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How are the poor impacted by climate change?

What the science says...

Those who contribute the least greenhouse gases will be most impacted by climate change.

Climate Myth...

CO2 limits will hurt the poor
"Legally mandated measures for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are likely to have significant adverse impacts on GDP growth of developing countries, including India." (Pradipto Ghosh, as quoted by Associated Press)

The central question of climate change is, How will it affect humanity? This question can be examined by estimating which regions are most vulnerable to future climate change (Samson et al 2011). The researchers then compared the global map of climate vulnerability to a global map of carbon dioxide emissions. The disturbing finding was that the countries that have contributed the least to carbon dioxide emissions are the same regions that will be most affected by the impacts of climate change.

To estimate the impact of climate change on people, James Samson and his co-authors developed a new metric called Climate Demography Vulnerability Index (CDVI). This takes into account how regional climate will change as well as how much local population is expected to grow. They incorporated this index into a global map and found highly vulnerable regions included central South America, the Middle East and both eastern and southern Africa. Less vulnerable regions were largely in the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere.

Figure 1: Global Climate Demography Vulnerability Index. Red corresponds to more vulnerable regions, blue to less vulnerable regions. White areas corresponds to regions with little or no population (Samson et al 2011).

Next, they created a map of national carbon dioxide emissions per capita. They found the countries most severely impacted by climate change contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions. It is quite striking that blue, less-polluting regions in the CO2 emissions map correspond to the red, highly vulnerable areas in the vulnerability map.

Figure 2: National average per capita CO2 emissions based on OECD/IEA 2006 national CO2 emissions (OECD/IEA, 2008)  and UNPD 2006 national population size (UNPD, 2007).

The study didn't delve into the question of which countries are least able to adapt to the impacts of climate change. But it doesn't take a great leap of the imagination to surmise that the poor, developing countries that emit the least pollution are also those with the least amount of infrastructure to deal with climate impacts. So we are left with a double irony - the countries that contribute least to global warming are both the most impacted and the least able to adapt.

This research put into perspective those who try to delay climate action, arguing that "CO2 limits will hurt the poor". This argument is usually code for "rich, developed countries should be able to pollute as much as they like". This presents us with a moral hazard. If those who are emitting the most greenhouse gas are the least affected by direct global warming impacts, how shall we motivate them to change?

Last updated on 29 March 2011 by John Cook.

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Comments 1 to 10:

  1. This article doesn't really adress the point.

    The skeptic argument you underscore is : 'CO2 limits will hurt the poor. Legally mandated measures for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are likely to have significant adverse impacts on GDP growth of developing countries. This in turn will have serious implications for our poverty alleviation programs.'

    To show that CO2 rise will harm the poor (Samson et al 2011) does not tell us if the skeptic argument above is right or wrong. A better way to do so would be to show that poverty alleviaton does not imply a carbon rise.
  2. Ray, (replying from here) Your characteriztion of "western powers" seems seriously at odds with what I see. If you dont mitigate emissions, then the studies show climate change will affect the poorer countries much harder than the west. Kyoto didnt apply to undeveloped nations. Negotiation have focussed on reduction of emissions in west so poorer nations can grow and on the west (who are historically responsible for almost all of the extra GHG currently in atmosphere) funding ways for growth in these countries in ways that doesnt damage the climate. Can you interpret Doha in any other way??

  3. For a look at historical emissions and what would be an equitable distribution, look at the opening of MacKay's "Sustainable energy without the hot air", specifically here.

  4. One other thought from discussions with rabid libertarians that objected to any kind of international agreement on grounds that it was one set of nations interfering with liberty of another. The usual addendum to complete freedom of action is the assumption of full responsibility for the consequences of action. I have no problem with this. So if we scrapped any international negotiation, how happy would you be with apportioning the full costs of adaptation whereever they occur (since you cant keep you emissions within your boundaries) on the basis of accumulative emissions that caused the problem? That would include countries taking their share of refugees?

    On that basis, USA, UK and Germany would bear the brute of adaptation costs. Since studies show adaptation more expensive than mitigation, I woiuld mitigate real fast to avoid the liability.

  5. scaddenp.  Have you actually looked at the takeup of the Doha meeting?  The major polluters are noticable by their absence.  US, Canada, China, India.  37 countries signed onto the Doha agreement.  These countries are responsible for 15% of the global emissions.  Not exactly a stunning result by our leaders in view of the stated seriousness of climate change.   But what was the opinion of concerned groups?  

    Asad Rehman head of climate and energy at Friends of the Earth had this to say  "A weak and dangerously ineffectual agreement is nothing but a polluters charter – it legitimises a do-nothing approach whilst creating a mirage that governments are acting in the interests of the planet and its people,"  "Doha was a disaster zone where poor developing countries were forced to capitulate to the interests of wealthy countries, effectively condemning their own citizens to the climate crisis. The blame for the disaster in Doha can be laid squarely at the foot of countries like the USA who have blocked and bullied those who are serious about tackling climate change.  His sentiments encapsulate my own thinking

    Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International accused delegate as being out of touch.  He said " "We ask the negotiators in Doha: Which planet are you on? Clearly not the planet where people are dying from storms, floods and droughts. Nor the planet where renewable energy is growing rapidly and increasing constraints are being placed on the use of dirty fuels such as coal. The politicians and negotiators have lost touch with climate reality – sadly their failure will be paid for in lives and livelihoods,"

    As is apparent these guys, who are a lot closer to the action than either of us, are a lot less enamoured of Doha than you seem to be.  


  6. Apologies Ray - your comment was clearly engendered by my comments are whether you were in the ideological camp or not. It is my response to you that would have been off topic and so I have brought it here.

