Global Policy Forum

How Rising Heat Traps Millions in Poverty


By Jeff Otieno

December 5, 2007

Gains made in human development in Africa may be reversed if climate change is not checked, the UN now warns. A document published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) says the increasing global warming, threatening to average more than two degrees centigrade before the end of the century, may compromise gains made in developing countries, mainly African states.

It provides a stark account of the threat posed by global warming and argues that the world is drifting towards a 'tipping point' "that could lock the world's poorest countries and their poorest citizens on a downward spiral". If this happens, the document warns, it will leave hundreds of millions facing malnutrition, water scarcity, ecological threats and a loss of livelihoods.

"Ultimately, climate change is a threat to humanity as a whole. But it is the poor, a constituency with no responsibility for the current ecological debt, who face the immediate and most severe human costs," says UNDP administrator Kemal Dervis after the launch of the Human Development 2007/08 entitled: Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World.

Low human development

Focusing on the 2.6 billion people surviving on less than two dollars a day, UNDP warns that forces unleashed by global warming could stall and then reverse progress built up over generations. Kenya is one of the countries that would lose heavily if global warming, caused by massive pollution originated from the developed world, is not addressed. The country is currently ranked 148, out of 177, on human development, meaning that it belongs to the category of those that have achieved medium human development.

However, it might be pushed to the low human development category if the aftershocks of global warming prevail. The document ranks Seychelles the top African country with the highest human development score, occupying the 50th position. The researchers use the Human Development Index (HDI) to rank the UN member countries. HDI measures achievements in terms of life expectancy, educational attainment and adjusted real income.

Libya comes second in position 56, followed by Mauritius at the 65th position. All developed countries, some of them the biggest polluters, belong to the high human development category, occupying the top 20 positions. Overall, Iceland tops as the best country in providing basic necessities to its population. The island country is followed by Norway, which has also made tremendous progress in human development.

Australia occupies the third position, followed by Canada with Ireland. Sweden takes the sixth position, followed by Switzerland, Japan and The Netherlands, with France occupying the 10th position. The world's only superpower, the USA, takes the 12th position, behind Finland, while UK is ranked 16th.

Is the best overall

In the medium human development category where Kenya belongs, Tunisia is the highest ranked African country at 91, followed by Cape Verde at 102 and Algeria at 104. Egypt is ranked 112th ahead of Gabon and Africa's economic powerhouse of South Africa at 119 and 121 respectively. Other African countries that are placed above Kenya are Ghana, Mauritania, Lesotho, Congo and Swaziland. Also performing better than Kenya are Madagascar, Cameroon, Papua New Guinea and Sudan at 147th position.

Kenya is the best, overall, in the East African Community (EAC), meaning it has achieved more in health, education and income levels. Uganda is the only other EAC member country in the medium human development category. The remaining member countries, namely Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, occupy the low human development tier, where all countries with the poorest human development standards are grouped.

The low human development category is occupied by African countries, some of which are the poorest in the world, and scientists believe that climate change will push them further down the ranks. Among the threats to human development, that African countries may have to deal with, is breakdown of agricultural systems due to increased exposure to drought, rising temperatures and more erratic rainfall, leaving up to 600 million more people facing malnutrition.

Global warming also poses health risks, with an additional population of up to 400 million people threatened with malaria, which is one of the leading killers in the tropics. Semi-arid areas of sub-Saharan Africa, with some of the highest concentrations of poverty in the world, face the danger of potential productivity losses of 26 per cent by 2060.

The document warns that if the status quo prevails, an additional 1.8 billion people in Africa and other areas will face water stress by 2080, a trend that is worrying considering the fact that water scarcity has been one of the limiting factors to agricultural production. It is not only Africa that is in problems, areas of South Asia and northern China face a grave ecological crisis as a result of glacial retreat and changed rainfall patterns, which are partly attributed to global warming.

Up to 332 million people in coastal and low lying areas also face displacement through flooding and tropical storm activity. In fact, more than 70 million Bangladeshis, 22 million Vietnamese, and six million Egyptians could be affected by global warming-related flooding, considering the typography of the areas.

Despite the evidence showing that all is not well, the authors of the report argue that the human costs of climate change have been understated. The researchers involved in the publishing of the document say that climate shocks, such as droughts, floods and storms, which will become more frequent and intense with climate change, are already among the most powerful drivers of poverty and inequality-and global warming will strengthen the impacts. "For millions of people, these are events that offer a one-way ticket to poverty and long-run cycles of disadvantage," say the researchers.

In Ethiopia, for example, the report finds that children exposed to a drought in early childhood are 36 percent more likely to be malnourished - a figure that translates into two million additional cases of child malnutrition. "For millions of people, these are events that offer a one-way ticket to poverty and long-run cycles of disadvantage," says the report.

Going by the immediate threats on the world's poor, the scientists behind the publication of the report warn that failure to tackle climate change could leave future generations facing an ecological catastrophe. They single out the possible collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheets, the retreat of glaciers, and the stress on marine ecosystems as systemic threats that cannot be wished away.

The UN warning comes at a time when the world is preparing to forge a new multilateral agreement for the period after 2012, the year when the current commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol comes to an end. The major concern is that African countries, which are the least polluters, will be the most vulnerable, unlike the Western countries, which are technologically prepared to deal with the effects of climate change. To minimise the mega-catastrophes, the UNDP document is now advocating for a twin track approach that combines stringent mitigation to limit the average warming in the current century to less than two degrees centigrade, with strengthened international cooperation and adaptation.

UNDP urges developed countries, to demonstrate leadership by cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050. Though the world's major polluters, apart from the US, made commitments to reduce global pollution, many are yet to fulfil their commitments. To ensure that the developed world keeps its promise, the document proposes a mix of carbon taxation, more stringent cap-and-trade programmes, energy regulation and international cooperation on financing for low-carbon technology transfer to update Africa's preparedness.

If the proposals are not considered, UNDP warns that inequalities in ability to cope with climate change will emerge as a powerful driver of wider inequalities between and within countries in the near future. The document calls on rich countries to put climate change adaptation at the centre of international partnerships on poverty reduction. "We are issuing a call to action, not providing a counsel of despair. Working together with resolve, we can win the battle against climate change. Allowing the window of opportunity to close would represent a moral and political failure without precedent in human history," says the lead author Kevin Watkins.

Mr Watkins describes the forthcoming talks on climate change in Bali, Indonesia, scheduled for next week, as a unique opportunity to put the interests of the world's poor at the heart of climate change negotiations. The world will be waiting to see whether the developed world will this time round not only commit itself, but do more to fight the dreaded climate change.

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