Hitting now and hard

Bangladesh_49259The Oxfam briefing paper Suffering the Science which figured in a recent post discussing TV3 is well worth attention in its own right.  It is very much in tandem with the Copenhagen Synthesis Report which has been covered in a series of posts on Hot Topic.  The foreword is provided by Professor Diana Liverman who was a co-author of the Synthesis Report.  She comments that the Oxfam study adds powerful human stories to our understanding of climate risks and vulnerabilities.

What immediately stands out from the paper is that climate change is already having serious effects on the lives of poor people, especially in the tropics, and has been doing so for some time.  The paper observes with some asperity that the nations that made themselves wealthy by burning fossil fuels are largely those that will, initially, suffer least from the effects of climate shift. Rich countries in temperate zones are buffered by their wealth and less drastic effects from rising temperatures.  In other places climate change is hitting now and hitting hard.

Hunger, disease and disaster are striking the poor. Sceptics will say there’s nothing new in that.  But the point of the Oxfam paper is that all are being exacerbated by climate change. It reports observations from farmers consistent across entire geographies that the timing and pattern of seasonal rains are changing dramatically, affecting the farmers’ ability to decide when best to sow and harvest their crops.  “Farmers have become gamblers”, remarks a Senegalese cereal farmer. The gamble extends to deciding what crops it might be time to shift to for a more successful outcome.  An Oxfam researcher acknowledges that their material is primarily anecdotal.  It apppears consistent with meteorological data, but there is a serious lack of data. He concludes: “We think that ‘changing seasonality’ may be one of the most significant impacts of climate change for poor farmers, and that it is happening now.”

The impacts on people’s health are frighteningly diverse. Climate change is bringing water- and insect-borne diseases of the tropics to hundreds of millions of people with no previous knowledge of them. Malaria is now affecting people who have previously had little experience of it, for example in the East African highlands and in the Andean foothills. In hotter temperatures people will be unable to work for as long due to heat stress, and if they do their health may suffer. ‘Working under the open sky during summer has become nearly impossible in the past four years or so – for farmers and their cattle alike,’ comments a Bangladeshi farmer. Heat stress vulnerability puts at risk many labourers in the developing world – for instance, tea pickers in Malawi, Kenya, India, and Sri Lanka – who are under pressure to work as hard as possible because they are paid not by the hour, but by results.

Climate-related disasters are increasing at an extraordinary rate. The graph recording the number of people affected by such disasters shows a rapidly rising rate per annum. Poor people suffer worst. In rich countries, the average number of deaths per disaster is 23, while in the poorest the average is 1,052. When hit by floods, poor people have fewer options open to them to cope. They tend to get into heavier debt and have to sell their assets, like livestock, at knockdown prices. They often have to forego medicines, school fees, and meals in order to get by. Janet and her household in Uganda following severe flooding have depended for some six months on termites for food. They were making bricks – the men loading bricks, the women fetching water – to earn money to buy enough seeds to sow in the hope of a good rainy season. Asked what she expects if the floods come again she replies: ‘Just death.’  

The report goes relentlessly on through the effects of water shortages and climate-change driven migration, part statistics, part human stories, before reaching its concluding statement of the two things Oxfam wants. First, fair mitigation policies to keep the world as far below 2ºC as possible to avoid catastrophic climate change – with rich countries moving first, fastest, and furthest. Second, at least $150 billion in annual funding for developing countries – over and above their promised aid commitments – to help them adapt, and to pursue low-carbon pathways to development.

In recent days Gordon Brown has proposed an international fund of $100 billion annually to assist developing nations adapt to climate change while continuing to develop their economies. It is significantly short of the $150 billion Oxfam sees as necessary, and he also proposed that part of it be funded from development aid, which rather misses the point. But it was at least an indication that politicians may be waking up to the size of the need for adaptation measures in the developing countries. Maybe it will gain some traction.  It’s hardly big money. 

We know that catastrophic consequences are likely for humanity if we continue on our present trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions. We are informed enough to imagine what life might be like for our children or grandchildren as this century proceeds, let alone subsequent centuries.  The Oxfam report reminds us that these human consequences are not all some distance off but have started for some of the world’s poorer populations. If there’s a moral imperative involved in battling climate change – and I certainly think there is – reports like this help put it into gear. At very least the report points to the simple justice of aid for adaptation measures in the communities so badly affected.

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