Climate emergency and the poor

In all my lectures on climate change, I always emphasize the double injustice in climate change: the poorest countries and the poorest communities in all countries will suffer first and most from climate change even as they have contributed the least to the anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions that causes climate change. Conversely, the richest countries and the wealthiest people in all countries will have more options in dealing with climate change.

This gross climate injustice and inequity will be exacerbated in the years and decades to come, as made clear in a recent report by Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. That report, issued last June 25, concluded: “Climate change will have devastating consequences for people in poverty. Even under the best-case scenario, hundreds of millions will face food insecurity, forced migration, disease, and death. Climate change threatens the future of human rights and risks undoing the last fifty years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction.”

The Alston report, from which I lifted most of what I say in this column, does not mince words, outlining how climate change will intensify existing poverty and inequality:  “It will have the most severe impacts in poor countries and regions, and the places poor people live and work. Developing countries will bear an estimated 75-80 percent of the costs of climate change.”

This is because poor people live in areas more vulnerable to climate change, including in housing that is less resistant. The poor “lose relatively more when affected; have fewer resources to mitigate the effects; and get less support from social safety nets or the financial system to prevent or recover from the impact”. For obvious reasons, the livelihoods and assets of the poor are more exposed. In addition, poor communities are “more vulnerable to natural disasters that bring disease, crop failure, spikes in food prices, and death or disability”.

These observations are true in the Philippines. We have seen the poor suffer the most in all our big disasters, including when Yolanda devastated the Visayas, Pablo destroyed huge areas of Mindanao, and Sendong killed thousands in Cagayan de Oro.

Alston observes that climate change could end up undoing decades of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction. He notes: “Middle-class families, including in developed countries, are also being rendered poor. The World Bank estimates that without immediate action, climate change could push 120 million more people into poverty by 2030—likely an underestimate, and rising in subsequent years. Eight hundred million in South Asia alone live in climate hotspots and will see their living conditions decline sharply by 2050.

Quoting the most recent scientific studies, Alston points out that, at 2 °C degrees of warming, 100-400 million more people will be put at risk of hunger and 1-2 billion more people may no longer have adequate water. He also cites studies on how climate change could result in global crop yield losses of 30 percent by 2080, even with adaptation measures.

The Alston report highlights public health impacts, which the poor will bear disproportionately: “Between 2030 and 2050, it is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress. With people in poverty largely uninsured, climate change will exacerbate health shocks that already push 100 million into poverty every year.

Alston describes how poor people in poverty face serious threats of losing their homes, highlighting how in 2050, climate change could displace 140 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America alone. He emphasized the impact of flooding and landslides, weakening “already degraded infrastructure and housing—especially for people living in unplanned or unserviced settlements”.  According to Alston, “2017 saw 18.8 million people displaced due to disasters in 135 countries—almost twice the number displaced by conflict. Moreover, since 2000, “people in poor countries have died from disasters at rates seven times higher than in wealthy countries’. Sadly, he points out, “authorities have a history of prioritizing wealthier areas for protection, further endangering people in poverty.

As I noted at the beginning of this article, what is particularly galling about climate change is the inequity and injustice that characterizes it. Alston documents this as well: “Perversely, the richest, who have the greatest capacity to adapt and are responsible for and have benefitted from the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions, will be the best placed to cope with climate change, while the poorest, who have contributed the least to emissions and have the least capacity to react, will be the most harmed. The poorest half of the world’s population—3.5 billion people—is responsible for just 10 percent of carbon emissions, while the richest 10 percent are responsible for a full half. A person in the wealthiest 1 percent uses 175 times more carbon than one in the bottom 10 percent.”

Alston also cites data that illustrates how “climate change itself has already worsened global inequality and that the gap in per capita income between the richest and poorest countries is 25 percentage points larger than it would be without climate change.”

In the face of these impacts, action has been wanting. According to Alston: “Somber speeches by government officials at regular conferences are not leading to meaningful action. Thirty years of conventions appear to have done very little. From Toronto to Noordwijk to Rio to Kyoto to Paris, the language has been remarkably similar as States continue to kick the can down the road. The essential elements of climate change were understood in the 1970s, and scientists and advocates have been ringing alarm bells for decades. Yet States have marched past every scientific warning and threshold, and what was once considered catastrophic warming now seems like a best-case scenario.”

It’s not just governments that have failed us. Big business has been complicit, especially fossil fuel companies: “In 2015, the fossil fuel industry and its products accounted for 91 percent of global industrial greenhouse emissions and 70 percent of all human-made emissions.  It is an industry that has known for decades about their responsibility for rising CO2 levels and the likelihood that the rise would lead to catastrophic climate change. And yet, it took no action to change its business model.

According to the Alston report:  “From 1988 to 2015, fossil fuel companies doubled their contribution to global warming, producing in 28 years the equivalent of their emissions in the prior 237 years since the Industrial Revolution. During that time, just 100 companies produced 71 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Finally, the report concludes with constructive proposals on how to move forward: “Addressing climate change will require a fundamental shift in the global economy and how States have historically sought prosperity, decoupling improvements in economic well-being and poverty reduction from resource depletion, fossil fuel emissions, and waste production. This will entail radical and systemic changes including incentives, pricing, regulation, and resource allocation, in order to disrupt unsustainable approaches and reflect environmental costs in entire economic subsystems including energy, agriculture, manufacturing, construction, and transportation.

We can still avert the worst impacts of climate change. The poor does not have to be sacrificed and thrown to the mercies of the storms and droughts that are coming. But to succeed in this, we must declare a climate emergency now – globally, nationally, and locally.

Visit this website to access the article.

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