Poor are Sidelined on Climate

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The mantra from businesses and politicians in the developed world is that technology will provide a solution to rising global emissions. Indeed, they say, fighting global warming can be good for business.

General Electric has rightly staked a claim to be an environmental leader by selling wind turbines. Wal-Mart is going green by asking its suppliers to evaluate their emissions as they manufacture Wal-Mart products. Trading in carbon emissions can certainly be profitable: In a month of dismal financial news in the United States, Climate Exchange, which runs the Chicago Climate Exchange, saw its stock rise more than 20 percent.

’’We believe that technology can help solve some of these clean energy issues, and that ultimately by doing so we can make money for our investors,’’ Jeff Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, told a conference in California this month.

But wind turbines, hybrid cars and carbon markets are solutions by and for the developed world. They ignore another huge piece of the climate change puzzle: how to best help the people in the developing world who are already feeling the effects of global warming.

’’There is a trend to try to find solutions through technological interventions and high-investment solutions, which is tricky because that won’t always work for poor countries,’’ said Gonzalo Oviedo, author of a powerful report on the effect of climate change on poor people in the developing world, released this week by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. ’’What we are saying is that in many poor countries there is a high level of vulnerability, and that needs other kinds of solutions.’’

The world is moving fast to figure out how to reduce emissions with the help of technology. It has done far less to help poor people adapt. The report, ’’Indigenous and Traditional Peoples and Climate Change,’’ includes a kind of catalog of climate-related suffering already occurring among the poorest people of the earth.

In western Nicaragua, climate change has left villages cut off from crucial supplies, since the river that served as their supply road is too low to navigate anymore. ’’Basic supplies such as salt and drinking water can no longer reach the villages,’’ the report says. ’’In addition, the low volume of water means that pollution becomes concentrated and people are more susceptible to cholera and tuberculosis.’’

Among the Baka of Cameroon, rainfall has become less regular and harder to predict. ’’Women who normally catch fish in barriers built in small streams in the dry season are often unable to achieve traditional fish catches as flood patterns of the rivers are changing,’’ the report says.

In Bangladesh, a rise in the sea of 1.5 meters, or 5 feet, would submerge 22,000 square kilometers of land, or 8,500 square miles, and displace 17 million desperately poor people, more than 15 percent of the population. Where are they going to go?

Here in New York this week I faced my own little climate-related disruption: because of global grain shortages, created in part by the rush into biofuels, the price of a bagel has gone to $1.20 from 60 cents in the past year. New Yorkers are all aghast at the rise, but it pales next to these larger problems.

In much of the developing world, the response to climate change will require a bit of investment in low-tech ideas, not billions thrown into high technology, Oviedo said. The returns will be in human life and the preservation of endangered species and cultures – not in good returns on carbon options.

The report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature also points out that indigenous people have adapted to shifting weather patterns for thousands of years, and it suggests that rich nations might even learn from their experience. (Wind turbines evolved from lowly windmills, remember.)

’’In making plans, decision makers should learn from indigenous people and their strategies – this is a new field of research and there are a number of good examples,’’ Oviedo said.

During years of low rainfall, for example, a number of cultures in North Africa severely restrict cattle grazing. The grass must be cut in the field, and animals are fed outside of the pasture to prevent overuse of the resources.

Likewise, villages in South America have built stone water collection channels underground so that water does not evaporate as it moves from place to place. ’’The problem is that just as they are needed, these traditional practices are disappearing,’’ he said.

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Source: The International Herald Tribune (link opens in a new window)