Politics of Poverty

Don’t disregard impacts of climate change on the poor when ending “energy poverty”

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Along the banks of the Dawa River in southeast Ethiopia, herders are learning to farm with irrigation, fearing drought and rising food prices. Photo: Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America

Our global energy future should sustain and advance development goals.

This first of two posts is based on his remarks last week at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the Subcommittee on Energy and Power

This is an important moment for United States leadership in addressing our global energy future in ways that sustain and advance development goals, and that address the challenges of energy access for the world’s poor.

Energy poverty is a major development challenge for the world’s poor. Nearly 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa live without consistent and predictable access to electricity.

Electricity is the key to business growth and economic development—it is what turns the lights on at night for children doing their schoolwork. When it powers a water pump, it can change or save a woman’s life. It keeps drugs safely refrigerated and health clinics operating throughout the developing world.

No one really debates that energy poverty is a critical problem. But Oxfam also believes that solutions to energy poverty should foster long term opportunities and not exacerbate climate change. Global temperature rise—driven in large part through ongoing exploitation of fossil fuels—increasingly threatens the very communities who most need economic development.

We believe that sound public policy can and should guide us in the direction of a cleaner energy future—one that does not intensify the challenges faced by the most vulnerable among us. Let’s consider the impacts of climate change on people who are poor:

  1. Climate change hits the poor first and worst.

In country after country, Oxfam is witnessing what is happening to communities as a result of climate change. Throughout Africa, Latin America, and East Asia, our staff and partners are already responding to the serious impacts of climate change, from increasingly severe weather events to water scarcity. We are working with farmers in Senegal, Mali, Ethiopia, and Nigeria to invest in more resilient farming practices to cope with increasingly unpredictable weather trends. We are helping farmers limit their risks with integrated risk management tools, including improved resource management and index-based insurance. We have worked with victims of flooding in Pakistan and Bangladesh. We have helped communities recover from severe storms in the Gulf Coast of the United States, Haiti, and the Philippines. All around the world, in farms and in cities, we have seen homes leveled, businesses destroyed, and livelihoods ruined.

The carbon footprint of the world’s one billion poorest people represents just three percent of the global total. Yet people living in developing countries are 20 times more likely to be affected by climate-related disasters—such as floods, droughts, and hurricanes—compared to those living in the industrialized world. In the 1990s alone, nearly two billion people in developing countries were affected by climate-related disasters.

So, in short, we agree with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim who said:

If we don’t confront climate change, we won’t end poverty.”

2.      Climate change will increase food insecurity and hunger.

As high temperature thresholds are crossed, and weather related disasters increase, crop yields are reduced and agricultural productivity declines. Farmers everywhere are seeing crops wiped out because of increasingly extreme and unpredictable weather. This drives dangerous food price spikes, which are already pushing the vulnerable deeper into poverty. We all feel the impacts as prices spike, but the poorest people who are least responsible for climate change are hit hardest because they often spend up to 75 percent of their income on food.

The price of staple foods such as corn, already near all-time highs, could more than double in the next 20 years. Even under a conservative scenario a US drought in 2030 could raise the price of maize by 140 per cent on top of projected long-run price rises.

Current levels of agriculture productivity will decline as extreme weather events increase, dry seasons become longer and hotter, and rainfall patterns become increasingly erratic, affecting rain-fed agriculture production. Projected impacts of climate change on crop yields, which in the tropics and subtropics could fall 10-20% by 2050, could leave an additional 25 million children undernourished by 2050 in developing countries. The long-term decline in productivity will be punctuated by catastrophic crop losses caused by extreme weather events.

3.      Climate disasters threaten to overwhelm our global humanitarian system.

In the next 40 years, climate-related disasters are projected to displace between 150 million and one billion people. Two billion people live in regions expected to become severely water stressed. At a time when it is getting harder and harder to raise humanitarian funding and global support—look at what is going on in Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Philippines—climate change is increasing the likelihood of disasters and health crises.

These are just the direct impacts. Migration and refugee crises and increasing inequality and vulnerability to disasters, will only incite further instability and popular unrest as governments struggle to meet the needs of their people. The United States may be forced to address these significant threats to international stability and national security.

So what is the US government’s role in promoting responsible energy development?

The real question before this committee is not whether countries should have access to their own fossil fuel wealth to generate power, whether it is oil, gas or coal. Oxfam has worked for more than a decade in countries around the world to help citizens hold their governments accountable and ensure that revenues from natural resource extraction, including fossil fuels, are spent on providing essential public services and flow to poverty reduction.

Nor is the question whether people in developing countries have a right to increase their carbon footprint in order to develop.

The real question for this committee is whether the United States should be incentivizing developing countries to meet their energy needs through fossil fuel extraction.

Through its development and investment policies, the United States will determine whether our efforts to address energy poverty will position us as a laggard or leader in supporting pro-poor renewable energy technologies. As a global innovator, we believe the United States government should find the win-win in this equation.

Read Part II of the testimony here.

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