Feeling the heat: climate change and the rural poor


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Sometimes we get so wrapped up in whether the Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC) will finance forestry activities that we lose sight of what’s really at stake. If we don’t burn less fossil fuel and fewer forests we will probably change our climate forever. That could wreak havoc on the lives of hundreds of millions of poor families.

According to ’Climate Change Impacts, Assessment, and Vulnerability, A Summary for Policymakers’, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released last month, over the last century average global temperatures rose approximately 0.6 degrees centigrade. That was enough to melt ice formations, induce flooding and droughts, mess up the biological clocks of flowers, insects, and birds, drive certain species to the verge of extinction, and shift the geographical range of others. Unless we take measures to stop it, average temperatures will climb an additional 1.4 to 5.8 degrees centigrade over the next one hundred years and the sea level will rise an average of between 0.1 and 0.9 meters. It will rain much more in some places and less in others. Extreme climatic events will become more common. The dangers are particularly strong for coral reefs, tropical forests, mangroves, and native grasslands. If one hundred years seems too far away to worry about, just remember that many of our grandchildren may still be around.

The real losers will be poor families living in the tropics. The IPCC report points out that developing countries obtain a much larger share of their income from agriculture and other activities that depend directly on the weather. That makes them more vulnerable. In addition, nations and households that lack financial, human, and scientific resources will find it harder to adapt. Unlike many temperate regions, scientists expect global warming to reduce potential crop yields in most tropical areas. In many sub-tropical regions where water is already scarce global warming will aggravate the problem. This applies particularly to Southern Africa and Central Asia. The number of people exposed to diseases such as malaria, dengue, and cholera will greatly increase. On the positive side, water will become more available in parts of South-east Asia and potential timber yields will rise throughout the tropics, but these positive effects seem minor in comparison.

So those of you who think that only rich countries can afford to worry about climate change should think again. As often proves to be the case, it’s the poor that will really feel the heat.

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Further reading

You can download the summary for policymakers and other relevant materials at the IPCC website http://www.ipcc.ch

If you prefer, you can request a free electronic copy of the summary (as a pdf file) from Ambar Liano at a.liano@cgiar.org (The paper is only available in English.)