David Miliband says US seen as ‘laggard’ on climate crisis and ‘strangely insouciant’ amid extreme disasters

David Miliband has warned that we are in the grips of a global “system failure”, imperiling some of the world’s most vulnerable people as they face increasingly extreme disasters.

“Some 345 million people are in extreme, acute food insecurity compared to 135 [million] three years ago,” he told The Independent.

“It’s getting worse even though we’ve got better at predicting some of these problems, that’s the truth. The case that it’s a system failure is easy to make — the hard case is what the hell to do about it.”

Mr Miliband, a bright young thing of New Labour who became one of the UK’s youngest ever foreign secretaries, has spent the past decade based in New York at the helm of the International Rescue Committee — a non-profit renowned for frontline missions in places where people’s lives have been shattered by conflict, persecution and disaster.

Currently, one in every 78 people worldwide have been forced to leave their homes, the IRC reports. More and more are being forced to do so because of disasters linked to the climate crisis — a number which is projected to rise to as many as 150 million people by 2050.

Mr Miliband spoke with The Independent ahead of his appearance at the opening ceremony of Climate Week NYC, where he highlighted how humanitarian crises and climate emergencies are increasingly intertwined. There, he said that the climate crisis is now playing a much bigger role in humanitarian disasters, and that people’s lives are being “shattered” by such events.

Last week, climate scientists announced a connection between extreme rainfall in Pakistan and rising global temperatures. More than 1,500 people have been killed in the catastrophic flooding and hundreds of thousands left homeless in a country which has contributed just 1 per cent of global carbon emissions.

The climate crisis is also playing a role in escalating global food insecurity. Famine is looming in the East African countries of Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya amid the most severe drought in 40 years, as well as food shortages caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Mr Miliband noted that the UK’s Conservative government “did a really good job at sounding the alarm” during the region’s last famine in 2017 but this time around, there was an absence of urgent, global response.

“In 2011, half the people died before the famine was declared [in East Africa], and that’s the risk we’re running again,” he added.

Mr Miliband, who introduced the world’s first legally binding emissions reduction requirements while UK environment secretary in 2006, was critical of the current Tory government’s recent reversals on climate action.

“The national security argument for low carbon is much clearer today because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine than it was a year ago,” Mr Miliband said.

“You often hear the new government in the UK is saying ‘net zero [emissions] is a threat to our economy’. No, net zero is the way to insulate our economy.

“The UK can’t solve the climate crisis on its own but it can insulate itself from ill effects and put itself on the right side of history. I think that’s really important,” Mr Miliband added.

He also said that the US has been seen as a “laggard” on the climate crisis and “strangely insouciant” given the extreme heat and destructive storms that plague many parts of the country.

However, the US’s newly passed Inflation Reduction Act signals huge change, he added. The legislation represents the biggest climate investment ever made by the US government, funnelling $369bn into clean energy investments that are expected to cut emissions by around 40 per cent by 2030 in the world’s second-largest carbon-emitting country.

“I don’t think the penny has yet dropped globally that this Inflation Reduction Act is actually ... a carbon reduction act,” Mr Miliband said.

He noted that the law would “reboot the US economy” and, while it didn’t yet prove America’s mettle as a climate leader, it was a step in the right direction: “They’ve got the chance of doing it. They’ve got commitments.”

Climate Week NYC brings together government, business and climate leaders each year in September while the United Nations General Assembly takes place across town.

On Tuesday, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres excoriated nations for being “gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction ... not ready or willing to tackle” the climate crisis, poverty or war.

The New York events are some of the last high-profile gatherings ahead of the UN climate summit, Cop27, which takes place in Egypt in a matter of weeks.

Ahead of conference, there are rising demands from countries in the Global South — which generally have small carbon footprints but are experiencing worsening extreme weather events — for wealthy, industrialized nations to provide more financial assistance. They say far greater funding is needed to help them adapt to a future with more severe heat, storms and floods, and also to compensate for the “loss and damages” of that which cannot be saved.

Rich nations failed to deliver on a promise of $100 billion in climate finance for poorer countries at Cop26 in Glasgow, despite it being pledged annually by 2020.

While Mr Miliband said he was encouraged that the EU, US and China were now somewhat aligned in commitment to sustained climate action, he added that last year’s Cop26 in Glasgow “left the glass a quarter full”. Cop27 needed to build momentum “not just on mitigation but adaptation”.

“Climate-resilient livelihoods is the issue in a lot of places,” he added. “We’ve done a lot of work on seed technology and on farmer information but it’s got to be funded. And the truth is that you can’t think about a climate adaptation fund separate from a humanitarian intervention fund.”

He added: ”Part of our job is to sustain interest in the protracted crises when the world’s moved on, [such as] the Democratic Republic of Congo. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador is becoming an acute crisis, not just a protracted one. And I think it’s really important we don’t forget about Syria because those people haven’t gone away. They remain deeply vulnerable.”

Mr Miliband said that climate and humanitarian movements need to do a better job of supporting and reinforcing each other’s work in disaster zones.

“We’ve not done a good enough job at mobilizing our collective effort,” he said. “We’ve been too siloed, which is really damaging.”

He concluded that it’s clear that escalating extreme weather events pose “a threat to the poorest people, and those often who’ve done the least to contribute to the climate crisis, but have got the weakest infrastructure to withstand it.”