September 13, 2008

Climate Change Hits the Poorest Hardest

In a report on the UNFCCC climate change conference in Bali last December, David B. Sandalow of the Brookings Institution, the influential Washington based think tank, pointed out that:

The most important outcomes of the Bali climate change conference didn’t make the headlines… yet Bali produced three important outcomes. First, developing countries stepped up to the table… Second, a new consensus on deforestation emerged… Finally, “adaptation” moved toward center stage. Today the world faces a sobering reality: even the most aggressive plans will not prevent some amount of global warming in the decades ahead. The consequences for poor developing countries are predicted to be most severe.

Mr. Sandalow quoted Nobel peace prize-winner Al Gore as saying in Bali:

A sense of urgency that is appropriate to this challenge is itself a challenge to our moral imagination.

Last month the Brookings Institution held a conference on global poverty, at which Al Gore was one of the keynote speakers. At this conference a number of challenges to our collective moral imagination were presented.

The speakers at the conference were not debating whether climate change is happening or not, nor how to prevent it happening in the future. Their assumption was that climate change is inevitable, and their agenda was concerned with adaptation to that change. Evidence presented at the conference  suggested that climate change affects the poorest people on the planet most severely – A total of 1 billion people. Poor countries are vulnerable because the things the poorest depend on most are hit hardest by global warming: tropical forests, dry-land agriculture and subsistence fishing.

Yale University's Robert Mendelsohn outlined the effects of climate change on the global food crisis:

Potential reductions in global food production after 2050 would raise world food prices, creating hardships for many poor households. Low-latitude poor farmers, especially those dependent on rainfed agriculture, may face nearer term reductions in productivity. Water could also become scarcer for both the rural and urban poor. Changes in global agricultural production will affect every poor household in the world. All of the world’s poor spend a disproportionate share of their income on food so they are particularly vulnerable to changes in food prices.

Manish Bapna and Heather McGray of the World Resources Institute addressed the issue of how to finance adaptation efforts in developing countries:

Climate change is upon us. The earth is warming, seasons are shifting, species are moving, and water is flowing at different times and in different amounts. The accelerating and deepening impacts of climate change will touch everyone on earth in some way, but those who stand to suffer most are the poor… It is already too late to avert serious consequences, so we must also learn to adapt to a warmer world. The question of how humanity adapts to climate change is a pressing issue for national and international agencies tasked with providing financial and technical assistance to reduce poverty in developing countries… That the poor are the people least responsible for global warming makes these efforts all the more imperative.

Joshua W. Busby from the University of Texas at Austin emphasised the security implications:

Consensus over the links between climate change and international security is beginning to form among climate scientists, development academics, and policymakers. Developing countries are most vulnerable, partly as an accident of geography, but also because vulnerability is made worse by poverty, bad governance, and past conflict… Increased frequency of natural disasters may lead to increased frequency (and stretching) of military forces…  To reduce the impact of climate on security concerns, international actors should focus on mitigation, adaptation, and information generation. National actors can best respond by forming regional partnerships for responding to disasters. Private actors should study and respond to the impact climate change will have on their existing projects and help foster community resilience.

I'm not sure that I feel awfully like a "private actor", so I'll try and rephrase that last point:

Concerned citizens of this planet should study and respond to the impact climate change will have on their lives and the lives of other people.

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