Climate change, people and poverty

Shifting seasons are destroying harvests and causing widespread hunger – but this is just one of the multiple climate change impacts taking their toll on the world’s poorest people.

In July 2009, Oxfam published their report, Suffering the Science: Climate Change, People and Poverty, to coincide with the G8 Summit in Italy, where climate change and food security were high on the agenda. The report warns that without immediate action 50 years of development gains in poor countries will be permanently lost. Climate-related hunger could be the defining human tragedy of this century.

The Oxfam report outlines evidence of how climate change is affecting every issue linked to poverty and development today, including: hunger, agriculture, health, labour, water, disasters and displacement.

To tell this story Oxfam brought together the voices of two communities – scientists who study the impact of climate change, and the people who are suffering harm now. There are people behind every statistic:

  • One report estimates that 26 million people have already been displaced because of climate change.
  • 375 million people may be affected by climate-related disasters by 2015.
  • 200 million people may be on the move each year by 2050 because of hunger, environmental degradation and loss of land.
  • Several major cities that are dependent on water from mountain ranges face collapse.
  • Farmers from all over the world are experiencing seasons that appear to have ‘shrunk’, to either ‘hotter and dry’ or ‘hotter and wet’. Seasons, they say, are becoming less distinct. They are uncertain when best to cultivate, sow and harvest.

Scientists are observing increasing evidence of changes and breakdowns in natural systems from a changing climate caused by rising carbon emissions. For the poor countries in the tropics and sub-tropics particularly, almost every observation and prediction about health, food security, water shortage, natural disasters, famine, drought and conflict is worsening at an alarming rate.  Climate change is an added burden – yet another threat to their ability to cope with poverty. It is interacting with existing problems and making them worse.

Climate change’s most savage impact on humanity in the near future is likely to be in the increase of hunger. Some of the world’s staple crops, such as maize and rice, are very susceptible to rising temperatures and to more unpredictably extreme seasons. Almost without exception, the countries with existing problems in feeding their people are those most at risk from climate change.

The impacts on people’s health are frighteningly diverse. Climate change is bringing water- and insect-borne diseases of the tropics to hundreds of millions of people with no previous knowledge of them. In hotter temperatures people will be unable to work for as long due to heat stress, and if they do their health may suffer.

Climate-related disasters have been increasing in frequency at an extraordinary rate. Extend the line of the graph that charts such events between 1975 and 2008, and it says that in 2030 we will experience more than three times as many such disasters as today.

Water supply is now so acutely challenged that several major cities that are dependent on the Himalayan and Andes glaciers will face crippling shortages within decades.

Climate-driven migration is already a reality, destroying livelihoods, communities and cultures, and leaving women alone and vulnerable to deal with agricultural work and to look after children. Governments are concerned that climate change will spark increasing conflict between countries as scarcity of vital water supplies brings bitter disputes over their control.

‘Two degrees’ is the target upon which more than 100 governments are basing their strategies, because the rich world has deemed this could be an ‘economically acceptable’ one. However, even warming of 2°C entails a devastating future for at least 660 million people.

Lord Stern, former chief economist to the World Bank, says there is “a big probability of a devastating outcome” and that “the likelihood of global warming in the 21st century even beyond the threshold of a 2.4°C increase is dangerously high”. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the advisor to the German chancellor on climate change, says that on the basis of the new evidence, he thinks anything up to 5°C of warming is ‘likely’ by 2100 under a ‘business as usual’ scenario. Under such a scenario, Schellnhuber expects the human population of the world to fall to just one billion.

Oxfam’s message is: Don’t give up. Rich countries must cut their emissions now, and give developing countries the means to pursue low-carbon futures and to cope with the harmful effects of climate change. The true cost of climate change will not be measured in dollars, but in lives and human potential. That price is being paid already.

To read the full report ….



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