Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Climate Change, Population and Health

At the time of writing, the Copenhagen Climate Change Talks are about to happen, and much comment in the media suggests that the chances of a meaningful agreement on curbing emissions rests on whether the West can persuade India, China, Brazil and much of the developing world to sign up.

At the same time, reports have been published recently expressing concern about the role of a growing population will have on climate change, poverty and development Many climate change activists like Jonathon Porritt are calling for drastic reductions in birth rates to save the planet. Others raise the concern that growing third world populations will not only add to climate change but set back development by spreading meagre resources too thinly.

This growing trend needs to be challenged. Recent research has shown that far from contributing to climate change, the poor barely have any impact but are disproportionately affected. China, which has a low population increase rate has one of the highest rates of increases in emissions – the same is true of much of the developed world, while most Africans have less than a thousandth of the carbon footprint of your average European (let alone your average American).

The problem is not population growth but the emergence of developing world middle classes who aspire to Western consumer lifestyles, complete with its conspicuous over-consumption of resources (hence the hike in oil steel and wheat prices over the last five years). This raises two awkward questions. Firstly, what sort of development do we really want? Do we want Africa and Asia to enjoy Western standards of living (and thus consumption)? It has been said that to sustain that level of consumption would take the total resources of 2-3 additional planets like Earth. Secondly, if we do not want that kind of development for Africa, Asia and Latin American, then what right have we to deny them what we permit ourselves? It strikes me that calls to curb the population in the developing world smack too much of the rich trying to control and demonise the poor, while side stepping the consequences of our own love of cheap credit and conspicuous over consumption

Climate change is happening - whether we can change it is open to debate, but like the global economic crisis (which will swell the ranks of the poor by 100 million this year), the poor are not responsible but are the first to suffer. Poverty and lack of resources, infrastructure, and often governance, greatly increase the vulnerability of the poor to the effects of climate change. Those living in costal or tidal river flood plains (e.g. a large part of the population of Bangladesh and Southeast Asia and the Pacific) will be at risk of flooding if sea levels rise - increasing risks of water born diseases, loss of food production, homelessness and descent into further poverty. Competition for water and other resources as climates warm will increase wars and conflicts amongst poor communities and nations, leading to the further collapse of health and social infrastructure and increase rates of malnutrition. Increasing climate refugee communities forced off flooded or drought ridden lands will also put huge strains on health infrastructures of their own and surrounding nations. The subsequent sequelae particularly in the areas of maternal and child health will reverse the meagre gains of the last decade. Climate change, not caused by the poor, will have disproportionate impact upon their health.

We sit back and debate about climate change and whether it is real, while some extremists call all human beings the problem just for being alive. It would seem that the anti-life psychosis that seems to be afflicting late post-industrial Western consumer cultures is being exported to those who do not need to have to put up with such utter evil nonsense. All the while we are fiddling while the poor suffer for our actions – it is us, our cars, our gadgets, our waste, our demand for more, cheaper newer, for the exotic and out of season food shipped half way round the world, the need for bigger cities and more roads to fulfil our demand to get where we want when we want how we want. Porritt, Attenborough and their like are just obfuscating.

Jesus and the prophets warned strongly that sitting back complacently makes us culpable in the exploitation of the poor (e.g. Matthew 25:31-45). The tough question for me is, what the hell am I going to do to help change this? Watch this space.