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Climate Change Hurts the World's Poor...But Is Fighting Climate Change the Best Way to Help Them?

Climate Change Hurts the World's Poor...But Is Fighting Climate Change the Best Way to Help Them?

Picture of Kari Lydersen

We hear often that the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world will be most severely affected by the health impacts of climate change.

And it is indeed probably safe to say that residents of the poorest countries and the poorest residents of developed countries like the U.S. will suffer the most in terms of losing their homes to hurricanes or fires...being infected by mosquito-borne and water-borne diseases and going hungry because crops and livestock are destroyed by extreme weather.

But as some prominent climate change and public health experts have pointed out, stressing the impact on the poor as a reason to curb the worldwide carbon emissions that drive climate change may be misguided logic. While decreasing carbon emissions is generally accepted as an important global goal, they point out that the world's neediest would be much better served right now by even a fraction of the investment and energy being poured into curbing climate change.

Dr. Lakshman Guruswamy, professor of an Energy Justice class at the University of Colorado's law school, points out that while decision-makers meet in Copenhagen, Bali and Kyoto hammering out goals for carbon reduction, millions of poor women and children in the world's least developed countries are dying from breathing in particulate matter and other toxins from burning dung, wood or other biomass as their only form of household energy.

Women do the vast majority of the cooking over open fires or primitive stoves, often with a child strapped to their back, also breathing in the particulate matter and other compounds particularly harmful to developing lungs.

Guruswamy points out that the purchase of cleaner-burning cook-stoves for these families, and other small investments in low-tech implements for drawing water, subsistence agriculture and household lighting cost little but can make enormous differences in health and quality of life for the world's poorest.

He cites figures saying 2.5 billion people globally burn biomass for cooking and heating, and 2 million die per year from the resulting concentrated indoor air pollution. The World Health Organization reported in 2006 that while the U.S. EPA standard for PM10 24-hour mean levels was 50 micrograms per cubic meter, inside a hut with an open fire one could expect levels of 3,000 micrograms.

Hence even a tiny fraction of the amount being spent on carbon capture and sequestration research or renewable energy technology development could save many lives if invested directly in clean cook-stoves, these figures suggest. Plus mosquito nets, basic medicines and other low-budget measures could directly and immediately address some of the health concerns raised by climate change for the world's poor.

Mike Hulme, a prominent climate scientist at the University of East Anglia, also points out in his book "Why We Disagree About Climate Change" that while climate change has become an important and meaningful topic and tool for global social justice movements, campaigns to mitigate (or avoid) climate change realistically do little to benefit the world's poor, at least in the present day.

That's because even a drastic worldwide decrease in carbon emissions now will not have a significant impact on climate change for at least a generation. When impoverished populations are singled out in climate change policy and programming debates, he said, it makes more sense to devote resources to adaptation measures that will help people survive the increased extreme weather events, warming temperatures and rising sea levels that are already occurring.

NGOs invoking the world's poor as a major reason to mitigate climate change "just seems to be a distraction or a distortion of what those campaigns should be," Hulme told graduate students at the University of Colorado via Skype recently. "Why don't you campaign about adaptation and the larger question of why people are in those situations (rather than) this long-standing mitigation campaign driven by Western interests?"

Supported by the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, I previously reported on the health impacts of black carbon, a component of soot, on low-income and minority populations in U.S. cities, specifically living near rail yards and ports. Guruswamy thinks global leaders should place much more priority on addressing atmospheric black carbon, which not only is a major cause of health problems locally but also a significant driver of climate change.

Black carbon coats the earth including the ice and snow fields at the poles, causing the "albedo effect" wherein these surfaces absorb heat rather than reflecting it as they otherwise would – contributing to global warming.

See my previous Reportingonhealth blog about black carbon here.

Black carbon stays in the atmosphere for only several weeks compared to years for carbon dioxide, so reductions in black carbon will also have a much quicker impact in curbing climate change than carbon dioxide reductions.

Black carbon is emitted disproportionately by poorer countries, since it is the byproduct of the incomplete burning of fossil fuels, biomass and other fuels. Cooking over open fires emits massive amounts of black carbon in the most undeveloped countries, while older diesel engines which don't fully combust the fuel are also a serious source of black carbon in developing and developed countries from India and China to the U.S.

Since the climate change debate has focused so much attention on the health risks facing the world's poor, some experts argue, more international effort and funding should go toward cook-stoves and other simple measures that will greatly improve public health in the short term while also helping to fight or prepare the world for climate change in the long-term.

Note -- I am currently studying at the University of Colorado thanks to the Ted Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism.

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