Who is vulnerable to climate change?

2009-07-10

in Canada, Economics, Politics, Science, The environment

Lake in the Gatineau Park

Yesterday, I attended a meeting on climate change, security, and human rights (mentioned before). One thing about it disturbed me: namely, that the entire perspective offered was a north-south narrative of industrialized states causing harm to vulnerable populations around the world. The discussion was largely about how that harm could be reduced, and whether any legal mechanism exist through which states could be called to account, for the damage they do to the prospects of vulnerable groups.

Sadly, this perspective is over-optimistic, given the world’s track record so far. While highly vulnerable groups and poor states may be hit first and hardest by climate change, the idea that they will be the only people profoundly affected is misleading and potentially dangerous. It feeds into the flawed notion that rich states can basically keep behaving as they have in the past, with the worst possible outcome being a lot of suffering for poor people elsewhere.

The reality is that business-as-usual emissions would probably produce a mean global temperature increase of 5.5°C to 7.1°C by 2100. That is a massive enough change to raise doubts about the future of even some rich societies. Could Australian agriculture cope with that much of an increase? Could cities in the southern United States continue to provide the minimum level of water required to sustain their populations? (US Energy Secretary Stephen Chu suggested perhaps not.)

My fear is that people who expect that only the poor and vulnerable will suffer from climate change will not be sufficiently motivated to deal with the problem. Such a belief strikes me as a serious misunderstanding of both the best scientific and political assessments. It would be hard to read the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC and not conclude that people in rich countries face acute vulnerability to unchecked climate change. Similarly, the basic message of economic analyses like those performed by Nicholas Stern is that the costs of inaction are very high, especially when compared with the real but comparatively modest price of dealing with the problem.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. July 10, 2009 at 10:09 am

My fear is that people who expect that only the poor and vulnerable will suffer from climate change will not be sufficiently motivated to deal with the problem.

I think you’re right to worry about this. Concern about the welfare of poor people has been a pretty weak motivator, when it comes to the behaviour of states. That is especially true when powerful domestic interests resist the actions that would be required to avoid the harm.

If a big domestic mining company can only turn a good profit and maintain employment by dynamiting villages in Africa, well then thank god for dynamite!

. July 10, 2009 at 11:36 am

“[E]ven a “moderate” warming of 2°C stands a strong chance of provoking drought and storm responses that could challenge civilized society, leading potentially to the conflict and suffering that go with failed states and mass migrations. Global warming of 2°C would leave the Earth warmer than it has been in millions of years, a disruption of climate conditions that have been stable for longer than the history of human agriculture. Given the drought that already afflicts Australia, the crumbling of the sea ice in the Arctic, and the increasing storm damage after only 0.8°C of warming so far, a target of 2°C seems almost cavalier."

Sarah July 10, 2009 at 12:02 pm

It seems as though a lot of people are gambling everything on the science being wrong about the scale of the temperature changes we’re facing and the likely consequences of that. This may relate to the broader point you’ve made before about people’s general inability to understand risk, and the discount rates between present and future. When I’m feeling cynical I suspect that large sections of the population simply believe that their present matters more than their future, and that the future beyond their own lifespan doesn’t matter whatsoever.

Milan July 10, 2009 at 12:10 pm
BuddyRich July 10, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Assuming you don’t already have, or plan to have kids, and are otherwise a pretty selfish individual to not care about friends and family who do have or plan to have kids, then I would argue that the future beyond that individuals lifespan doesn’t matter (to that individual at least). Not to mention its been the mantra for the past 20 to 30 years to “live in the moment”, “live life like there is no tomorrow”, etc… I am not sure when overriding individualism crept into the mainstream consciousness, but I do think it makes it a harder sell to get people behind climate change today than 70 years ago as when western society mobilized for WWII for example. Nor am I impling that individualism is bad…

Milan July 10, 2009 at 5:11 pm

We had a little survey before, on the value of humanity.

Green socialism July 10, 2009 at 6:57 pm

All this concern for poor states shows AGW for what it is – a cash grab between states with huge brith rates and others with most of the money.

Matt July 10, 2009 at 10:09 pm

All this concern for poor states shows AGW for what it is – a cash grab between states with huge brith rates and others with most of the money.

