Poorest people suffer as global leaders dither on climate change
Barely a month after the world’s “climate champions” gathered in the Polish coal city of Katowice, where they finished yet another fruitless meeting in a bid to tackle climate change, comes a report that the rate of ice melt in Antarctica continues to accelerate, raising sea levels across the globe.
The study says that ice loss in Antarctica has increased from 40 billion tons a year in 1979 to 252 billion in 2015. The continent holds a majority of the planet’s ice and, if all of it were to melt, it would cause the average sea level to rise by more than 57 meters. The alarming acceleration in the melting of ice is bound to send shivers down the spines of the leaders of many developing nations, who cannot even begin to imagine a world with that kind of rise in sea levels, as they are already fighting a losing battle with sea levels rising only by a few centimeters.
A large majority of these are island states in the Pacific and Indian Oceans that are already facing existential threats due to rising sea waters flooding their low-lying areas. The Maldives is losing islands to the sea at a rapid clip, while Bangladesh has seen a record rise in soil erosion all along its coastline as well as in the Ganges Delta, leading to the destruction of thousands of square kilometers of wetlands that acted as a buffer and protected the coastline from the numerous cyclones that hit the country all year long.
According to a study by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, the sharp rise in the number of natural disasters has seen direct economic losses jump from $895 billion for the years 1978 to 1997 to $2.3 trillion in the following 20 years. This represents a significant hit even for a well-to-do economy like the US, while for poorer countries it is little short of ruinous. Climate-related disasters have lopped significant points off the gross domestic products of many poor nations in the past decade and pushed them closer to the brink of bankruptcy.
Even within a country, the negative effects of climate-related disasters seem to impact the poor communities much more significantly than the rich. For instance, while the rich may be able to weather a flood or a drought, for the poor the results can be catastrophic, ranging from their homes being damaged to their crops being ruined. The disruption of normal life by floods and other natural catastrophes also hits the poor the hardest, as many of them survive on daily wages and can ill-afford any breaks in their work, no matter how short. Those with the smallest carbon footprint, who have had the least role in climate change, end up paying the highest price.
According to one study, climate-related disasters killed thousands of people, mainly in the developing world, and caused damage and economic losses of more than $320 billion in 2017. The first estimates for 2018 are even worse, as there was a sharp rise in major disasters, with 10 events that led to damages of over $1 billion each.
While the disasters and their immediate aftermath do get attention, the rise in frequency of these disasters also means that global attention toward these events is rather short. But the poor — who are the worst impacted, have no insurance coverage and depend on government or civil society handouts to rebuild their lives — often end up struggling for years to rebuild their lives and get back to the economic level they were at before the disaster.
Climate change can induce wars or exacerbate tensions between neighboring nations as rivers or lakes dry up.
Ranvir S. Nayar
Another issue that goes unnoticed is that climatic changes tend to exacerbate violent conflicts that often grip the poorest places in the world. Take the example of Mali, the West African nation that has been in turmoil due to battles between the government and a clutch of Tuareg rebels and Daesh for more than a decade. The lives of the poor in the Sahel area of northern Mali had already been disrupted by the war, as they fled their homes to seek shelter from the bombs and the bullets. To add to their misery, the entire region has been in the grip of an extreme drought, pushing these civilians to the verge of famine and even making the rebel armies fight among themselves over the few remaining water sources.
Terrible as it may be, the situation of the Malinese is hardly unique. Climate change can induce wars or exacerbate tensions between neighboring nations as rivers or lakes dry up. The list of challenges is endless, yet there seems to be no sense of urgency or even a clear direction that the world is taking to tackle the climate change phenomenon head-on and with a coordinated, global strategy to immediately arrest the accelerating rise in carbon dioxide emissions.
While scientists have been pleading for an immediate and drastic cut in these emissions, the reality on the ground is just the opposite as, after years of no growth, the world has been pumping out carbon dioxide, the gas primarily responsible for global warming, at a furiously rising rate. Carbon dioxide emissions grew by 1.6 percent in 2017 and by 2.7 percent in 2018 to hit an all-time high of more than 37 billion tons.
The US saw its emissions rise by 2.5 percent in 2018, China by 4.6 percent and India by 6.3 percent. But, on a per capita basis, India’s emissions continue to represent a fraction of that of the developed nations. Even the EU, which had been the best student of the lessons in climate change, saw its carbon dioxide emissions rise.
The poor are already paying for climate change, often with their lives and in large numbers. How long can the global “envirocrats” sleep over this?
• Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India that encompasses publishing, communication, and consultation services.