Globally, close to 1.7 billion people face poverty in its many forms. The shift in distribution of global poverty towards middle income countries and the increase in relative poverty in high income countries indicates that pockets of poverty exist in countries with higher levels of per capita income.
How do poverty, inequality and climate change interact?
The socially and economically disadvantaged and the marginalised are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change. Poverty and persistent inequality shape climate-related vulnerability as people who are poor and marginalised usually have the least buffer to withstand climate hazards. For example, Superstorm Sandy in New York is believed to have had a greater impact on medically underserved populations. Similarly, low-income African American residents were more severely affected by Hurricane Katrina.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 4th assessment report identified poverty as “the most serious obstacle to effective adaptation” to climate change. The report highlighted that climate change will impede the ability of nations to alleviate poverty and achieve sustainable development. Put simply, climate change can be thought of as a threat multiplier that exacerbates other drivers of poverty. This concept is illustrated in the diagram below.
Climate change impacts on livelihoods and poverty
Climate change can erode natural, physical and financial assets of the poorest people.
Loss of natural, physical and financial assets can trap people in a crippling cycle of poverty that undermines their health. The ensuing morbidity and mortality can lead to loss of human assets as those affected experience reduced productivity at work.
Impact of climate change on poverty dynamics
Shifts from transient poverty to chronic poverty are occurring all over the globe and these shifts are driven, at least in part, by climate change. Households in transient poverty may become chronically poor due to lack of resources and effective responses to climate change-driven extreme weather events. The urban poor in low- and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America may slip from transient poverty to chronic poverty due to a combination of population growth and flooding in low-lying cities and water stress in the drylands. Climate change thus threatens to entrench people in intergenerational poverty traps.
Future models suggest that climate change will continue to affect poor people in rural and urban areas and make efforts to reduce poverty more difficult. Of the twenty countries and regions most at risk, seven are low income countries like Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Somalia, and Zimbabwe.
India and Indonesia are projected to experience an 80% and 60% increase, respectively, in their populations at risk from rising sea levels. This equates to approximately 58 million more people at risk by 2050. A major decline in agricultural productivity for sub-Saharan African (up to 27% decline) and Southeast Asian countries (up to 32%), coupled to rising water demands, will only exacerbate multidimensional poverty in these regions. In Mali, an extra 6 million people, including 250,000 children, are expected to face malnutrition due to rising temperatures and droughts.
More frequent hurricanes and rising water and real estate prices will make it difficult for low-income groups in the USA to make ends meet, pushing them further into poverty. To combat food insecurity in the future, middle- and high-income countries have been involved in large-scale land acquisition in Africa, southeast Asia, and Latin America. This land grab has displaced small landholders from their traditional lands and contributed to a hike in food prices, pushing the already poor into deeper poverty. This trend will only get worse.
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