Climate Change and Human Development

By Bryan Walker 15/08/2014


It has been clear for some years that climate change is affecting poorer populations sooner and more gravely than it is economically developed societies. There is little sign that the wealthy nations are much disturbed by this fact, and no sign that it has any braking effect on the inexorable drive to find and exploit fossil fuel reserves. But there are some who care and they can show a dogged persistence in demanding that we take notice of how drastically the climate change for which we are responsible is threatening the lives of people with few defences against it.

Hannah Reid, a researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, has written a book Climate Change and Human Development which falls into that category of the doggedly persistent. She draws much of her material from a wide range of NGOs’ contact with affected communities and individuals. The book contains numerous short reports of what is happening to people in many parts of the globe, particularly Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific Island states. It brings the reader close to the struggles of people like the tribal community elder in Pakistan who describes the disappearance of birds, the advent of mosquitos, the eroding flash floods and concludes: “Our options for survival are shrinking day by day”.

The examples pile up: severe drought in Kenya, erratic rains in the Indonesian province of East Nusa Tenggara, salt water intrusion into estuaries and aquifers in Bangladesh, rising sea levels affecting mangrove forests in Pacific Island states, glacial retreat threatening the livelihood of South American communities, and a great many more.

Although many of the examples the book provides are localised, the populations from which they are drawn are large. Looking a little ahead Reid points out that if not addressed, climate change could put an additional 80–120 million people at risk of hunger, 70 to 80 per cent of whom will be in Africa.  Livelihoods built for generations on particular patterns of farming may quickly become unviable.  If temperatures rose by 2 degrees, large areas of Kenya currently suited to growing tea would become unsuitable; this would have an enormous impact on Kenya’s economy. Over 100 million poor people in Indonesia stand to suffer increasing hardships within two generations as a result of climate change. 2000 small islands in the Philippines will likely be lost by 2030 and many thousands of coastal farmers throughout the archipelago will have to look for other livelihoods as sea level rise predictions take effect. Vast numbers of people are under threat.

Painstakingly the book lists and discusses the major areas of concern, drawing on the predictions of climate science as well as the adverse effects already being experienced. Food and farming heads the list, appropriately since hunger is an ever-present threat to the poor and many of them are engaged in precarious subsistence farming. Water is next. Reid points out that 1.5 billion people already lack access to clean drinking water for a variety of reasons and that global warming is making the situation far worse. A further 2 billion are expected to be water-stresses by 2050. The list continues through health, weather disasters, migration, conflict and others, all of which impact heavily on less developed poorer nations.

The book is more than an account of the severe difficulties experienced and to be experienced by those living nearest to poverty. It demonstrates many efforts being made to cope with the changes and build resilience for what is yet to come. Heartening examples are provided from diverse areas: changing crops in Nepal, establishing sustainable agricultural practices and empowering small farmers in the Philippines, pooling resources and sharing technological information with farming neighbours in Kenya, rural communities joining to increase the productivity of their farms in west Honduras, and so on through many localities in many countries.  The book is clear that local engagement and cooperation is the key factor, with NGO and other assistance delivered through community engagement.

But no adaptive strategies lessen the need for a drastic lowering of carbon emissions by the industrialised nations. Reid emphasises the need for wealthy countries to make plans to implement cuts is emissions of greenhouse gases of between 60 and 80 per cent by 2050.  She also points to the moral and ethical obligations those nations have to help vulnerable nations and people deal with the consequences of climate change.

In her final section she challenges the notion that development is dependent on global economic growth, describing it as a major driver of the destruction of the natural environment.

“It is as if we hope that by turning natural capital into financial capital we can somehow disengage ourselves from our dependence on the natural environment and the ecological limits of our world. In climate change we find evidence that this approach is misguided, myopic and unsustainable.”

She invites contributions from four “world-leading thinkers”, development practitioners from poorer countries, to suggest new models for human development in a climate-change-constrained world. Their ideas give considerable substance to the book’s closing chapter. Local communities figure strongly in much of the thinking they articulate.

Earnest and well-intentioned books like this are important, even though they are likely to be little regarded by those who wield power in the wealthy world. The NGO world which the author represents is a better custodian of the values which civilisation is meant to embody than many of the companies and accomplice politicians who continue heedless of the human consequences of the continued use of fossil fuel. The sanity and decency the book exemplifies has intrinsic worth, whether or not it prevails against the unreason and greed which currently holds sway.