Climate change is a critical factor in understanding roadblocks to poverty reduction throughout the world, according to the most recent United Nations Human Development Report (HDR), released today. The report, an annual assessment of global development gains, points to the unique ways in which the developing world in particular will face climate-related risks.
The HDR notes two particular climate-related risks: natural disasters (heat waves, floods, and droughts, especially those impacting food and water security), and whether we can make efficient use of scarce resources in the face of rapid urbanization, which over the next fifty years will accelerate the quickest in the developing world. Facing these challenges will require smart planning and strong institutions, and the ability to balance the need for economic growth with ecological responsibility.
Climate change has the potential to be so disruptive that the HDR phrases the risk in stark terms:
Climate change could become the single biggest hindrance to the ambitions of the sustainable development goals and post-2015 development agenda.
Not only do most of the global poor live in geographic regions vulnerable to climate effects (on low-lying land, to use one example), but they lack the financial firepower to bounce back from natural disasters. Among the most vulnerable, in the HDR’s estimation, are small-island states (who face an “existential threat” from rising sea levels), coastal cities, and smallholder farms.
Two Challenges, Many Problems
In a special section of the report, Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, notes that the challenge is two-pronged. Not only will nations have to build their adaptive capacities, but they will need to find ways to reduce the current damage their economies are doing in climate terms (mitigating carbon emissions). This is a challenge even for the most advanced economies (note the debate over EPA emissions or Australia’s repeal of its carbon tax). For the developing world, the difficulties will be even more pronounced.
To the extent that climate change effects cross borders, the HDR points to the lack of effective global institutions to protect from and respond to these disruptions. The global trade in low-carbon energy generation is hobbled by overlapping trade disputes over subsidies. The Green Climate Fund, which is meant to provide assistance to the neediest of nations, is laughably underfunded.
On a regional level, there are places where bottlenecks to cooperation are also pronounced. I have written previously on how South Asia, a region beset by political and security-related disagreement and conflict, faces a particularly bleak future if nations in the region cannot develop a cooperative agenda on sustainable development.
Signs of Progress—and Ignorance
It’s an encouraging sign that the two most intractable geopolitical foes, India and Pakistan, seem dedicated to a productive dialogue. Ideally, in addition to the traditional hard security threats, these two nations will attempt to address how to encourage green growth.
As far as the HDR is concerned, reaching an international agreement on climate change at next year’s Paris talks is a crucial first step in building political will behind this critical priority.
A U.N. report is unlikely to change climate change skepticism on Capitol Hill, where the international aid priorities of the United States are judged. Conservatives in Congress are unwilling to even let the Defense Department consider climate change in their long-term planning, as The New Republic’s Rebecca Leber reported recently.
There is likely even less patience for additional spending to insure against the risk identified by this report, and a great deal of skepticism toward any kind of binding treaty coming out of Paris. That is unfortunately short-sighted. As this report makes clear, much of the laudable progress made on poverty reduction over the past twenty years is at risk.