Several years ago the International Red Cross sent me, on behalf of the World Disasters Report, to assess the early impacts of climate change upon vulnerable populations. What I saw in Tuvalu, in the South Pacific, and learned from other small island states about being resilient in the face of an unpredictable and extreme climate may hold lessons now for how many millions more can withstand the upheaval of global warming on our small island planet.

Tuvalu is living a uniquely modern paradox. It won the lottery of the internet age, being awarded the domain name '.tv'. Allegedly, it has a bigger delegation in Los Angeles to sell rights than it has at the United Nations to protect its political interests. Lying just a few metres above sea level, however, means that Tuvalu is in acute danger of losing its real home, just as it benefits from its new virtual one.

We can learn a lot from the mere fact that island communities such as Tuvalu have survived for so long on remote shards of land, exposed to the full force and vagaries of nature. To do so, they first had to respect their obvious environmental limits. They then evolved resilient local economies that helped them to cope with extreme and unpredictable weather. These were, of necessity, based on reciprocity, sharing and cooperation, and not unlimited growth fed by individualistic beggar-thy-neighbour competition.

Today, as collectively we face and exceed the limits of the Earth's bio-capacity, we are challenged at the global level to learn in a few short years lessons that such small communities often took millennia to arrive at. Our task is enormously complicated by the intricate interdependence of the modern global economy, the unbalanced distribution of power and benefits within it, and a pace of international decision-making that, until the ice started to melt so rapidly, I would have described as glacially slow. Fortunately, there is much that we already do know to guide our actions, drawing on decades of experience in dozens of countries and through thousands of community-based organizations around the world.

For example, in a series of reports looking in detail at different global regions, the Working Group on Climate Change and Development, a coalition of leading non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based in the UK that the New Economics Foundation (nef) helped to form, spelled out how climate change, if unchecked, stands not only to block further progress on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but to reverse hard-won gains over many years. Our conclusion was that irreversible global warming, which appears perilously close, would mean not just greater hardship for millions, but the end of development as we have understood it for the last half a century (Simms et al, 2007).

One severe drought in Australia has already partly triggered worldwide food shortages and high and rising prices, creating shocks that ripple from the high street in the UK to the markets of Dhaka and Port au Prince. And the UK's official Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research2 recently concluded, based on a moderate scenario for change, that the percentage of the Earth's land surface prone to extreme drought having already trebled to 3 per cent in less than a decade will rise to fully one third by 2090, with droughts also longer in duration (Burke et al, 2006).

More worrying, still, the edge of the climate cliff is not clearly visible. Scientists such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) James Hansen3 believe we may already be tipping over. This means not just stabilizing atmospheric greenhouse gases, but reducing them, with unimagined implications for the global economy. Misleadingly named 'positive environmental feedbacks' are volatile, hard to predict and may be terrifyingly sudden.

Due to the fact that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the biosphere, we have no choice but to act, using precaution and the best information available. An individual may recover from financial bankruptcy; but if we allow our ecological debts to bankrupt a climate conducive to human civilization, geological history shows that it could take tens of thousands of years to be restored if, indeed, it ever is.

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