Updated: Apr 13, 2020
This is the second post in my series, The Picture: big and small. In my first post I explored how land and oceans are integral to the survival of the earth (pretty obvious) and how they are threatened by climate change and pollution. I started big, and over the next few weeks I will be getting smaller, finally ending with why our actions matter. In this post I look at the ways in which climate change affects people, and what that means. This is one of the most compelling arguments in favour of taking action on climate change. I am incredibly passionate about what is written below and I have been looking forward to sharing it with you. I hope that you will come to feel the same way!
The shocking truth
In my previous blog I wrote about the ways in which our natural environment is being affected by climate change. I highlighted things like sea level rise, extreme weather conditions, access to water, desertification and deforestation. But why do these things really matter (apart from the fact that the earth is beautiful and worth saving), and whom do they matter to most?
The truth: those most affected by climate change are not those who have contributed to it most.
In fact, climate change is a perfect example of the imbalance of our earth. We, in the West, do not see the consequences of our consumerism and materialism. But people living in developing nations, many of whom live in poverty, pay for our lifestyles. The UN says that changing weather patterns, rising sea levels and extreme weather events are affecting "the poorest and most vulnerable people...the most". This is because "climate change has a greater impact on those sections of the population, in all countries, that are most reliant on natural resources for their livelihoods and/or who have the least capacity to respond to natural hazards, such as droughts, landslides, floods and hurricanes" (UNFCCC).
Historical contributors to climate change
The largest historical contributors to climate change are those countries that we would now call 'developed'. Countries that went through an Industrial Revolution, which undoubtedly sparked development, were the culprits of huge greenhouse gas emissions (a total of 79% between 1850 and 2011!). Check out the pie chart below:
Biggest contributors to climate change now
Developing countries are now contributing more to climate change - because they are developing. However we have to find a way to allow them to "continue developing under the planetary carbon limits that rich countries have already pushed too far" (Centre for Global Development).
(Say what?) Basically, we are in a position now where the largest historical contributors to climate change have become rich, in part due to their disregard for the earth's boundaries and limitations, but developing countries are facing limitations that may impede their own development. This is made worse by the fact that they will be hit hardest by the effects of climate change (totally unfair...).
Aside from who historically caused climate change or who is contributing to it now, what is of utmost importance is that people living in poverty will be affected by it the most. Period.
"Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps” (IPCC Report, p.20).
So lets have a look at some of the ways in which this works out.
"Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability" (Centre for Global Development). This one is pretty simple. Extreme weather events, caused or exacerbated by climate change, will affect people living in poverty the most because they do not have the wealth and resources to adapt or respond to them in time.
There is "risk of food insecurity and the breakdown of food systems linked to warming, drought, flooding, and precipitation variability and extremes, particularly for poorer populations" (Centre for Global Development). The truth here is that you and me are not going to go hungry. We, both us personally and our government, have enough money to ensure that the majority of us can have access to food even when food insecurity begins to hit the earth hard. Of course there are people within developing nations who live in food poverty already, I am not denying that, but our country as a whole is not going to be the one that starves.
Luc Gnacadja, executive secretary of UN's Convention to Combat Desertification argues, "the reason desertification has not been a priority is because 90% of the 2.1 billion people who live in drylands live in developing countries" (The Guardian). The brutal truth is that people living in poverty globally are already hungry, and when food production becomes seriously threatened by climate change they will be the ones to suffer most. They are last on the global agenda. That's the truth, and it sucks...
Water is key to human health and well-being. However, in our current state, many people lack access to clean water. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, stated, "close to one-third of people drink water that endangers health. Even more people lack adequate sanitation" (UN Information Service). All of this will be compounded by climate change.
"Climate change over the 21st century is projected to reduce renewable surface water and groundwater resources significantly" (Centre for Global Development). The UN has reported that by 2030 demand for water will exceed supply by 40%, that means almost half of the population will suffer severe water stress (when water resources are insufficient to supply the need). Once again, those in developing nations are far more likely to suffer from water scarcity. For example, droughts specifically will affect some of the world’s poorest countries, "worsening hunger and malnutrition" (UN).
Gender inequality is exacerbated by poverty and climate change. In fact,"70% of the world’s poor are women" (IUCN). As we know, people living in poverty are more likely to feel the effects of climate change, and within this women and girls will be hit hardest.
Throughout history there is a narrative of gender inequality, women have more limited access to resources, restricted rights, less power and voice in decision making. This makes them more vulnerable to climate change. The Women's Environmental Network states that women are more likely than men to:
die in climate change-related disasters,
be responsible for increased collection of water and fuel, made more difficult by increased incidence of drought or other climate changes,
feel the effects of rising food prices the most, and be the first to suffer during food shortages,
suffer exacerbated health inequalities,
suffer from violence in resource conflicts,
be responsible for adapting to the effects of climate change, increasing their workload.
Luc Gnacadja reported that "increased aridity is making the drylands the most conflict prone region of the world...If you really want to look at the root causes of the conflicts in Somalia and Darfur, and drylands of Asia, you will understand that people in their quest to have access to productive land and water for life, they end up in conflict" (The Guardian). For thousands of years wars have been fought over resources, they still are. Climate change is making our resources scarcer, and more valuable, which inevitably will lead to more conflict. As we know, more often than not, conflict directly affects the lives of people living in poverty.
So how to end... Reading about issues like this is tough - it makes us feel uncomfortable and so we want to ignore it, it makes us feel guilty and so we want to forget it, it makes us feel helpless and so we argue we can do nothing to stop it. But it is important to know these things, because if we don't know that climate change is hurting people then why should we really care?
I am someone who cares about justice. I grew up in post-apartheid South Africa and went on to study International Development at university. These issues are ones that I intimately know and care about. But I understand that for many of us climate change is something we don't see the effects of, something we don't fully understand. That is why I started this blog. So that we could, together, start a journey of better understanding. But it has a purpose. That purpose is to empower us, ordinary people, to do something. And the first thing we should do in this case is love. Love people. Love people you don't know, who live on the other side of the world. Love them, and then maybe together we can find a way to do something.
My next post in this series will be looking at the biggest emitters of CO2. This was something I floated on instagram and received loads of interest in. So I will be looking at the big, global causes of CO2 emissions, but also the biggest causes in our personal lives. I will ink it back to this post, and my previous one. The picture is getting smaller, closer to home. I hope you're excited!
If you'd like to check out the first blog in this series then click here. Otherwise, I hope you enjoyed this post and I'll see you for the next one!
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