Q: What do the following groups have in common:
A: They see the changing climate first hand and tend to be among the most vulnerable and least able to adapt to climate change. Poor people’s livelihoods tend to be more directly tied to natural resources and ecosystem processes (agriculture, fishing, lumber), and they tend live and work in areas more vulnerable to climate change. Why do I use the word “disproportionately” in the title? Consider this: the average person in Bangladesh emits 0.4 metric tons of CO2 per year (2010-2014 average); the average American emits 17.6 metric tons of CO2 per year. I would like to direct your attention to the fact that those numbers are different by two orders of magnitude. For all the benefits we experience from burning fossil fuels (I find my gas-powered car very helpful for getting around), we aren’t bearing our share of the burden of the climate change consequences for all that CO2 in the atmosphere. On the flip side, in Bangladesh (or the Solomon Islands or Haiti or Kenya) most people have not felt the benefits of cheap, fossil energy but they’re paying the price.
A recent seminar speaker here at the Kellogg Biological Station, Dr. Brian McGill (U. of Maine), is a co-author on a paper quantifying this disparity in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography entitled “Geographic disparities and moral hazards in the predicted impacts of climate change on human populations“. They provide one of the most morally troubling maps I’ve ever seen:
“Global climate–demography vulnerability index (CDVI) estimated by subtracting CVI [climate vulnerability index] from demographic annual growth rates, expressed as annual growth rates of human population density. Highly negative values, indicated in blue, represent low‐vulnerability situations where current demographic growth is much lower than climate‐consistent population growth, while highly positive values, indicated in red, represent high‐vulnerability situations where current demographic growth vastly exceeds climate‐consistent population growth. White regions correspond to human density values of zero in the global gridded population database. From Global Ecology and BiogeographyVolume 20, Issue 4, pages 532-544, 17 FEB 2011 DOI: 10.1111/j.1466-8238.2010.00632.xhttp://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1466-8238.2010.00632.x/full#f5
Compare industrialized nations with third world nations. Notice anything? This disparity in climate change experiences has a measurable affect on how different groups perceive climate change and what actions they’re willing to take. In the US Hispanics often earn their livelihood in jobs tied to the land and are dependent on how society manages land and how climate change affects it. The New York Times published an article Tuesday called “Climate Is Big Issue for Hispanics, and Personal“. The Times, along with others, conducted a poll in January that found that
If we connect the dots between this finding and projected demographic changes in the US, we see that by 2050 Hispanics will make up almost 30% of the US population, according to the Pew Research Center (see graph).
If the NYT poll results hold true until then, we might see some major changes in the public concern (and voting power) for climate change mitigation actions as time goes on:
"…Two-thirds of Hispanics in the poll said the United States government should give money to poor countries to help them reduce the damage caused by global warming. Two-thirds of whites said the United States should not provide the money.
"The result, Mr. Sanchez [U. of New Mexico associate professor of political science and director of research at Latino Decisions, a survey firm focused on the Hispanic population] and other researchers said, is that politicians should be wary of dismissing the issue of climate change. “The most important thing is that candidates have to think about the Latino population as complex,” Mr. Sanchez said. “To ignore the environment is to ignore something that a large section of the Latino population sees as important.” (emphasis added)
Politicians vying for the Latino vote in 2016 should take note.
Let’s connect this to one more dot. The thesis of Christian Parenti’s 2011 book Tropic of Chaos is that climate change is already playing a role in conflicts in the global south. Neo-liberal economic development (sponsored by the west) coupled with climate change, he claims, has set up third world populations for conflicts over resource scarcity (due to economics, infrastructure, corruption, etc.); and he cites several conflicts in the news today where climate change is one of the major inciters, but this connection is often obscured or lost in our myopic view of these issues. For more on this check out this 2011 Democracy Now! video where Amy Goodman interviews Parenti about Tropic of Chaos: