Ingredients for disaster: climate change, carbon, population and poverty

Update: PSD Blog just announced that a new tsunami insurance will be specifically designed for the poor. See post above.

While anyone who has watched Al Gore’s riveting documentary An Inconvenient Truth understands the potentially catastrophic effects climate change could have on densely populated communities, an article in End Poverty in South Asia brings this prospective disaster closer to home.

Four hundred million people–if it were a country, it would be the third largest in the world–rely on the Ganges River and its tributaries for their livelihood. Six thousand rivers provide a perennial source of irrigation and power to one of the world’s most densely populated and poorest areas. The Himalayas, “the water tower of the Ganges,” provide 45 percent of the annual flow. These facts represent the potential payoffs to the populations of Bangladesh, India and Nepal as well as the threat that climate change poses to poor and already vulnerable people of these countries.

To make matters more frightening, new studies have emerged by climatologists and other scientists now arguing that we must move to a completely zero carbon global economy even sooner than previously predicted. From the Washington Post, by mid-century we must be carbon independent:

Using advanced computer models to factor in deep-sea warming and other aspects of the carbon cycle that naturally creates and removes carbon dioxide (CO2), the scientists, from countries including the United States, Canada and Germany, are delivering a simple message: The world must bring carbon emissions down to near zero to keep temperatures from rising further.

Politically such drastic efforts appears to be beyond the reach of many of the democratic institutions governing the largest emitters, particularly the United States. Although greenhouse gases will affect every nation, those that will likely to be hit hardest are those with the fewest resources to brace for impact from the potential onslaught of natural disasters. Take for example the vulnerability of people to cyclones:

The research shows that 634 million people — one tenth of the global population — live in coastal areas that lie within just ten metres above sea level …

  • Nearly two-thirds of urban settlements with more than 5 million inhabitants are at least partially in the 0-10 metre zone.
  • On average, 14 percent of people in the least developed countries live in the zone (compared to 10 percent in OECD countries).
  • 21 percent of the urban populations of least developed nations are in the zone (11 percent in OECD countries).
  • About 75% of people in the zone are in Asia. 21 nations have more than half of their population in the zone (16 are small island states).
  • Poor countries — and poor communities within them — are most at risk.

Given the globally dispersed nature of carbon emissions, it becomes even more difficult to enforce proper punishments on those most responsible for the pollution’s negative externalities. As a result, we are in a situation where mass immigration and catastrophic damage to the world’s poor may occur simply because those most responsible do not really feel the punch.


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