Climate Change Already a Burden on the World’s Poor

Suffering among the world's poorest people due to climate change is intensifying the need to find ways of adapting to warmer temperatures and potentially more droughts, floods and sea level rise, a University of Arizona professor wrote in a new report by the organization Oxfam International.

"Because the effects of climate change have unequal impacts, there is a clear need for strategies and funds for adaptation," Diana Liverman wrote in the foreword to Oxfam's July 6 report, "Suffering the Science - Climate Change, People and Poverty." Liverman is co-director of the UA's Institute of the Environment and a professor of geography and regional development.

"Many of us feel that if we do not act now, there is a significant chance that we will be looking at a world warmer by four degrees, with profound social and ecological consequences," said Liverman.

The report combines the experiences of people from nearly 100 countries with the latest science, including findings by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In 2007, an international group of thousands of scientists released the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, in which they agreed the climate system was warming "unequivocally."

The IPCC report also stated that, if current rates of greenhouse gas emissions from factories, vehicles and other human activities continue, the world will see more warming, more extreme weather, sea level rise and risks of sudden and irrevocable change.

More recent science has focused on the likelihood of more extreme droughts as a result of global warming and of large-scale changes in Arctic, mountain and tropical forest ecosystems, Liverman said.

Changes in the Earth's climate already are taking a toll on the poor, the Oxfam report concluded. Shifting seasons and disappearing rains have caused failed harvests and hunger. Rice and maize yields are down.

Diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever, are creeping into new areas where people lack immunity or adequate healthcare; water supplies are decreasing; and sea level rise is displacing island communities, such as those on the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu and Tuvalu.

"The Oxfam report reveals the human tragedy that is unfolding along the world's coasts and in places that are warming, losing their water supplies and becoming more vulnerable to increasing risks of extreme events," said Liverman, who also is a leading contributor to three International Panel on Climate Change assessment reports and a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee, which advises the U.S. government on climate change.

It is the human stories that come to life in the report - and not necessarily the immense weight of scientific evidence of climate change - that might be the catalyst for ambitious and urgent climate action, Liverman noted.

The report comes out just ahead of the G8 Summit in Italy, where discussions on climate change and food security are planned. Thus far, politicians in general remain relatively unresponsive to calls from scientists for action or have taken steps toward solutions but at a scale too small to reduce the risks of climate change, Liverman said. Nevertheless, she said, many scientists are focusing on solutions that include relatively easy emission reductions through behavioral change, renewable energy production, forest protection and efficiency.

Developing countries will need at least $150 billion a year to tackle the effects of climate change and pursue their own low-carbon futures, the Oxfam report said. In addition, rich countries must curb their own emissions by at least 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, and all countries must reduce emissions by at least 80 percent globally by 2050.

"If we do not make deep cuts in emissions now, the changing climate will bring heat stress, sea level rise and more extreme drought and floods. Scientific observations tell us that the world is already warming, and it appears that many of the most vulnerable people are starting to experience the impacts of climate change," Liverman said. "Without a serious effort to reduce warming, and in the absence of international funds for adaptation, the food, water, health and livelihoods of millions of people will be at risk."