Climate change and its effects on the global poor
The eradication of poverty around the globe has been an ongoing struggle for much of modern history, with a wide range socio-economic obstacles that often perpetuate or even exacerbate it. However one phenomena in particular that will drastically impact the world’s poor in more ways than one is climate change. Climate change impacts the poor more than the non-poor in at least three major ways: greater exposure/vulnerability to extreme weather, endangered livelihoods, and food and water scarcity.
Most of the world’s poor live in developing countries or the Global South that are located in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and South America. In comparison to developed nations or the Global North, these regions are experiencing greater impacts from climate change in the forms of severe droughts, heatwaves, flooding, and other extreme weather phenomena. According to Winsemius et al. (2018) in a study of 52 different countries, it was found that poor people were unevenly exposed (meaning located in areas prone to) to droughts and urban floods, and climate change increases the frequency of said droughts and urban floods. Winsemius et al. (2018) also add that not only are the poor more exposed, but they are also more vulnerable or susceptible to such extreme weather phenomena in that they lack the protection and/or ability-to-adapt to natural disasters brought on by climate change (susceptibility is best understood as poor people losing a greater portion of their wealth or greater likelihood of mortality). Simply put, it’s difficult to stay or climb out of poverty if one’s life is being destabilized by constant natural disasters with no social safety net.
Not only does climate change have more adverse effects on the poor, it also acts as a poverty trap in which the livelihoods of the poor are endangered or ruined. In its analysis of poverty dynamics and climate change in Andhra Pradesh, India, Hallegatte et al. (2014) reported that weather events create a poverty trap tied to health, education, livestock and other assets, and that drought, irrigation failure, or crop disease are responsible for 44% of poverty inflow cases. Given this information it is of no surprise that agricultural livelihoods are vulnerable to climate change. Natural disasters such as a drought or hurricane that are brought on by climate change, often disrupt agricultural crop production, which in turn negatively effects the income of small-scale and subsistence farmers (see Hertel and Rosch 2010). Similarly, fishing as a livelihood is also jeopardized by climate change in which the rising temperature of oceans destabilizes marine-eco-systems in which fish populations migrate further and further away from coastlines (see McCarthy 2020). Without being able to sustain oneself or sell product to generate an income, farmers and fishers consequentially dive into or further in to poverty, as they often do not have the means or resources to protect against the natural disasters induced by climate change. This ultimately create a vicious cycle and an enduring poverty trap.
Moreover, with fishing and agricultural livelihoods being adversely affected by climate change in the poor regions that are overwhelmingly exposed and susceptible to them, the issue of food/water scarcity arises. With regards to scarcity, although other factors may negatively affect crop production, climate change is especially disruptive, and alters food production across the globe, thereby threatening up to half a billion people with food insecurity and poverty. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, water scarcity brought on by droughts have detrimentally endured to the point of causing crop failure and the death of livestock, which has resulted in widespread famine and by extension, poverty. These disruptions to agriculture are not limited to sub-Saharan Africa, as they can be found the world over with comparable economic fallout (see McCarthy 2020).
Even here in the United States, natural disasters and catastrophic weather bring the same or at least very similar disruptions to rural and agricultural communities. According to Olson, et al. (2018), these communities are vulnerable due to their economic dependence on resources from the natural environment, which is “subject to multiple climate stressors”. What’s more, the majority of rural communities have higher percentages of poverty than urban areas, and the poverty levels of already vulnerable groups (i.e. the elderly, children, racial/ethnic minorities). The plight of such rural communities is made worse by the fact that they lack economic diversity, infrastructure, and political influence, thus further reducing the ability of these communities to deal with the natural disasters and catastrophic weather.
With regards to agriculture specifically, we are seeing small and mid-size farmers being forced to either “consolidate” (i.e. merge with a larger farming operation) or literally sell the farm (again, usually to a larger farming operation). This phenomenon of consolidation within the agricultural industry has been happening for some time (as government policy leans towards big/industrial-sized farming), however the increasing frequency of natural disasters has accelerated this as a small-size farmers lack the means to cope with disaster fall out as they lack the financial resources to sustain themselves (see Atkin, 2019). Moreover, not only are the farmers themselves at risk, but many migrant workers are also negatively impacted, as they have their livelihoods reliant on the agricultural industry as well (see Olson, et al, 2018).
In essence, with the impacts of frequent exposure to natural disasters, inability to make a living in agriculture or fishing because of said natural disasters, and food and water scarcity, it’s evident that climate change (manifested in the form of extreme weather and natural disasters) has a far greater adverse effect on the global poor than the non-poor. This is even more apparent when impoverished populations lack the ability to prevent or alleviate the fallout from natural disasters caused by climate change.
Winsemius, Hessel C, et al. 2018. Disaster risk, climate change, and poverty: assessing the global exposure of poor people to floods and droughts. Environment & Development Economics, (June).
Hallegatte, Stephane, et al. “Climate Change and Poverty.” World Bank, 2014, https://www.worldbank.org/content/dam/Worldbank/document/Climate/Climate%20and%20Poverty%20Conference/D1S1_Hallegatte_CCandPov_9Fev_v6.pdf
Hertel, Thomas W. and Stephanie D. Rosch. 2010. Climate Change, Agriculture, and Poverty. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy (autumn) 364-365.
McCarthy, Joe. “Why Climate Change and Poverty Are Inextricably Linked.” Global Citizen, 19 February 2020, https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/climate-change-is-connected-to-poverty/
Olson, Carolyn, et al. “Ch. 10: Agricultural and Rural Communities.” 4th National Climate Assessment, 2018, https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/chapter/10/
Atkin, Emily. “Climate Change and the Death of the Small Farm.” The New Republic, 27 March 2019, https://newrepublic.com/article/153390/climate-change-death-small-farm