Double whammy: The Poor and Global Warming
Much of the Netherlands is below sea level so the government of this wealthy nation will spend trillions of dollars to build coast protection, while nobody plans to protect millions in Bangla Desh equally threatened by the sea. This is just one of many examples of how the Poor will be hit the hardest by the double whammy of poverty and climate change.
Manmade global warming is a disaster that will hit planet Earth with increasing intensity during this century. Some cold regions may benefit from warmer weather, but almost all nations will see negative effects of climate change. The disaster will thus not hit us all in the same way.
The severity of the effects is not just a question of geography. The poor will, wherever he or she lives, be hit harder than the well-to-do. For the poor, poverty and climate change is a double whammy.
The end of the marvelous Titanic
The Titanic was the world’s largest, most modern passenger ship ever built. On its maiden voyage in 1912, the ship was sailing from England to USA. Onboard were 2224 people. On the upper decks were the first class passengers who enjoyed spacious cabins, fine dining and entertainment from an orchestra. Crammed in the lower decks below sea level were poor European emigrants on their way to a new life in America. The captain believed the giant ship was unsinkable. Despite warnings he sailed it full steam through icy waters when it hit an iceberg. Titanic had lifeboats for only 700 people. First to climb onto the all too few lifeboats were the first class passengers. Most of them survived while 1500 lower class passengers and sailors drowned.
Our marvelous modern world
Like the Titanic 100 years ago our world is said to be modern and capable of endless wonders. We can extract gas using the new-new hydraulic fracturing technique. We can melt tar sands in Canada and turn it into fuel. Car factories produce more vehicles than ever. Road networks are expanding. The well-off enjoy luxuries unheard of in centuries past. They can travel the world at ease. They may have mansions in several countries, access to the world’s best doctors, and much more which ordinary people can hardly dream of. One billion poor, in the same world, live on the brink of starvation. To them even a small accident can be deadly.
Economists, media commentators and politicians of many colors tell us that the free and unregulated market fosters economic growth and increasing consumption which is held up as the ultimate goal for mankind. Growth, they claim, will solve all problems. With growth the poor will get jobs and if they care to work hard, they can lift themselves out of poverty. Therefore economic growth is more important than trying to halt climate change. When global warming becomes worse, these opinion makers tell us, the market will solve the problem if only the economy is strong and growing. They point out that in the past technology and free enterprise has solved many problems. In short they want us not to be concerned about climate change.
Some recent disasters
New Orleans city was flooded in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina broke its levies. The wealthy escaped in their cars while the poor and mainly black inhabitants could not escape. They had to seek refuge in the local stadium. Here they were trapped for many days with little food and water while government agencies were completely unprepared to help them. Many have since had to leave the city unable to recover from the loss.
Haiti is one of the world’s poorest nations. When an earthquake hit in 2011 many poorly built houses in the capital Port au Prince collapsed. More than 300,000 died. A small group of wealthy people had stronger houses and did better. Emergency aid arrived slowly from other countries. Two years later one million poor Haitians still remain homeless.
The same year drought and famine hit the Horn of Africa. Tens of thousands of Somalis died from starvation. Somalia is extremely poor and has not had a stable government since 1991.
During the drought in Australia from 2001-2011, people did not starve and the government gave affected farmers $4.5 billion in assistance. This was possible because Australia is one of the richest nations in the world.
The disaster of rising sea levels
Climate scientists notice that sea levels are rising and will continue to rise as a result of global warming. Sea levels rise because polar and high mountains glaciers are melting, and because warm water has a bigger volume than cold water. The scientists are not sure about the speed. Will the sea has rise ½, 1, 2 or 3 meters by 2100? Even if the sealevel rise will “only” hit ½ m this will be very dangerous, especially, because a warmer climate will create more violent storms that further increase the risk of flooding in coastal areas.
Rich nations are already preparing. Much of the Netherlands lies below sea level protected by vast dikes. The Dutch are planning over the next decades to invest trillions of dollars so as to preserve their country by strengthening the dikes. They have the best engineers in the world, a highly educated population. The Netherlands is one of the richest nations in the world, so it will be able to catch up with rising seas for many years to come.
