aggravated the food security conditions in the country already stricken by drought, according to FAO and WFP.
The oceans
Global sea surface temperatures in 2017 ranked as the third warmest on record. Ocean heat content, a measure of the heat in the oceans through their upper layers down to 2,000 meters, reached new record highs in 2017.
The Statement said that the magnitude of almost all of individual components of sea level rise has increased in recent years, in particular melting of the polar ice sheets, mostly in Greenland and to a lesser extent Antarctica.
For the second successive year, above-average sea surface temperatures off the east coast of Australia resulted in significant coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef.
The Climate Statement contains a special section on ocean acidification from the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO. Over the past 10 years, various studies have confirmed that ocean acidification is directly influencing the health or coral reefs, the success, quality and taste of aquaculture raised fish and seafood, and the survival and calcification of several key organisms. These alterations have cascading effects within the food web, which are expected to result in increasing impacts on coastal economies.
Sea ice extent was well below the 1981–2010 average throughout 2017 in both the Arctic and Antarctic. The winter maximum of Arctic sea ice was the lowest winter maximum in the satellite record. The summer minimum was the 8th lowest on record, but a slow freeze-up saw sea ice extent once again near record lows for December.
Antarctic sea ice extent was at or near record low levels throughout the year. The Greenland ice sheet has lost approximately 3,600 billion tons of ice mass since 2002.

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UN expert calls for global recognition of the right to safe and healthy environment
by John Knox
Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment
March 2018
It is high time that the international community recognized the human right to a healthy environment, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John Knox, said this week.
Knox presented a report at the UN Human Rights Council setting out framework principles for States to ensure the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment within the context of human rights.
“There can no longer be any doubt that human rights and the environment are interdependent,” he stressed.
“A healthy environment is necessary for the full enjoyment of many human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water and development. At the same time, the exercise of other freedoms, including the rights to information, participation and remedy, is vital to the protection of the environment.
“The relationship between human rights and the environment has countless facets, and our understanding of it will continue to grow for many years to come.”
Knox emphasized that while the right to a healthy environment had been recognized in regional agreements and in most national constitutions, it has not been adopted in a human rights agreement of global application.
“I hope the Human Rights Council agrees the the right to a healthy environment is an idea whose time is here. The Council should consider supporting the recognition of this right in a global instrument.”
* Access the framework principles:
Mar. 2018
UN Environment calls on governments and business to promote, protect and respect environmental rights.
UN Environment is taking a stand against the ongoing threats, intimidation, harassment, and murder of environmental defenders around the world, with the launch of the UN Environmental Rights Initiative today.
By helping people to better understand their rights and how to defend them, and by assisting governments to better safeguard environmental rights, the Initiative will bring environmental protection nearer to the people. UN Environment is also calling upon the private sector to move beyond a culture of basic compliance to one where the business community champions the rights of everyone to a clean and healthy environment.
Since the 1970s, environmental rights have grown more rapidly than any other human right. And increasingly, these rights are being invoked and upheld. Courts in at least 44 nations have issued decisions enforcing the constitutional right to a healthy environment.
“Those who struggle to protect planet and people should be celebrated as heroes, but the sad fact is that many are paying a heavy price with their safety and sometimes their lives. It’s our duty to stand on the side of those who are on the right side of history. It means standing for the most fundamental and universal of human rights,” Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment said.
Environmental rights are enshrined in over 100 constitutions, and yet in January 2018 Global Witness documented that almost four environmental defenders are being killed per week, with the true total likely far higher. Many more are harassed, intimidated and forced from their lands. Around 40 -50 percent of the 197 environmental defenders killed in 2017 came from indigenous and local communities.
“Violations of environmental rights have a profound impact on a wide variety of human rights, including the rights to life, self-determination, food, water, health, sanitation, housing, cultural, civil and political rights,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said.
“During my recent visits to Papua New Guinea and Fiji, I was made keenly aware of the impact of extractive industries and climate change on individual rights. It is crucial that those most affected are able to meaningfully participate in decisions relating to land and the environment. States have a responsibility to prevent and punish rights abuses committed by private corporations within their territory, and businesses have an obligation to avoid infringing on the human rights of others. I hope this new Initiative will be able to encourage States and businesses to comply with these obligations.”
Two disturbing counter-trends are undermining both the environmental rule of law and human rights to participate and assemble. The first is the escalating harassment, intimidation, and murder of environmental defenders. Between 2002 and 2013, 908 people were killed in 35 countries defending the environment and land, and the pace of killing is increasing; 2017 was even worse.
The second is the attempts by some countries to limit the activities of nongovernmental organizations. Between 1993 and 2016, 48 countries enacted laws that restricted the activities of local NGOs receiving foreign funding, and 63 countries adopted laws restricting activities of foreign NGOs.
UN Environment has been undertaking work on human rights and the environment for almost two decades, including the identification of good practices on human rights and the environment; the sensitization of the judiciary on constitutional environmental rights, and by providing support to regional negotiations on a Principle 10 instrument for the Latin American and Caribbean region.
The Latin American and Caribbean Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental was adopted in San Jose, Costa Rica on March 4th. The agreement is hoped to have a transformative impact on access to information and justice, public participation and human rights defenders on environmental matters in the region.
“This is not just renewed commitment to environmental protection,” Leo Heileman, director of UN Environments office in Latin America and the Caribbean said. “It can be an opportunity to give environmental rights the same legal standing as human rights at the global level.”
The Environmental Rights Initiative will engage governments to strengthen institutional capacities to develop and implement policy and legal frameworks that protect environmental rights ; assist businesses to better understand what their environmental rights obligations are and provide guidance on how to advance beyond a compliance culture; work with media to promote environmental rights, including through the development and implementation of a media training curriculum: support the wider dissemination of information on environmental rights through a new web-portal; and support the establishment of networks through which environmental defenders will connect, develop and implement strategies to promote environmental protection.
”In many ways, the United Nations needs to try and catch up with where national countries are. I am proposing to the UN Human Rights Council that the UN should join countries in recognizing a global right to a healthy environment. The time has come to recognize this formal interdependence of human rights and the environment, not only at national level but at the UN level too,” Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, Professor John Knox said.
UN Environment urges all governments to prioritize the protection of environmental defenders from harassment and attack and to bring those who harm or threaten defenders to justice swiftly and definitively. Tolerance of intimidation of environmental defenders undermines basic human rights and environmental rule of law.
"Killings, violence, and threats often go unreported and unpunished. More journalistic coverage and stronger legal support at the local and national level are essential to defend the defenders," said Jonathan Watts, Global Environment Editor, The Guardian.
“UN Environment’s Environmental Rights Initiative is critical to address the escalating epidemic of murders of environmental defenders across the world. For many years I have supported indigenous people and communities all over the world who are murdered for protecting their forests and lands from illegal exploitation. We call on governments to stop the assassinations and the culture of impunity, and to put in place enforceable legal protections and bring perpetrators to justice”, The Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation said.

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