Saturday, March 14, 2015

Climate Change Part 18: Climate is a Social Justice Issue

Note: This program first aired on March 7, 2014. 

This is a science and nature show and we’ve spent nearly 20 weeks looking at the science around climate change, but the dirty secret about climate change is that it is ultimately a social problem. And it’s a problem that doesn’t affect us all equally. Climate change has become as much a social justice issue as it is an issue for scientific research. We’ve said before on this program that life isn’t fair; we all have to die, and suffering is universal. Is it fair to the frog that the snake has to eat?

I don’t know the answer to that question but I do know this: Climate change isn’t fair, and here’s why. The people it will impact the most are the poorest people on earth. The people with the least ability to change their circumstances, and in many cases, the people least responsible for the mechanics of changing the climate in the first place. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is unequivocal: we suffer from “uneven risk distribution”, which is a fancy way of saying that wealthy nations will be able to insulate their citizens, for a time at least, against some of the extreme weather events, food shortages and security threats that climate change poses, poor nations will not. The intersection of uneven economic development and climate change exposure makes the world’s poor vulnerable to changing conditions in a way that most of us in the industrial world are not. And while we are all at eventual risk of social unrest and even violence if conditions get desperate enough, we already see the unrest and violence that has occurred in regions and nations that are environmentally on the brink.

In the near term, extreme weather events are the way in which most of us will experience climate change directly, in the form of more intense storms, colossally heavy rain fall, coastal flooding and heat waves that exacerbate drought and wild fire conditions. Droughts and floods, too much water coupled with not enough, these are what is on the agenda. Those two problems alone set in motion a cascade of human impacts; decreases in crop production and increases in food insecurity, decreasing freshwater resources for agriculture, industry and direct human consumption, and flooding in coastal zones and marginal recently urbanized land. These problems then compound themselves, as subsistence agriculture becomes more and more difficult in drought prone regions, human populations migrate increasingly to urban areas, colonizing marginal territory on the outskirts of cities, territory with little to no services. These people, driven from their homes by the inability to grow their own food and provide for their families and communities, then confront the other faces of climate change, namely the food insecurity that comes from rising food prices due to decreases in crop productivity, and the domestic insecurity that comes from moving into a rapidly expanding urban shanty town on marginal swampy land or steep hillside. Extreme precipitation events, monsoon rains, and typhoon storms easily flood these areas.

And we haven’t even considered sea level rise in this scenario. As the sea encroaches into coastal human landscapes the consequences are clear. Some low lying areas will be swamped all together, like the Pacific island nations or the Ganges River delta in Bangladesh, home to millions. Sea level rise is an existential threat to the people who live there. Large storm systems cause storm surges to threaten otherwise stable coastlines; low pressure and high winds, when coinciding with high tides can cause the ocean to rise much higher than its normal high water mark, as the people of the Philippines, New Orleans, lower Manhattan  now know. And as freshwater aquifers are rapidly depleted and sea levels continue to rise, in coastal areas seawater seeps into these aquifers, filling the void created as freshwater is drawn out. Wealthy communities can for a time afford to purchase fresh water, poor communities cannot. Humans can survive only a matter of days with out fresh water, and salt water intrusion joins food insecurity and social unrest as yet another driver of human displacement and suffering with significant ties to climate change.

For most listeners of this show, the near future impacts of climate change may be uncomfortable, or economically challenging, but are unlikely to destroy our communities or fundamental way of life. The same cannot be said for the world’s truly poor. As the conversation around climate change pivots increasingly away from mitigation towards adaptation, we need to keep this in mind: it is in our local communities that we focus on adaptation, but it is for the global community that we must continue efforts to mitigate climate impact. We’ll look at how we do that in the coming weeks.

I don’t always agree with the World Bank, but they released a big report on this issue a couple of years ago: