Climate change to hit the world’s poor
Climate change to hit the world’s poor

A new report by the World Bank, Shockwaves: Managing the Impact of Climate Change on Poverty, highlights the threat posed by climate change to the world’s poorest communities. According to the report, “[C]limate change could force more than 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030”.

The report’s publication comes after the much-hyped adoption of a new set of 17 “sustainable development goals”by the United Nations General Assembly in September, and shortly before the opening of the UN climate conference in Paris later this month.

The first of the development goals agreed by the UN is to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere”. An interim target under this goal is to halve the number of people living in poverty and eradicate extreme poverty by 2030. Extreme poverty is defined as living on less than US$1.25 a day. There are currently 1 billion people in this category.

The message from the World Bank is clear. If we continue on our current path of rapid warming and growing inequality, ambitious development goals like this will be impossible to achieve. In fact, things are only likely to get worse.

The most significant impact will come through declining yields in agriculture. According to modelling referred to in the report, global crop yields could decline by as much as 5 percent by 2030 and 30 percent by 2080.

Declining yields have the potential to cause the kind of rapid increases in food prices that, in 2008, drove around 100 million people into poverty. Another study cited in the report found, “[I]n parts of Africa and Asia, climate-related price adjustments could increase poverty rates for non-agricultural households by 20-50 percent”.

This will be exacerbated by the impact of climate change on ecosystems. The report doesn’t attempt the same kind of quantification of the effects in this area, and it isn’t factored into the headline figures on poverty. Nevertheless, it notes that the impact could be “catastrophic”, citing, for example, “small island states or low-lying coastal areas” that will be rendered “completely uninhabitable” in the longer term.

The increasing frequency of extreme weather and natural disasters such as droughts, floods and fires is another area of concern. The report points out that under a high-emissions scenario, the heat wave in Europe in 2003, which killed more than 70,000 people, will be an average summer by the end of the century.

According to the report, “[T]he number of drought days could increase by more than 20 percent in most of the world by 2080”. There is also the potential for more devastating floods, with the number of people exposed to flooding increasing by up to 15 percent by 2030 and 29 percent by 2080.

The final area examined in the report is health. Diseases that disproportionately affect poorer communities, such as malaria and diarrhoea, are expected to increase in a warming world. According to the report, “[W]arming of 2° C or 3° C could increase the number of people at risk for malaria by up to 5 percent, or more than 150 million people”.

Deaths from pollution are also expected to increase. The report cites a study showing that “climate change could cause annually an additional 100,000 premature deaths associated with exposure to small particulate matter and 6,300 premature deaths associated with ozone exposure”.

This is the future we can expect in a world of runaway warming. The richest few – those whose economic activities have contributed the most to climate change – will be able to ward off the worst of its effects. The poor’s already precarious existence will be increasingly threatened: natural disasters, hunger and disease will become a “new norm” from which there is little chance of escape.

The World Bank recommends that governments work rapidly to build up support structures – infrastructure, health care, welfare and so on – that can help poor communities adapt to the effects of climate change that are already “locked in”.

Alongside this, it advocates measures, such as investment in renewable energy and public transport, that can help achieve the goal of limiting long-term warming to between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius.

In the face of the climate crisis, governments should be doing all these things and more. There’s enough money sloshing around the global capitalist system – in spiralling corporate profits, giant asset bubbles and tax havens – both to end poverty and to fund a rapid shift to a 100 percent renewable world energy system. The question is: why isn’t it happening?

The answer is suggested, perhaps unintentionally, by the World Bank itself. In discussing the need for infrastructure investment to “reduce the long-term vulnerability of the population” to climate change, the report notes that “investing where it is most cost-efficient would risk concentrating resources on wealthier populations at the expense of poor communities”.

This gets to the heart of it. Capitalism is centred on profit, and profit means, above all “investing where it is most cost efficient”. In today’s world, what’s most “cost efficient” for the richest few who control the vast majority of global wealth is to continue doing what has made them rich in the first place – scouring the world for new markets and resources to exploit, and doing it with little or no regard for the environment or the lives and livelihoods of the poor.

The bank’s analysis of climate change and poverty implies the need to challenge the core, competitive dynamics of capitalism. But, as one of the central institutions that has, historically, upheld and extended the power and privilege of the super-rich by extending their reach into developing markets, it can’t and won’t draw the obvious conclusions.

Its analysis may provide some insight into the particular threat that climate change poses to the world’s poor. But the report’s prescriptions, such as building new infrastructure by “leveraging private resources … which involves well-known steps like improving the investment climate, developing local capital markets, and providing a pipeline of ‘bankable’ projects” will do nothing to improve the situation.

Naomi Klein put it well in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. If we’re serious about tackling climate change, we can’t waste any more time “attempting to make the square peg of the climate crisis fit into the round hole of deregulated capitalism”.

We need a movement that tackles the interests of the rich and powerful head on, liberating us from the drive to profit, and mobilising the collective wealth and labour of humanity to create a just and sustainable global economy.

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