A climate of inequity

While governments argue over responsibility for global warming, development experts are thinking about the humanitarian consequences for the world’s poor. Mara Hvistendahl reports from the United Nations.

Every September, delegates from 2,000 NGOs descend on the United Nations in New York to discuss a topic of global importance. In keeping with the international attention the issue has garnered lately – from Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth to the British government’s Stern Review – this year’s topic was climate change.

Discussion veered away from the political and economic concerns that have largely shaped international meetings on the topic, however. While governments have been arguing over responsibility for greenhouse-gas emissions, securing their ports against flooding and scrambling to stake out claims to the Arctic, the delegates at this year’s NGO conference, held at UN headquarters in New York earlier this month, focused on how climate change is impacting the world’s underprivileged.

Climate change disproportionately affects poor nations, which tend to be clustered around the equator. In the coming decades, climate scientists say, temperatures will warm across the globe, while precipitation will shift from the equator toward the poles. This will benefit -- at least temporarily -- rich northern nations while causing widespread droughts and desertification in sub-Saharan Africa. An increase in tropical storms, meanwhile, will put island nations in the South Pacific at risk. And the rising sea levels caused by melting icecaps will threaten Asian delta cities like Shanghai and Calcutta. In its report on the impacts of climate change released in Brussels in April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that “climate change is projected to impinge on sustainable development of most developing countries of Asia, as it compounds the pressures on natural resources and the environment associated with rapid urbanisation, industrialisation, and economic development.”

As these changes challenge global water and food security, the global south will suffer the most. Arid nations, for example, will see agricultural yields decrease -- even as increases in GDP mean their people will likely demand more animal protein. At the conference, several workshops evaluated ways of tackling these crises, from improving agriculture to making water desalination more affordable. But one of the topics that attracted the most attention was climate-induced migration.

According to a report released earlier this year by Christian Aid, in the next 50 years a billion people – one-seventh of the world’s population -- could be forced to leave their homes due to environmental causes. As natural disasters prompt these able-bodied adults flee to safer areas, developing nations could be left with skeletal populations of elderly and disabled. Patricia Brownell, professor of social work at Fordham University, compared that scenario to current migration trends in the Chinese countryside, where adults have left for large cities, leaving the ageing without a support network.

Developed countries, meanwhile, will see an influx of migrants from poorer countries. For some people, that prospect is a twisted form of justice. While industrialised nations are responsible for the historical greenhouse-gas emissions that have contributed to climate change, they have largely foisted that burden onto the developing countries, which suffer the effects of the phenomenon most acutely. Now the developed world may see that responsibility come back to haunt it in the form of refugees. Panelist Fiu Mata’ese Elisara-La’ulu, director of Samoan environmental NGO Ole Siosiomaga Society, addressed the issue in a workshop on indigenous people: “When you start to talk about environmental refugees, there is an issue of accountability here. There is an issue of responsibility.”

Brazilian indigenous rights activist Marcos Terena put it more bluntly. “You the white man have the power,” he said, addressing an imaginary UN assembly. “How are you using your power to take care of the earth?”

This article first appeared in China Dialogue

This article first appeared in the Ecologist October 2007