Progress on extreme poverty has been a success story over the past 20 years. Though it has happened faster in some places than others, millions have been lifted out of poverty and are enjoying better health, education and life expectancy. Unfortunately, climate change threatens that progress. According to the World Bank, climate change could push 100 million people back into poverty by 2030.
The reason for this is that when people first escape absolute poverty, they really only move up one rung, and it’s a very vulnerable position to be in. A family may have improved its circumstances through micro-enterprise, for example, improved agricultural yields, or through more secure housing. If those things are lost, there is no safety net and they will be right back where they started.
Climate change acts as a ‘threat multiplier’. It increases the likelihood of that sort of loss, because with a warmer climate comes more weather disruption and more natural disasters. That means droughts or floods that can destroy homes, crops or assets.
The poor are at risk from the knock-on effects of natural disasters too. Floods bring water-borne diseases, and with no medical care, the costs of a serious illness can be crippling to a family’s finances. Food prices also rise after a natural disaster, and the poor tend to spend a higher proportion of their income on food and are vulnerable to price spikes.
Another problem is that the income for many poorer households, especially in rural areas, depends entirely on what they can produce from the land. If they can grow a surplus to sell, that income can make a major difference to their way of life. Improved seeds, irrigation or fertiliser can increase yields and make all the difference. But climate change is expected to suppress yields in many parts of the world. Farmers may find their increased yields undermined by higher temperatures or changes in rainfall, and slip back into poverty.
This dynamic can already be seen at work. The report cites the case of Andhra Pradesh in India, where the statistics show that 2% of people are lifted out of poverty every year. In reality, 14% leave poverty every year, but 12% of people who weren’t classified as poor slip back down. It’s a good illustration of how precarious life remains at the very edges of poverty, and how easily progress can be reversed. It would only take a 1% change on either of those statistics to halve progress on ending poverty in Andhra Pradesh.
What can be done about this? Preventing dangerous climate change is obviously the first priority, through a global deal and concerted action on carbon. But a fair amount of warming is already locked in between now and 2030, and the effects of climate change are already being felt. This is current problem, not a future threat. And that means adaptation, action to reduce vulnerability and provide a safety net of sorts.
Some of this is more mundane than you might think. It’s customary to keep savings for emergencies, for example, so anything that helps poorer households to safely accumulate savings would help – banking for the poor, essentially. If households don’t have savings to fall back on, they often borrow to rebuild instead, leaving them with large debts. Access to credit at low rates is important, and supervising the market so that people are not exploited following a natural disaster. Insurance is rarely aimed at the poor either, and would add a layer of protection.
Then there are government assistance schemes for disaster recovery or for handling food crises, and these can take many forms – food stamps, school feeding programmes, emergency food aid, cash transfers, through to larger scale social security. A key thing here is making sure that people know what they are entitled to and how to access help. The report mentions Nepal after the earthquake, noting that the poorest were less likely to apply for help in reconstruction than the middle classes. Part of the problem was simply that street addresses hadn’t been formalised in poorer districts, and you couldn’t apply without an address. The social registries that would have solved that problem don’t look like glamorous flagship aid projects, but are exactly the sort of groundwork that development aid should be funding, because they enable all sorts of other programmes.
With the latest round of climate talks just a week away, there’s no better time to remind ourselves that failure to address the global challenge of climate change could undo our successes in the global challenge of poverty.