A climate of inequity

While governments argue over responsibility for global warming, development experts are thinking about the humanitarian consequences for the world’s poor. Mara Hvistendahl reports from the United Nations.

Every September, delegates from 2,000 NGOs descend on the United Nations in New York to discuss a topic of global importance. In keeping with the international attention the issue has garnered lately – from Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth to the British government’s Stern Review – this year’s topic was climate change.

Discussion veered away from the political and economic concerns that have largely shaped international meetings on the topic, however. While governments have been arguing over responsibility for greenhouse-gas emissions, securing their ports against flooding and scrambling to stake out claims to the Arctic, the delegates at this year’s NGO conference, held at UN headquarters in New York earlier this month, focused on how climate change is impacting the world’s underprivileged.

Climate change disproportionately affects poor nations, which tend to be clustered around the equator. In the coming decades, climate scientists say, temperatures will warm across the globe, while precipitation will shift from the equator toward the poles. This will benefit — at least temporarily — rich northern nations while causing widespread droughts and desertification in sub-Saharan Africa. An increase in tropical storms, meanwhile, will put island nations in the South Pacific at risk. And the rising sea levels caused by melting icecaps will threaten Asian delta cities like Shanghai and Calcutta. In its report on the impacts of climate change released in Brussels in April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that “climate change is projected to impinge on sustainable development of most developing countries of Asia, as it compounds the pressures on natural resources and the environment associated with rapid urbanisation, industrialisation, and economic development.”

As these changes challenge global water and food security, the global south will suffer the most. Arid nations, for example, will see agricultural yields decrease — even as increases in GDP mean their people will likely demand more animal protein. At the conference, several workshops evaluated ways of tackling these crises, from improving agriculture to making water desalination more affordable. But one of the topics that attracted the most attention was climate-induced migration.

According to a report released earlier this year by Christian Aid, in the next 50 years a billion people – one-seventh of the world’s population — could be forced to leave their homes due to environmental causes. As natural disasters prompt these able-bodied adults flee to safer areas, developing nations could be left with skeletal populations of elderly and disabled. Patricia Brownell, professor of social work at Fordham University, compared that scenario to current migration trends in the Chinese countryside, where adults have left for large cities, leaving the ageing without a support network.

Developed countries, meanwhile, will see an influx of migrants from poorer countries. For some people, that prospect is a twisted form of justice. While industrialised nations are responsible for the historical greenhouse-gas emissions that have contributed to climate change, they have largely foisted that burden onto the developing countries, which suffer the effects of the phenomenon most acutely. Now the developed world may see that responsibility come back to haunt it in the form of refugees. Panelist Fiu Mata’ese Elisara-La’ulu, director of Samoan environmental NGO Ole Siosiomaga Society, addressed the issue in a workshop on indigenous people: “When you start to talk about environmental refugees, there is an issue of accountability here. There is an issue of responsibility.”

Brazilian indigenous rights activist Marcos Terena put it more bluntly. “You the white man have the power,” he said, addressing an imaginary UN assembly. “How are you using your power to take care of the earth?”

China’s climate challenges

China hosted a workshop on its climate change programme and observation activities. Much of the discussion focused on China’s status as a developing country, which has been a recurring theme in government negotiations on limits like emissions caps. Qian Ye, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences, referenced the US failure to sign the Kyoto Protocol – a condition that many Chinese experts suggest would have to precede China’s own acceptance of emissions caps. “We’re seeing the greenhouse effect versus the White House effect,” Qian said.

That comment reverberated the next day in a speech made by president Hu Jintao at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Sydney. After Australian prime minister John Howard and US president George Bush pushed the adoption of a joint climate-change programme, Hu urged developed nations to meet their emissions targets and to operate within a UN framework on environmental policy negotiations. In the end, Hu’s stance dashed Australian and US hopes for a strong Sydney Declaration, and participants adopted non-binding energy-intensity targets.

But while China’s status as a developing country is often raised in the context of its historical responsibility for greenhouse gases, the world has less understanding of what that status means, practically, for Chinese climate science. At the China workshop, Ren Guoyu, a scientist with China’s National Climate Centre, outlined problems with data collection in the developing world. “We’re lacking long-term climate data for the last 100 years or more,” he said. “And we’re lacking key information for some variables.”

China faces additional problems in data collection because of high levels of urban pollution, which makes its cities unnaturally hot. Ren showed slides of meteorological stations in Xining, Shijiazhuang, Beijing and Bailingmiao, Inner Mongolia. All of the stations were surrounded by buildings. Some were obscured by a filmy grey haze. “When the Xining station relocated to suburbs,” he explained, “we saw a big drop in temperature.”

Indeed, the lack of reliable data from the developing world frustrates the IPCC’s work. As the journal Nature pointed out in commentary on the committee’s April impacts report, 28,115 of the document’s 28,671 observations of biological systems came from Europe. Only two were taken in Africa – particularly alarming because the region is experiencing the effects of climate change so acutely.

Ren stressed that nations like China need more money and assistance to improve climate science. “In developing countries, there are weaknesses of capacity in raising funds and training professionals,” he said. “We should have a better observation system in some areas. We need to strengthen data storage and management.”

In his closing address to the conference, IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri – an Indian energy expert whose election in 2002 was seen as an effort among committee members to focus attention on climate issues in the developing world – stressed that in many parts of the world climate change is already upending lives. He suggested that the world determine the appropriate reaction to climate change by looking at the people most affected by it.

“We must remember that the impacts of climate change are inequitable,” Pachauri said. “They are taking place at different levels of severity and frequency in different parts of the world.” Has climate change already reached dangerous levels? Says Pachauri: “If you talk to some people who are most badly affected, they will tell you that we have already reached a level where we have, perhaps, crossed a dangerous threshold.”


Mara Hvistendahl is a Shanghai-based freelance writer