    Ray, the climate negotiations go nowhere because US in particular dont commit to reductions. Without that happening (and Europe) obviously no progress is made, but the intent of Doha is reductions by rich nations without restricting the growth of poorer nations. Not even the US denies this aim. And Kyoto clearly gives lie to your ascertain that idea that western powers are trying to restrict the growth of the poor. Rehman statement says that is it the failure by the west to reduce their emissions (and thus inflicting climate change on the poor) that is the problem.

    However, I now I might have misread you. Your statement was "my political views are that I find it difficult to accept that the major western powers are trying to enforce, on countries which are much poorer than they are, actiions that will disadvantage the citizens of those countries in their efforts to attain the standards of living approaching those of the developed world."

    By this I understood you mean that thought the west was trying to restict growth of emissions in the 3rd world (actions that will disadvantage), where as I realise that you might have meant that they are forced to accept inaction by the west and thus limited by climate change in trying to improve their standard of living. If this was your meaning, then I apologise.

    If you agree that western powers need to drastically reduce emissions so that poor nations can grow without harming their climate, then we have no disagreement.

  7. @1 I share your objection.  The fact that CO2 rise and the resulting global warming impacts will disproportionately harm the poor is clear, but that is not inconsistent with the the notion that emissions reductions/limitations/caps will disproportionately harm/burden the poor.  So there is a very uncomfortable balancing of policy considerations to be done.  

    I understand that carbon budgets proposed for climate mitagation tend to be more generous for developing countries, as they ought to be from both an equity/fairness standpoint (atmospheric CO2 being for all intents and purposes cumulative, rich countries have already heaped on way more than our fair share to keep the total within acceptable limits), and a utilitarian standpoint (people in subsaharan Africa, for example, obviously stand to improve their lives a lot more by emitting a little more CO2 than we stand to be burdened by emitting a lot less CO2).  

    Obviously it wouldn't benefit the most disadvantaged for richer countries to continue BAU, unless you buy into some kind of global trickle-down benefit that they will get from our marginally greater prosperity and thus greater charity/aid/whatever.  

    But it seems to me that the question remains to be addressed here whether mitigation of future harms from CO2 outweighs the benefits to today's poor of allowing them to rapidly industrialize by the cheapest means possible.  

  8. Above I say "there is a very uncomfortable balancing of policy considerations to be done."  

    By that I don't mean to imply that I think the right course is unclear, necessarily.  If it's between slowing (not halting, mind you) the alleviation of the worst poverty in the world by only allowing/helping those regions to industrialize mostly if not exclusively through non-emitting energy sources like wind/solar/hydro/geothermal/yet-to-be-perfected fourth generation nuclear/current riskier nuclear, on the one hand, and on the other hand destroying the stability of the climate to the point where mass extinction is a near certainty and the very survival of humanity is in question, obviously it is a no-brainer - we should choose not to destroy the planet.  

    It would be even more of a no-brainer if alleviation of poverty can be done just as rapidly and effectively without fossil fuels (using all those other energy sources) as with fossil fuels, though I doubt that is the case.  

    So I guess my question is, how much agreement is there as to the so-called "tipping points" that would highly likely lead to mass extinction / survival of civilization being in question?  To the extent that it is  "speculative," does that even matter, considering we should err very much on the side of caution when the planet is at stake?  

  9. A dissenter/denier/contrarian/whatever friend of mine keeps bringing up the issue of forgoing fossil-fuel based industrialization being a lost opportunity to alleviate the world's worst poverty.  (We generally have these discussions on my Facebook timeline.)  He also brings up the whole gamut of meritless "scientific" arguments (solar activity, Milankovitch cycles, cosmic rays, nameless "natural cycles," platitudes about "uncertainty/complexity") as well as the usual conspiracy theories about AGW theory being a commie plot to bring down the west, etc., all of which made it hard for me to take his poverty argument seriously for a long time.  

    I'm not even sure that alleviation of poverty argument is a good argument against aggressive emissions reductions. It's just that I haven't been able to find any satisfying discussion of it on the web.  This may be because the kind of analysis I would ideally like to see would probably take a lot of experts a long time to put together: I would like to see analysis of an emissions pathway that at least a majority of scientists would consider prudent (i.e., at a bare minimum avoiding any significant risk of a "Hell on Earth" scenario within the next X number of years - 100? 150?, such as requiring mass evacuations of coastal cities and low-lying island nations, etc.) in terms of what increase in power generation per capita can feasibly be distributed to the poorest regions of the world within the constraints of that emissions pathway by X date, what the difference is (if any) between that increase and the increase that would be feasible by X date in a free-for-all scenario with no emissions restrictions, and what that difference implies in terms of a sacrifice in quality of life (if any) that today's poor will have to make for the sake of avoiding climate catastrophe.  I have no idea what that kind of analysis would entail, or whether it might take so long or depend on so many political unknowns (for example) that it wouldn't be worth doing, but I would like to see somebody take a stab at it.  

    Of course, there is another elephant in the room, which is that if our rate of consumption of global resources across the board already far exceeds Earth's ability to replenish them (see "Earth Overshoot Day," "Ecological Debt Day," which the Global Footprint Network says that we hit this year on August 20), then it's frightening to think what would happen if every country in the world had a population that consumed like America's or Europe's populations.  This doesn't change the fact that some people live on appallingly little and consume far less than their fair share of resources, but it would be crazy to pursue policies aimed toward making sure that everybody in the world overconsumes to the same degree as I do in America.  They have a right to scale up consumption, but not to our current level, and I have no right to remain at my current level of consumption.  Reducing inequality is a noble goal, but if the Global Footprint Network is anywhere close to right, then reducing inequality will have to involve meeting somewhere in the middle or we are screwed.


  10. I am just now noticing that the discussion of socioeconomic considerations of mitigation is a little more robust over at this thread:


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