Climate change: We are not all in this together

The thousands of villages on the shifting sand spits of the Ganges Delta in Bangladesh know all about climate risk. The farmers and fishers who eke out a living there readily blame rich polluting nations for the cyclones and rising sea levels that swamp their homes and land.

Fair enough. But when I questioned their analysis, some agreed that the delta’s river channels, some as wide as the English Channel, have always been on the move, constantly gobbling and creating land. Nature too makes their lives precarious.

But nature did not put these poor and vulnerable people here. So I asked once more who was to blame for their hardships. This time their answer was that they were stuck in harm’s way because their country’s unfair land laws gave them no right to safer territory. So when the waters invade and they are forced to seek out new sand spits, are these people victims of climate change, or merciless nature, or heartless land politics?

Beyond the climate model

Welcome to the real world of climate vulnerability – a world unimagined in the computer models that often dominate our thinking about the likely impacts of climate change.

The [IPCC] report shirks the endless detailed — and far from convincing — predictions of local temperature and rainfall in 2040 or whenever, and instead emphasises that exposure to climate change is just one of a host of risks and vulnerabilities that real people face

Many environmentalists and development professionals have long been angered by the exceptionalism of climate scientists who are convinced that most of the world’s problems are, or will be, about climate change. And who believe that fixing it should trump everything – including, if necessary, justice and land rights.

But I am glad to say that view is changing. For the first time, in the latest assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on impacts and adaptation, published in March, there is a much greater recognition that for poor people living precarious lives, things look much more complicated than they do in climate models. It is a breath of fresh air.

The report shirks the endless detailed — and far from convincing — predictions of local temperature and rainfall in 2040 or whenever, and instead emphasises that exposure to climate change is just one of a host of risks and vulnerabilities that real people face. It underlines how resilience to climate change has to be about resilience to many other things as well.

As the summary for policymakers, signed off by governments at a meeting in Yokohama, puts it: “Climate-related hazards constitute an additional burden to people living in poverty, acting as a threat multiplier.”

Measuring climate risk on its own, the report says, is not enough when “differences in vulnerability and exposure arise from non-climatic stressors and multidimensional inequalities”; and when “people who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalized are often highly vulnerable to climate change.”

The language may sometimes be tortuous, but the meaning is clear enough. We are not all in this together.  Mostly it will be the poor and marginalized who will suffer. Just like always.

The report also makes it much clearer this time that other things are happening in society that will continue to matter much more than climate change. “For most economic sectors,” it says, “the impacts of drivers such as changes in population, age structure, income, technology, relative prices, lifestyle, regulation, and governance are projected to be large relative to the impacts of climate change.”

Can we really blame climate change?

This is a very different and more realistic take on climate change than in the past. It does not deny the huge impacts that the world faces from human influences on climate. But it puts those impacts in the context of other mega-trends, such as urbanization, and the globalization of food systems.

This is especially highlighted in the report’s remarks about climate and global food supply. Take, for example, the way that food prices have soared repeatedly in recent years. Price spikes often followed droughts in particular places – in Australia and Ukraine in 2007, and Russia and the US Midwest in 2010.

Climatologists claim to detect the fingerprints of man-made climate change in the Australian and Russian droughts. So should we blame high food prices, starvation and bread riots in distant lands – the Arab Spring, perhaps – on climate change? Or should we blame the globalization of food systems that rapidly turn a local drought into a global market crisis? Does the root of vulnerability lie in climate change, the volatility of grain markets — or perhaps the inability of many poor people to pay higher food prices?

For many of us, these are hardly new questions. As revisionist climate scientist Mike Hulme of Kings College London argued in his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change, it is a classic “wicked” problem. But it is important that the mainstream climate community has for the first time recognised the fact.

The Bangladeshi government cannot so convincingly argue that the rich world must pay to compensate for poor people losing their land on the Ganges Delta if it accepts those losses have other causes – and other solutions beyond a cash handout

In gloomy passages widely reported when the study was published, the IPCC notes that modelling suggests climate change will suppress food yields round the world by anything up to 2 per cent a decade. It has said such things before. But this time it also provides valuable context. Demand for food crops – often to feed livestock rather than people – is likely to rise 14 per cent each decade.  So, yes, climate change will make feeding the world harder, but it is only one variable among many.

The report also drops the silly presumption in some past IPCC work that farmers will not react to climate change. That they will simply maintain their old ways and watch their crops die. That may make for easy modelling, but it does not reflect reality. Farmers will adapt as they can – and we badly need to know what will help them to do that more effectively. Pretending otherwise is worse than useless.

Of course, this analysis cuts across the blame game, in which victims of climate change throw up their hands in despair and demand adaptation funding or compensation. In a world of ever changing multiple stresses, the boundary between a climate impact and some other stress will never be clear.

And it asks hard questions even of “victim” countries. The Bangladeshi government cannot so convincingly argue that the rich world must pay to compensate for poor people losing their land on the Ganges Delta if it accepts those losses have other causes – and other solutions beyond a cash handout.

There could be other more radical fall-outs from this rejection of climate-change exceptionalism. For instance, the report admits something only hinted at before — that if poverty and marginalization are at the root of vulnerability, then addressing those issues will often be the best way to protect those most at risk from climate change.

Whisper it quietly, but maybe there is some truth in the claims of sceptics about climate policymaking, such as the Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg, who argue that money spent fighting climate change might sometimes be better spent fighting poverty. That could hold true whether you see the solutions in free markets or in social justice.

Fred Pearce, a journalist and author based in London, UK, writes regularly for New Scientist magazine, the Guardian newspaper and Yale e360 web site. His books include Peoplequake, When the Rivers Run Dry and, mostly recently, The Land Grabbers. This post originally appeared in the Agriculture and Ecosystems blog of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems.

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