Impacts of Climate Change on Livelihoods
Climate change has brought forth severe and possibly irreversible alterations to Earth’s geological, ecological, and biological systems. The debate over this global and humanitarian crisis has now reached a point where almost everyone but the most extreme of contrarians accept that, whatever happens to greenhouse gas emissions in the future, it is certain that we are going to face inevitable changes to climate patterns. Many people and organizations, including scientists who work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have concluded that these changes are already happening.
According to the IPCC, “There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities”.
The emergence of large-scale environmental hazards has brought attention to the issue of how we should respond.
Our Current Stand on Climate Change
Changes in climate led to the occurrence of extensive environmental hazards to human health, like extreme weather conditions, ozone depletion, increased danger of wildfires, loss of biological diversity, the strain on food-producing systems, and the spread of infectious diseases at a global scale.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 160,000 deaths, since the 1950s, are directly linked to climate change. Some analysts believe this to be a conservative estimate.
Nowadays, organizations, scientists, analysts, and researchers tend to focus more on the geophysical changes caused by climate change and global warming. There is a neglected aspect of the issue of climate change, with less research being conducted on the impacts of this global crisis on health, supply of food, socio-economic growth, and public goods like safe drinking water, among many other things.
The impacts of climate change on humans can be both positive and negative. For example, the climatic changes in Siberia could improve production of food and the local economic activity. However, this could only be in the short to medium term. Many scientists and researchers suggest that the effects of climate change on society today and in the future will continue to be overwhelmingly negative.
Majority of the adverse effects of climate change are experienced by poor and low-income communities around the world. The people from these regions are more vulnerable to environmental determinants of health, wealth, and other factors. Worse still, these communities have much lower levels of capacity available for coping with changes in the environment.
In 2009, the Global Humanitarian Forum published a report on the global human impact of climate, estimating over 30,000 deaths and about $125 billion in economic losses annually. The report also indicates that most climate change induced mortality is due to worsening floods and droughts, particularly in developing countries. This issue also raises questions of climate justice, since the 50 least developed countries in the world account for not more than 1% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.
The Consequences of Climate Change
Climate change brings about many health consequences. Environmental problems linked to climate change, such as extreme heat waves, rising sea levels, intense flooding and droughts, powerful hurricanes, and degraded air quality, directly and indirectly affect our physical, psychological, and social health. Climatic changes also trigger disease migration, and worsens health effects resulting from released toxic air pollutants in vulnerable groups like children, the elderly, as well as those suffering from respiratory and cardiovascular disease.
Some diseases and disorders caused by or are exacerbated by the changes in climate include:
- Allergies, Asthma, Airway, and Respiratory Diseases
- Cardiovascular Diseases and Stroke
- Food-Borne Diseases and Malnutrition
- Heat-Related Illnesses
- Psychological and Stress-Related Disorders
- Neurological Diseases and Disorders
- Water-Borne Diseases
- Weather-Related Diseases
Displacement and Migration
Climate change has also been linked to displacement of people, the most obvious (and most dramatic) being through the increase in number and severity of disasters related to extreme weather which destroy homes and livelihoods, causing many people to seek shelter elsewhere.
The impacts of climate change, like desertification and rise in sea levels, gradually destroy livelihoods and force communities to abandon their homelands in order to find more favorable environments. Deteriorating environments caused by changes in climate are also believed to increase the possibility of conflict over resources, which in turn prompt people to flee from violence.
According to the IPCC, an estimated 150 million environmental migrants will exist by the middle of the century, primarily because of the effects of flooding in coastal regions, shoreline erosion, and disruption in agriculture. But due to the complexity of this issue and the lack of supporting data, the IPCC could not fully measure the extent of environmental migration.
Asia and the Pacific are most prone to natural disasters, both in terms of the total number of natural disasters and the affected populations. This global area is highly exposed to the impacts of climate change, and is home to highly vulnerable populations, the disproportionately poor and marginalized.
Many governments have considered various approaches to reduce environmental migration in vulnerable communities. These include social protection programs, livelihoods development, development of basic urban infrastructure, and disaster risk management, among others.
In recent years, climate change has been viewed as a core development challenge that brings about serious implications for international peace and security.
Climate change redraws coastlines, alters where we grow our food, changes where we can find water, and exposes us to extreme weather events. Because of these, large numbers of people are being forced to leave their homeland.
