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Climate change reinforces poverty

Irene Banos Ruiz
October 25, 2019

Climate change exacerbates inequalities, not only in poor, developing countries, but also in industrialized, wealthy ones. The poor should be given special importance when planning, experts say.

A girl carrying a sack of trash on a sprawling dump site
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Aragon

As drought, flooding and fires lay claim to headlines and landscapes across the world, and as countries and cities grapple with the cost of it all, the highest price is already being paid — by those who are poor or marginalized.

Such are the findings of a recent study by researchers Noah S. Diffenbaugh and Marshall Burke. It reveals that the economic gap between rich and poor countries would have been smaller without the climate crisis.

"India's per capita GDP [gross domestic product] is approximately 30% lower than it would have been without warming," Noah Diffenbaugh, co-author of the study, told DW, adding that Brazil's per capita GDP has taken a 25% hit as a result of climate change. 

Eight of the ten countries most affected by extreme weather events — such as hurricanes and monsoon rains — between 1998 and 2017, were developing nations with low or lower-middle income, the Global Climate Risk Index of the NGO Germanwatch shows.

"Regions like Southeast Asia are very vulnerable, not only because they are often hit, but because they lack resources to deal with the impact," David Eckstein, co-author of the Index, told DW.

Where is the most extreme weather?

Although natural disasters are not new, climate change increases their frequency and intensity, making it harder for those affected to cope with the impacts.

"Often, these countries are in the process of rebuilding when they're struck again by an event," Eckstein said.

Oxfam International says the two cyclones that hit Mozambique in rapid succession earlier this year left 2.6 million people in need of food, shelter and clean water. Thousands have had to look for a new place to live.

According to the Switzerland-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre they were among seven million — out of a total 10.8 million people internally displaced between January and June this year — forced to leave their homes because of weather-related disasters and earthquakes. 

Poverty in unexpected places

But even people who do not currently live in extreme poverty are at risk of becoming poor, Harjeet Singh, climate policy lead with the NGO ActionAid International, told DW. He recently visited the Sundarbans, where land has been swallowed by rising sea levels.

"People there had resources, but their lives have been completely devastated by climate change impacts," he said. "They've fallen into the poverty trap."He witnessed a similar situation in Senegal's Saloum Delta, where sea level rise is making it hard for communities to farm or fish. That's how people "become ultra poor and migrate without any resources, and become unskilled labor in urban areas," he explained.

An elderly woman washes her clothes in muddy waters
Millions were affected by the cyclones that hit Mozambique in rapid succession earlier this yearImage: Getty Images/AFP/Z. Auntony
A woman wades through rising flood waters
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/T. Mukwazhi

Economic disparities due to climate change aren't unique to poorer countries.  A 2017 study published in the peer-reviewed journal, Science, says higher temperatures in US states such as Arizona will lead to a more intense use of cooling systems, which in turn implies greater energy use and higher costs for consumers.  

Some northern states, however, could benefit through reduced heating use, among other factors. In Maine, for instance, the most northeasterly US state, the gross county product could increase by up to to 10%, while in Arizona it could fall by as much as 20%, the study shows.

In the Spanish capital, Madrid, over 20% of households are at risk of energy poverty — the lack of capacity to keep homes warm in winter and cool in summer, a study requested by regional authorities shows.

"People with fewer resources can't afford to pay for heating or air conditioning and often live in much older buildings without proper insulation," Cristina Linares, researcher at Spain's National School of Public Health, told DW. That makes extreme temperatures particularly threatening.

Bridge over a dry and cracked ground of a river bed
Image: picture-alliance/ ZUMAPRESS/M. Reino
A helicopter flying over smoke-covered mountains
Spain has been grappling with fires and droughts in recent yearsImage: Reuters/Carreteras GC

Women stand to be hard hit

Research Linares is involved in suggests the risk to women-led households is between 35 and 120% higher than the area average. Elderly women living alone and single mothers are particularly vulnerable.

The analysis attributes this to the fact that the highest average pension among women in Madrid is below the lowest average pension for men, and that in 50% of cases, the families of single mothers live below the poverty threshold.

Women have previously been cited as more likely to be feel the impacts of climate change, and they frequently lack the resources to cope with them.

"When harvests fail, struggling families are often forced to pull out their kids out of school and it's always the girls who get pull out first," Kiri Hanks, policy adviser with Oxfam International, told DW. 

Planning and more planning

Attempts to close the inequality gap without proper planning could cause more harm than good.

Providing everyone in Spain with heating and cooling systems, for example, would help people deal with extreme temperatures, but "that would exacerbate the problem at its source due to greater energy consumption," Linares said.

Climate change hits women harder

Eckstein from Germanwatch says initiatives to help countries recover are important, "but what is also necessary is for these countries to prepare in advance."

Bangladesh, he says, has improved its position in the Climate Risk Index because it deals with climate change impacts better than other countries. Among other measures, it has built seawalls to prevent flooding and introduced early warning systems to evacuate people on time.

Social protection mechanisms to help people relocate and learn new skills also matter.

"If relocation needs to happen, it has to happen in a much more planned manner," Singh said. But since the affected countries often lack the economic and technical capacity to go this far, international support plays a decisive role, he added.

Singh agrees that preventive planning is the key to reducing the inequality gap intensified by climate change.

"Current players are leading us to a 3 degrees [Celsius] warmer world," he said. "We really hope that we don't reach that point, but our planning has to be with that thinking."