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Sep 02

World's Poor are the Most Vulnerable Victims of Global Warming

Posted by: Betsy Teutsch

Betsy Teutsch

Some headlines just fail to surprise, like the recent one announcing that "low income workers are often cheated out of their wages."  Unfortunately, the fact that global warming's greatest impacts are on the world's poor is not really news; we at GMf are well aware of this terrible truth.  But this recent article in mainstream USA Today sums the situation up well:

   Global warming will fall heaviest on the desperately poor, finds a study of agricultural economics.

Released this week in Environmental Research Letters, the study led by Syud Ahmed of The World Bank in Washington, D.C., looked at the economic impacts of increases in atmospheric temperatures and climate variability, droughts, floods and storms, projected for the last three decades of this century across 16 developing nations. They based the estimate on the economic effects of similar weather in those places from 1970 to 2000.

"We find that extremes under present climate volatility increase poverty across our developing country sample -- particularly in Bangladesh, Mexico, Indonesia, and Africa -- with urban wage earners the most vulnerable group," write the authors. "We also find that global warming exacerbates poverty vulnerability in many nations."

Farmers in poor nations actually see their wages increase under global warming, says study co-author Noah Diffenbaugh of Purdue University, as the price of grain goes higher in nations experiencing more drought, but city dwellers, who spend much of their income on food, do worse.

The study fed projections of climate effects in two future scenarios produced by the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report into its economic forecasts. One was a hot, "business as usual", scenario, with industrial emissions of greenhouse gases continuing unabated into the future. The other was a "low emissions" model with limited emissions of greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere. Poverty was worse in the high-emissions model, Diffenbaugh says.

"IPCC identified the poor, the elderly, and the very young as the most vulnerable categories of people on the planet ... regardless of location, as Katrina and the European (2003) heat wave taught us," says economics professor Gary Yohe of Wesleyan University, an author of the IPCC report. "Nonetheless, the most vulnerable are more likely to live in developing countries where they face multiple stresses.  For many, climate change itself is a source of multiple stress because it is manifest in so many different ways."

However, climate scientist David Battisti of the University of Washington in Seattle is critical of the study, explaining by email that "the climate models do a poor job at simulating rainfall in many places...As well, the climate models do an extremely poor job at estimating natural variability and extreme events in temperature and precipitation. In particular, they overestimate the variability in summertime temperature and extreme events. Without correcting for these biases -- which are ubiquitous in the climate models -- it is very likely that the extreme event information input into the impact models is grossly exaggerated," Battisti says.

But Diffenbaugh notes that the poor in developing countries, who live on less that a dollar a day, have been vulnerable historically to climate swings, as seen in the study's look at numbers from the 20th century. "These folks are already vulnerable to climate, so climate 'change' seems unlikely to make things better for them."

By Dan Vergano

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