The Disproportionate Impact of Climate Change on the Poor
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One of the driving forces behind Plantish is a sharp awareness of the damaging impact of our current food systems on our natural world. As such, I’ve spent quite a bit of time researching climate change and the future that awaits us if we don’t take collective action. I’ve started to notice a lot of discourse around the fact that impoverished communities are often disproportionately impacted by climate change and its consequences, such as the increasing frequency of natural disasters. It definitely rings true. A lot of the news coming out currently about climate-driven extreme weather events and crises comes out of the developing world.
I wanted to dig a little deeper to find out why and how people in poverty, especially in developing countries, are disproportionately impacted. I also know that any meaningful attempt to save our planet rests upon amplifying the voices of those most drastically impacted by its degradation, so I wanted to understand how we all might play a role in that.
It became clear early on in my research that the impact on poor communities is largely driven by their increased vulnerability to the effects of climate change.
But what actually factors into this vulnerability?
Well, for a start, people in poor communities are more likely to be working in agriculture. A World Bank report revealed that 78% of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas and rely mostly on agriculture to make a living and put food on their plate. Many are even subsistence farmers. Consequently, they are a lot more vulnerable to changing temperatures or episodes of natural disaster, which dramatically decrease yields or make growing crops impossible. It was hard to read about how often this leads to people not being able to feed their families or to a sudden, unexpected loss of all income.
Beyond this, poor communities are much more involved in their own natural resource management. I read that people in impoverished communities are major custodians and consumers of natural resources. They are a lot closer to the collection and consumption of food, fuel, firewood and water from their local surroundings. As we all know, climate change is causing a depletion in these resources. Those closest to them are, understandably, impacted first and impacted the worst. Just to put it into perspective for you, women in sub-Saharan Africa actually spend 40 billion hours per year collecting water. As clean water sources dry up and water becomes more scarce, women in poor communities have to walk a lot further to collect it, reducing time available for education to lift themselves out of poverty.
And what does the disproportionate impact itself look like during times of climate-driven extreme weather events?
I found out that poorer communities experience higher mortality and illness rates during times of natural disaster. This is due to a variety of factors. The infrastructure, especially health services, in impoverished communities is often less robust. On top of this, those in difficult financial situations can’t easily move to safer areas during times of a crisis in the way people with additional income streams can.
I was pretty saddened to discover the extent of disproportionate impact doesn’t end there. Poorer communities also have greater difficulty recovering from the consequences of climate change or the climate-driven natural disasters. These communities don’t have the massive amount of resources and tools needed to bounce back from times of crisis quickly.
The overall picture I get is most certainly one of reduced resilience. Since those in impoverished communities are already more vulnerable to sudden environmental and economic shocks or even a small decline in the quality of their surroundings, the actual extent of impact is worse. In addition to this, poverty makes people less able to recover from these shocks and they leave a longer-term, more drastic impact. It’s said that climate change “makes poor people poorer”. I can see that it is indeed a vicious cycle and it must be broken if we ever hope to lessen the disproportionate impact.
I want to note that, even within developing countries, the patterns look the same and we shouldn’t be blind to this. A 2021 report from the US Environmental Protection Agency evidenced the highly disproportionate impact of climate change on economically and socially vulnerable populations in the United States.
So what can we do?
First and foremost, when we find ourselves in spaces where we’re trying to find solutions to climate change, we must make sure those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and poorer regions are given a seat at the table. Those who are experiencing the brunt of the impact must be included in strategizing about adaptation and mitigation if we want the solutions to actually work!
It might sound simple but, beyond this, one of the main things we can do is to work hard at reducing emissions in our own professional and personal lives. That’s the aim of the game here at Plantish. It wasn’t easy, but since the founding of Plantish in March 2021, we are a net zero carbon emissions company. To protect those most vulnerable, we need to quickly and effectively push towards reducing the pace of and reversing the impacts of climate change.
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