A lot of discussions on climate change that we receive in the media focus on its effect on the natural environment—the melting of glaziers, coral bleaching, more extreme weather patterns, just to name a few. Not enough attention is given to the extremely important point that climate change is more detrimental to the poor than it is to the rich. The tendency to talk about the science of climate change neutralises a topic that is fundamentally socio-economic as well.
And is it not obvious that this should be the case? Climate change due to human activities is caused by the burning of fossil fuels, but the lifestyle one leads determines one’s need for energy. Only those who can afford it can lead a lifestyle that has a high carbon footprint, and those living in extreme poverty simply do not emit as much greenhouse gas as an average person in a developed country. Yet, it is more saddening than ironic to note that it is the impoverished who bear most of the brunt. Someone living in urban quarters may be annoyed by continuous days of torrential rain, but the farmer who lives off the produce on his farm pays a dearer price. In fact, 75% of the world’s poor live in rural areas and depend on the land to make a living. Impoverished areas are also nowhere near as well-equipped as developed areas when it comes to dealing with natural disasters and their aftermath.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, the increasing warmth will provide congenial breeding grounds for mosquitoes and engender the spread of malaria, a disease which is considered to be a major hindrance to economic development. Meanwhile, the low-lying areas in Bangladesh susceptible to flooding will be devastated by the rise in water levels, leading to environmental refugees being displaced from their homes. In effect, all that climate change does is aggravate the geographical disadvantage that is in the first place a major cause of underdevelopment. It can, and certainly will undo the efforts by aid agencies and self-determined individuals to lift themselves out of poverty. We need to outrun the negative effects of climate change to win the race to end poverty.
For a while now, when a finger is to be pointed at the culprit of climate change, it points to countries. Developing countries argue that the developed countries had their fair share in emissions to earn them the prosperity they enjoy today, and so they should not be deprived of the right to emit for growth. The question about whether it is the developed or developing country that should make a greater contribution in mitigating climate change is one that has no solution, and the search for it will exhaust the precious time we have to combat climate change and curb the increasing woes it brings.
Rather, it is time we adopt a different mindset to assign the responsibility to where it should lie—the producer and the consumer. The producer should pay the environmental costs incurred by their business, for instance the textile factories that pour a toxic deluge into a river system nearby, or the occasional oil spills that happen during extractions by an oil company. As for the consumer, the person who leads a lifestyle higher in carbon footprint should not be let off without paying the full price that is their due. Such a conception of ‘where the burden lies’ drives at solving the environmental problems at hand through the price mechanism. This is the inconvenient truth we have to confront, that the price mechanism we have currently does not accurately reflect the reality of consumption as a zero-sum game.
Land and livelihood are inextricably linked. When we think of the causes fought by the environmentalists, we tend to associate them with desiring to maintain the status quo in nature—to prevent fracking from opening scars in the ground, stop deforestation and further extractions of fossil fuels because Earth cannot afford to burn it all. This is a delusion. The cause that the environmentalists are fighting for is the survival of humanity. The Gaia Theory suggests that the earth will survive, whatever fate befalls, because it is a self-regulating and complex system that works to ensure the conditions for life on Earth. But humans will only survive Earth’s self-regulation up to a point. Therefore, consider environmental activism as a quintessentially humanitarian cause, one which aims to reduce the suffering of the world’s most poor who are most affected by climate change, one that tries to right the balance between consumption and cost.