Climate debate turns up heat on environmental injustice
IN RECENT MONTHS, the climate change debate has focused on highlighting the particular risks global warming pose to impoverished populations. A UN report released ahead of November's climate change conference in Nairobi warned that Africa is more vulnerable than feared, with 70 million people at risk from coastal flooding by 2080. Across the board, efforts are being stepped up to expose the injustice of how the worst effects of greenhouse gas profligacy are being suffered by those who emit the least and are inadequately equipped to deal with the consequences.
Poor communities in Latin America also face major threats from climate change. It's clear that extreme weather is already causing disasters and greater poverty across Central America. Hurricane Mitch killed around 10,000 people in 1998, and in 2005, Hurricane Stan caused deadly mudslides and flooding in Guatemala and El Salvador – to name but two examples. Scientists predict global warming will increase the intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms.
Areport published in August by the Working Group on Climate Change and Development, a UK-based coalition of environmental and development organisations, sets out the likely impact of climate change on Latin America and the Caribbean. According to 'Up in Smoke?', global warming is likely to increase the frequency and severity of El Nino (the climate phenomenon that increases coastal rainfall and brings drought inland), boost the strength of storms, raise sea levels, alter rainfall patterns, and melt glaciers at high altitudes.
Inappropriate use and management of natural resources, including illegal logging and 'mega' development projects, are likely to magnify the impacts of climate change.
Unsurprisingly, it's poor people – and particularly women as providers of food, water and fuel – who are likely to suffer most. The main problems they are expected to face are: dwindling freshwater supplies, decreasing agricultural yields, deteriorating ecosystems and rising cases of vector-borne and infectious disease. These changes threaten the livelihoods of subsistence farmers in particular, and the report warns that, if nothing is done to prevent them or mitigate their impact, they will lead to higher levels of poverty.
But, despite this gloomy picture, measures can be taken to reduce the causes of climate change and overcome its effects. Alongside the pressing need to reduce to cut emissions of harmful gases, the report gives examples: alternative water and energy supply systems, preservation of ecosystems, building awareness and capacity for disaster preparedness and management based on community strategies, and support for small-scale agriculture and sustainable forestry management.
The underlying message is the inadequacy of a 'one-size-fits-all', neoliberal development model to tackle climate change. Instead, the report advocates a flexible approach based on local needs, livelihoods and knowledge. As Juan Mayr Maldonado, a former Colombian environment minister and president of the first conference on the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, writes in the foreword, "It is the right time to re-think the development model for Latin America and the Caribbean and to establish a new social contract that leads down the path of poverty reduction and greater equality to sustainable development."
- To read a summary of the 'Up in Smoke?' report and download a copy: www.neweconomics.org
- Read about Red Cross work helping Nicaraguan communities prepare for climate change: www.climatecentre.org