- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 16, 2009


For many Americans and Europeans, climate change is a distant concept. Scientists’ predictions that global warming will create serious conflict — through rising sea levels, disastrous weather patterns, pervasive droughts and flooding, and uncontrollable diseases and pandemics — have yet to be wholly realized. While we are already witnessing the adverse impacts of climate change, the doomsday scenario has yet to materialize.

What has materialized, however, is equally pernicious. Climate change is revealing the ugly head of another conflict, as global and deadly in reach. It is poverty, and it is exacerbated by the growing schism between the developed and developing worlds.

Each world’s leaders are placing culpability for climate change on the other’s shoulders, with the expectation that conversion (to the other’s message) will happen before Copenhagen’s climate talks in December. Leaders in the United States and the European Union expect China and India to commit to carbon targets by the end of the year, noting that the two countries’ combined population, of 2 billion plus, need to trim their carbon usage drastically. Some U.S.-EU leaders refuse climate action until China and India participate fully.

China and India respond that developed nations are responsible for most of the carbon added to the atmosphere over the years. They cry foul, noting that while the developed world industrialized without pollution parameters, the developing world now is unfairly shortchanged. (When it comes to carbon emissions, the numbers are telling: The average American pollutes between 20 to 25 carbon tons per year, the average Chinese between 4 to 5 tons per year, and the average Indian between 1 to 2 carbon tons per year.)

Lost in this debate is the 800-pound gorilla in the room that will only grow as climate change continues: our perpetual poverty problem. With 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty on incomes of less than $1.25 a day, and 2.5 billion people living in poverty at less than $2.50 a day, we allow those most vulnerable to be even more exposed to the costs of climate change. The food crisis, for example, exacerbated by climate change, hit the poor hardest.

Salvaging semblance of a solution, the recent Group of Eight summit in L’Aquila, Italy, committed $20 billion for aid. But much of this, apparently, is a recycled commitment from past pledges. In response to the G8 summit, famed musician Bono aptly summed it up by saying, “Of all the enemies of civilization, hunger is the dumbest, the most mocking of all.”

How true that is. We are mocked daily. Today, we will lose more than 4,100 children from severe diarrhea, because 2.5 billion have no access to sanitation and 1 billion have no access to clean drinking water. These figures are bound to rise as up to 250 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, alone, could be exposed to increased water stress by 2020 as a result of climate change.

Today we will also lose 2,700 people to an entirely preventable disease, malaria. This figure, too, is bound to rise as 300 million more people could be living in malaria-infested areas by 2080 as a result of changing global temperatures.

These problems plaguing those living in poverty are utterly preventable.

Consider the cost of a bed net to protect against malaria: $10, a cost that includes net delivery and training. Consider the cost of halving the number of those without clean drinking water and those without sanitation: $11 billion annually. This is a drop in the proverbial bucket when you consider that $1 spent on water and sanitation generates returns of $8 in saved time, increased productivity, and reduced health costs.

Consider the cost of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, which aim to eradicate extreme hunger and poverty, reduce child mortality, combat malaria, and improve maternal health — along with wide-reaching education, gender and environmental goals. To do all this costs only $40 billion to $60 billion a year.

Now compare this sum to the astronomical levels of defense spending. While we so quickly drum up funds for defense-related spending, we fail to see the security equation inherent to climate change’s impending impact on poverty. Fail to fix the growing poverty problem and we will see a security situation at every turn: sharp increase in migration, pandemics and diseases, resource-related conflicts — all of which pose potential risk to the United States and the European Union.

Acting before the planet warms another 2 degrees to 3 degrees in the next 50 to 100 years is vital and we must move pre-emptively. But without a plan of equal priority to ensure the near-term eradication of poverty, we fail to immunize half of the world that remains vulnerable to the slightest rise or fall in temperature, rainfall, harvest, tide or water table.

The time is now to bridge the gap between the rich and poor worlds, and to quickly devise a plan to help cure what is plaguing the planet: poverty.

Ambassador Jan Eliasson is the 60th president of the United Nations. Rep. Michael M. Honda, California Democrat, is a member of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition.

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