This statement makes little sense. In order for something to be a cash grab, it has to be a policy or a tax, or something like that (but not all policies/taxes are cash grabs). AGW stands for Anthropogenic Global Warming, which is neither a policy or a tax. Rather, it’s a concept that the things humans put into the air, CO2 generally but also things like refrigerants, are causing an unnatural increase in average global temperatures with severely negative consequences which are outlined elsewhere on this blog.

Furthermore, the phrase “cash grab between states” doesn’t really make sense either because “between” in this instance implies co-operation, sort of opposite to how most people view a “cash grab.” If you have more specific an explanation of what you mean, I’d be interested in reading it.

There’s one thing I agree with you about, though: Birth rates are too high.

Tristan July 11, 2009 at 3:56 pm

” the phrase “cash grab between states” doesn’t really make sense either because “between” in this instance implies co-operation, sort of opposite to how most people view a “cash grab.” If you have more specific an explanation of what you mean, I’d be interested in reading it.”

AGW is a huge cash grab between states. Some states develop first, extenalizing huge costs, which they don’t pay in cash. Then, AGW becomes noticable, and states that have not developed yet are not allowed to externalize to profit in the same way. In fact, they can exteranlize to profit even less than they could have if the other states hadn’t done it first. So, in very simple terms, AGW is a cash grab between states that developed before “we knew better” (bullshit), and those who are developing now.

If you think of “cash” only as positive credit, not the lack of enforced debt, then it would be hard to see this – but it would also be a negligantly thin notion of “cash” as the notion might apply to states.

. July 14, 2009 at 12:49 pm

Real victims of climate change: the world’s poor

Jul 11, 2009 04:30 AM

Peter Gorrie

“My husband used to be a rice farmer (until sea water flooded his land and others took it over for shrimp farming.) He had to go to the forest to collect honey.

“One afternoon three years ago he found a beehive. He went to climb the tree, but then he was caught by a tiger and killed. He was 30 years old.”

Fahima Begum, a 28-year-old mother of two young children in Bangladesh, tells the story. It’s in a report on climate change impacts released this week by Oxfam International.

She continues: “There are no fish in the river, no jobs in the village. Now we are suffering a lot, especially due to the lack of clean water. (The sea water also ruined that resource.) We collected water from (a pond) more than a kilometre away… My children are suffering from diarrhea. On one hand they starve, and the water makes it worse.

“Maybe I could leave… But I don’t know where I would go, because I haven’t even crossed the river. I don’t know how to go, because I don’t know where to go.”

. July 15, 2009 at 10:17 am

Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Climate change may cause civilisation to collapse
Ani, Washington

The biggest single report to look at the future of the planet has said that due to climate change, “billions of people will be condemned to poverty and much of civilisation will collapse”.

The stark warning from the report has been obtained by The Independent, ahead of its official publication next month.

The impact of the global recession is a key theme in the report, with researchers warning that global clean energy, food availability, poverty and the growth of democracy around the world are at “risk of getting worse due to the recession”.

“Too many greedy and deceitful decisions led to a world recession and demonstrated the international interdependence of economics and ethics,” the report added.

Although the future has been looking better for most of the world over the past 20 years, the global recession has lowered the State of the Future Index for the next 10 years.

oleh July 21, 2009 at 2:33 am

Re who is vulnerable to climate change, I was invited to sign a petition regarding climate change being circulated by Oxfam Canada at yesterday’s Vancouver Folk Festival. The petition referred to 4 single sentence points. Three of them singled out women as either being more affected or needing to be more involved in climate change issues. I signed the petition as I felt in general support of action on climate change. However, I felt confused by the repeated reference to women in an issue such as climate change which I see as gender neutral.

oleh July 21, 2009 at 2:41 am

Regarding my entry above, I copied the following from the Oxfam Canada website which sets out the preamble for and the four specific points in the petition

WOMEN LIVING IN POVERTY ARE THE LEAST RESPONSIBLE
FOR CLIMATE CHANGE YET THE MOST BURDENED BY ITS IMPACT.
Together, we must demand that our governments and decision-makers commit to real action
to stop harming, and start helping at the UN negotiations in Copenhagen this December 2009.
I call on Canada to promote a fair and just global deal that:
• Significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions
• Provides funding to help women living in poverty adapt to climate change
• Supports women’s leadership in climate action
• Enables women to utilize green technology

It does seem to me that the mixing of climate change and women’s issues reflects a gender bias on an issue that will effect us all. Hence it seems unnecessarily divisive on gender lines

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