How climate change can undo development

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.

in-and-out-of-povertyThis 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.

4 Comments on “How climate change can undo development”

  1. rose macaskie November 25, 2015 at 9:39 pm #

    It is important to mention how climate change will effect poor countries, i have spoken to the sort of person who is clearly religious and heard the argument that climate change will only effect the rich, so, our worry is egotistical. It seems inrcredible, and it left me le agaste but i have heard it from various people whose prefered conversation was such subjects as divorce and abortion and other religious delights. I don’t know why this section of the public is against belief in climate change, I have imagined it is because people donate to climate change instead of charity . I have also imagined that the main christian groups have a lot of money in the markets, they have an awfull lot of projects to finance, and they fear the fall of petrol companies. I imagine this will be slow, so not really break the markets, so it is a fear tht should not worry them, maybe petrol companies install a fear for the fall of the markets to garner support to reduce their own slow death.

  2. rose macaskie November 25, 2015 at 10:01 pm #

    Another comment of mine is that, more important for poor countries than climate change in the immediate future,is th elack of socialist dotrines and also more relevant to changing ungreen objectives. HTe doctrines of the right work heavily against measures to reduce atmospheric carbon both because they support farming mehtods that increase soil carbon as because they support petrol companies. The ideaology of the right has won so many supporters with the clever progoganda arguement, that if you help those who own buisnesses you help create jobs and so help the economy, that helping the rich has become a real weight against helping the poor everywhere.The thing that really helps poor countries is the spread of ideas that belong to the welfare state that puts more money in the hands of more people and gives an education that helps people start successful businesses.The arguement that helping the rich creates jobs convinces even the poor, persuading them to help the rich. It is an arguement that worked at first because if laws strangle the money in the hands of richer people too much, it is harder to start businesses but in the long run, helping the rich so reduces the money in the hands of the many, who are the buyers that help support industry, that it ends up reducing businesses small and big. In the end rightest policies will even reduce education and a skilled poppulation is very good for industry and busineses big and small so a reduction in education is very bad for economies.

  3. rose macaskie November 25, 2015 at 10:18 pm #

    The principle enemy of reducing carbon emissions and increasing healthy farming methods are petrol companies who argue very hard to reduce support for efforts to reduce carbon emissions convincing large amounts of populations to think worries about climate are silly, They are also a big weight behind the right, adminsitrating, donating, money to them, so that when the right is in power little is down to reduce carbon emissions. What we need is for poppulations to be made much more aware of the propoganda machine of such petrol industry billlionaires as the Koch brothers who have sixty four bilion sa year each between the two of them last time a looked them up in the forbes list i believe it is more now.and whose absolutely favourite project is to indoctrinate against the arguement that climate change is can underrstand they have an awful lot of money with which to argue. They create classes, such as impresarial ones, that indoctrinate the population with rightest and anti belief in climate change ideas. They employ scientists and thinkers to back up their arguements and also look for and support television personalities such as those on Fox News to distribute their ideas or to back them up and make them credible.such as that water vapour is a global warming gass. I tis clouds warm the world but htey then fall as rain while carbon dioxide is not so easily taken from the atmosphere./The right tends to simplistic arguements, like we must pay our debts and to not mentioning their real goals, that are more complicated, those of libertarian economics. THis sort of disguising of their real goals is what here in spain is called populist, which is to mentionjust the part of their plan that people can relate to and to hid the rest.


  1. Why I’m joining the climate march on Sunday | Make Wealth History - November 26, 2015

    […] matters too. As I’ve written many times, including this week, climate change is a threat to the world’s poorest. Those who are most vulnerable to a […]

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