Bangladesh is one of the World’s poorest nations. Most of the country is only a few meters above sea level. 150 million people live in a small river delta area that is being hit very hard by rising sea levels. In a not too distant future many residents will be forced to flee their country as most of it is submerged. Nobody is planning to invest in coastal protection that could (for some time) save the country.
The world’s second largest floodgates protect London city. They will need to be strengthened to protect the city from the rising seas. Much of New York City is near sea level, and is at risk when sea levels rise and hurricanes become more powerful. Floodgates have been proposed to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.
Alexandria, Luanda, Maputo, Lagos and Ho Chi Minh City are also low-lying cities next to the ocean. But these poorer cities will not have the means to protect themselves against future floods.
The disaster of no more water
Saudi Arabia is a desert country. It uses some of its vast oil wealth to produce large quantities of drinking water from seawater. A lot of oil is burnt in the process creating more global warming, but this very wealthy oil producer gets the water it needs.
The glaciers of the Andes are melting as temperatures increase. When glaciers are gone Lima, the capital of Peru, with 10 million people will no longer have a year round reliable source of water. The rich will be able to pay for good water, but the Poor will not.
Today 800 million poor people have no access to clean water. In a warmer world the number of people suffering from water shortage will continue to grow. The rich will not suffer too much. Already today bottled water is shipped across the globe. You can buy water from the South Pacific islands of Fiji in both USA and Europe. Expensive French bottled water can be found in the shelves in supermarkets in South Pacific islands of New Zealand, 20,000 km away.
In 2010, 20 million people were directly affected, when an extremely heavy monsoon rain flooded much of Pakistan’s farmland. Such heavy rains will become more frequent as the Earth gets warmer. Lack of water will, however, become an even great problem in Pakistan that relies on the water from the river Indus. As most of the glaciers of Himalaya Mountains melt there will for a few decades be too much water in the river when there is a heavy monsoon rain, but when the glaciers are gone floodwaters will dwindle during the dry season leading to severe water shortage for part of the year.
Many poor today are forced to drink dirty, bad smelling and dangerous water, because this is the only water they can get. They know it is not good, but do not have the resources to boil or treat it with chemicals.
When fleeing is the only option
When prolonged drought strikes, people have to move if they are to survive. Many migrations have been caused by such natural events. When the Sahara turned into desert thousands of years ago people fled to the green banks of the river Nile and started irrigation farming.
But where are people to go today when drought forces them to move? A recent drought in Somalia forced tens of thousands to flee into Kenya causing much political tension. Will nations in Northern Europe, Russia or Canada open up for large numbers of poor climate refugees from countries devastated by drought and heat?
This seems unlikely. Today nations build ever-higher walls and increase border security to keep out economic migrants, who are called “illegal” aliens when they cross borders without proper papers.
A prolonged drought in Africa or Asia could produce more refugees than anything we have seen before. The well-off will be able to take the airplane to another continent, but what about the poor?
They claim we can only afford to fight poverty
The Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg has become a celebrity among climate change deniers. He argues that rich countries should not spend their money on slowing down climate change; instead they should spend the limited funds available on ending poverty.
Many politicians and big companies hold similar opinions. Even when they do not say so with a clear voice it can be seen from their lack of action to halt climate change, and their economic policies. The hollowness of the Lomborg argument becomes even more obvious when governments cut development aid spending in the name of austerity.
It would be wonderful if wealthy nations increased spending on assistance to the poor such as they have promised in many international fora. The Millennium Development Goals of the UN were supposed to be reached by 2015; the intention was to bring an end to absolute poverty. The goals will not be reached. In some countries the number of poor is even increasing, but even if the absolute poverty of the poorest 1 billion people was eliminated, we live in a world where 80% of us live on $10 or less per day.
The double whammy
For the majority of mankind who is already affected by access to few resources, the disasters of global warming will be a double whammy that may very quickly throw them into desperate or even deadly poverty.
When the rain fails, the poor will starve. When there is flooding, the dwellings of the poor are the first to be inundated. When there is no water, the poor will go thirsty. When fleeing is the only option, the poor has nowhere to go.