Home Earth Day: Examining the relationship between climate, poverty

Earth Day: Examining the relationship between climate, poverty


earthBy Kathleen Rogers and Hugh Evans

The policy gulf between the development and environmental communities might not at first seem obvious but occasionally our interests travel on different trajectories.  The compelling need to provide energy to the estimated 1.2 billion people who do not have access to electricity crashes into the reality of the climate change consequences of providing that energy from coal and fossil fuels.  The imperative to feed close to a billion malnourished and chronically hungry people poses a similar dilemma as the world clear cuts millions of acres of critically important forests to produce meat in cultures that traditionally used far fewer animals for food and as the production gaps in our agricultural systems grow and our ocean resources collapse.  The goal of lifting billions out of poverty runs smack into the vital need to prevent one more molecule of fossil fuel created carbon dioxide into our supersaturated atmosphere.

The developing world rightly protests restraints on their development—they have produced only a small percentage of the world’s carbon dioxide.  Yet it is the developing world which will be forced to absorb the large majority of climate disasters and casualties, and will need trillions of dollars to mitigate and adapt to the realities of a changing climate.  Climate change has led to crop-withering heat waves, water shortages, insect and pest invasions, and the beginnings of mass human migration.  Tropical diseases are now spreading to areas previously thought to be too cold for them. For example, malaria pathogens are already spreading into previously malaria-free areas such as the remote highlands of Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi.

In 2012, an estimated 9 million people died from air, water and land pollution, representing 13 percent of all premature deaths that year. This now makes air pollution the world’s largest single environmental health risk, and by reducing air pollution, millions of lives could be saved.  Rising sea levels threaten coastal community agriculture and put increasing pressure on urban centers – especially in Southeast Asia, where the sea-level rise is projected to be 10 percent to 15 percent higher than the global mean.

A single hurricane, Sandy, cost the United States $50 billion in damages.  That is more than the combined annual GDP of the 15 poorest countries in the world, most of which are in the cross hairs of climate change.  If these unimaginable disaster costs are visited on a developing world as regularly as is expected, our poorest countries will never fully develop.  Climate change is now recognized as a public health and human development challenge, not just an environmental crisis.  The two biggest issues facing mankind are poverty and climate change.  And they are inextricably linked.

Despite these brutal facts, the politics, technology challenges and falsely conflicting imperatives have derailed more than a few attempts to build a single unified movement.   Given the absolute certainty that we cannot solve poverty if we do not solve climate change and the absolute certainty that ending poverty and creating sustainable development for all are both within our grasp, what roadmap do we follow?

First, there is growing agreement that our two communities cannot solve poverty or climate if we work in our own silos.  We now recognize that building the common good requires building solid alliances between our worlds.  New organizations are springing up in addition to our own, such as Action 2015, Avaaz, and others.  Our common purpose is to support issues rather than organizations and build bridges and find our way around absolutism.

Second, our global alliances are demanding that corporations and governments invest in and deliver new technologies to replace those created during the industrial revolution.  This happened in the communications industries where developing countries bypassed wires and cables in favor of satellites. We must to the same thing on the energy front and provide universal access to electricity without generating a rise in total global emissions. It is estimated that eradicating poverty and restoring the planets ecosystems would cost less than $200 billion in added spending, less than 12% of the world’s military spending.

Third, we are investing in social media and we will use every opportunity to link these causes with our members because world leaders know that behind every tweet there are hundreds and thousands and possible millions of activists ready to organize.

We recognize that those invested in the status quo will fight this.  We know that moving through the quagmire of achieving social justice and energy access while protecting our planet will not always be easy. But we also recognize that it is time to stop fighting about who or what to put in the lifeboat and focus on how to build a different boat so no one is left out, including future generations.

Later this year the United Nations will announce its Sustainable Development goals and in December, world leaders will gather in Paris to try to forge a binding climate agreement. Earth Day Network and the Global Poverty Project have joined forces to make sure these leaders hear our call to end the status quo, forge a binding climate agreement and bring justice to the 1 billion people living below the poverty line. If our leaders get it right, 2015 can be a historic year of progress for our people and our planet. If not, they will answer to the movement.

Kathleen Rogers is president of Earth Day Network. Hugh Evans is CEO of the Global Poverty Project.



Have a guest column, letter to the editor, story idea or a news tip? Email editor Chris Graham at [email protected]. Subscribe to AFP podcasts on Apple PodcastsSpotifyPandora and YouTube.