The changes in climate affect the economic and agricultural base of many areas, especially in developing countries. Worldwide, climate change will stress existing mechanisms for sharing resources and will worsen migratory pressures, which is also one of the core drivers of conflict. It goes without saying that climate change could exacerbate existing tensions and even trigger new ones.
The human impact of climate change has been linked to the threat of violence and armed conflict. This is particularly important because multiple destabilizing conditions are affected at the same time.
Several major conflicts that were linked to climate change include:
- The war in Darfur, where severe drought triggered a conflict between farmers and herders.
- The Syrian Civil war, displacing 1.5 million people because of drought-related crop and livestock failure.
- The Islamist insurgency in Nigeria which exploited natural resource strategies to incite anti-government sentiment.
- The civil war in Somali, in which droughts and extreme heat have been linked to violence.
- Oil and natural gas infrastructure is susceptible to the impacts of climate change and the increased risk of disasters like storm, cyclones, flooding, and high sea levels. Reducing the risks by building in less disaster-prone areas can be costly and are not feasible, especially for countries with coastal locations or island states. All thermal power stations depend on fresh water to cool them, because salt water is corrosive. Besides the increase in demand for fresh water, climate change can also increase the possibility of drought and shortages in fresh water. Additionally, the increasing temperatures reduce the efficiency of thermal power plants, thus reducing their output. To make matters worse, most of the sources of oil are in areas that are prone to high natural disaster risks like tropical cyclones, storms, hurricanes, and floods.
- Like in the use of oil, coal and natural gas, climate change can also affect nuclear power plants. The damage caused to these power plants was demonstrated by the nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi in 2011. The impact of water shortages on nuclear power plants is more evident than on thermal power plants, and so nuclear energy supply will be negatively affected by a shortage in fresh water. This problem may become increasingly difficult in the years to come.
- Changes in the amount of river flow is correlated to the amount of energy produced by a dam. Because of climate changes, extreme droughts, or upstream dams and diversions, the amount of live storage in a reservoir will significantly be reduced, which in turn reduces the amount of water that can be used for hydroelectricity. The result of diminished river flow can be a power shortage in areas that rely heavily on hydroelectricity.
Due to changes in temperatures, roads, airport runways, railway lines and pipelines may require increased maintenance and renewal. Areas that are already negatively affected include regions of permafrost, which are subject to high levels of subsidence. This results in buckled roads, sunken foundations, and severely cracked runways.
Adapting to Climate Change
Adaptation is when society or ecosystems try to prepare for or adjust to climate change in the future. These adjustments can either be protective (i.e. securing against the negative effects of climate change) or opportunistic (i.e. taking advantage if the benefits of climate change) in nature.
Adaptation to climate change isn’t entirely new. Throughout the course of history, mankind has repeatedly demonstrated a strong capacity to adapt to various climates and environmental changes, be it migration to new areas, changing the crops we cultivate, or building different types of shelter.
The problem, however, is that the extent of global climate change today is disturbingly higher compared to previous changes that society has undergone. We are becoming an interdependent world, and so the negative effects of climate change in one particular region or economic sector can affect other parts of the world.
Ecosystems are also faced with adaptation challenges. Some animals will be able to migrate or change their behavior to accommodate climate change, while others may go extinct. Society’s ability to anticipate the impacts of climate change on plants, fish and wildlife can help us develop management programs that can help ecosystems adapt.
But despite society’s ability to readily absorb current changes in climate, some governments and communities are beginning adaptation planning for the future.
It’s worth noting that greenhouse gas emissions remain in the Earth’s atmosphere for a century, possibly longer. Because of these long-term effects, those already emitted in the atmosphere will continue to warm the planet in the remaining years of the 21st century, even if we were to stop emitting additional greenhouse gases today. Simply put, Earth is still committed to some amount of climate change in the future, no matter what.
Steps should be taken now to prepare for, and respond to, the impacts of climate change that are already being observed, as well as those that are projected to take place in the years to come. There are limits to adaptation, so actions to mitigate climate change must be an ongoing endeavor.
The effects of climate change will be felt in many different ways, by many groups and people worldwide. But exactly how this phenomenon will affect particular areas is not yet fully understood, nor, consequently are the implications for humans and livelihoods.