Climate Change Inaction is the Real War on the World’s Poor

As I described Friday, a representative of Peabody Energy recently said, “We believe that energy poverty is the world's top priority, putting people first, not climate change.” I’ve already showed in a previous post why statements like this, which try to pit environmental concerns against poverty-reduction goals, are wrong-headed and hypocritical. Right on cue, a newly-released report has made it even clearer that trying to separate climate change from human welfare creates a false dichotomy—the reason being that low-income countries and populations will suffer most from the coming effects of climate change.

On Friday the Climate Vulnerable Forum of countries at risk from climate chane, partnering with the Spain-based nonprofit DARA, released a peer-reviewed study warning that allowing climate change to continue will by 2030 result in almost one million additional deaths per year. The majority of these deaths will occur in poor countries—the very nations Peabody Energy and its ilk claim they want to “help” by burning more fossil fuels.

Because it is too late to prevent a certain amount of global warming from carbon emissions already released into the atmosphere, some of this damage will occur no matter what happens. But by curbing carbon emissions and shifting off fossil fuels as quickly as possible, world economies can minimize the damage and save thousands or millions of lives. The great danger to the planet’s least developed countries is that action to reduce climate change will not be taken swiftly enough. Climate change inaction, not the shift to a low-carbon world economy, represents the real war on the poor planet-wide. By pressing countries to burn coal instead of developing renewables, international energy giants like Peabody Energy are not doing the poverty-stricken any favors.

Yet while the worst effects of climate change, in terms of lives lost, will be felt in the developing world, industrialized nations are not off the hook themselves. Friday’s report predicts developed countries are on-track to suffer $157 billion in economic losses related to climate change by 2030. Interestingly the United States, the world’s largest historical contributor to climate change, is expected to suffer more economic damage than any other country.

Fortunately we have the technology to move quickly beyond fossil fuels. Though the United States and Canada are making slower progress, European countries from Denmark to Italy are quickly developing their renewable resources and becoming global leaders in the clean-tech industry. Meanwhile in the developing world, successful renewable energy projects are proving that low-income countries don’t have to sacrifice their health and environment in exchange for better access to energy. Solutions to climate change are in our grasp, and all that remains is for world economies to seize on them.

As coal and other fossil fuel industries struggle to remain relevant, you can expect to hear more and more of these companies try to paint themselves as rescuers of the world’s poor. This represents nothing more than a misguided but cleverly orchestrated PR campaign; the truth is that helping the poor and safeguarding the climate are goals as inseparable as they are important. With a little innovation and a concentrated push to shift to clean energy, the world can accomplish both.

Photo credit: US Army in Pakistan