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Climate change and poverty – ‘Inseparably intertwined’

By Opportunity International Australia

Poverty is a lot more than a lack of income. Many factors — such as climate change — impact poverty levels, a person’s resilience, and their ability to move out of poverty and into a sustainable livelihood. As global efforts and policy turn to addressing the effects climate change, the link between poverty and the environment is being acknowledged as ‘inseparably intertwined’. It is a link that Opportunity International Australia has been championing for some time.

Above: Heni (middle) is one of the many Opportunity clients dependent on agriculture for a livelihood. Heni part-owns a community garden which provides families with both a source of income and fresh and nutritious food. Photo: ©Sarah Gray

“Poverty is about a lack of key resources needed for life,” said Calum Scott, the Global Impact Director for Opportunity International Australia. “These include clean air, food, water and sanitation – all of which are directly dependent on the natural resources provided by our environment. Other needs, including affordable energy, housing, education and decent work, are indirectly dependent on a liveable natural environment,” he said. 

The World Bank estimates that 100 million people will be pushed into poverty by 2030 due to climate change. 

The effects of climate change—increased frequency and severity of storms, floods, heatwaves and drought—impact that liveable natural environment and pose a direct threat to families and communities, particularly many of Opportunity’s clients who are rural and dependent on subsistence agriculture and cash crops for survival.

The World Bank estimates that 100 million people will be pushed into poverty by 2030 due to climate change. Therefore, the acknowledgement that poverty and the environment are linked is being welcomed by organisations like Opportunity International Australia.

“Historically, there has been a mindset that economic prosperity can be won independent of our physical environment,” said Scott. “In respect to poverty, the traditional view was that increasing income would, in time, solve all other problems.”

But the rapidly changing climate has some tragic impacts for Opportunity’s microfinance (and additional health, education and safety) clients in India, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

“Increases in average temperatures affect inland areas most, severely impacting living standards in many parts of India, while sea-level rise and extreme weather events will impact coastal areas of India and Bangladesh,” said Scott. 

“Droughts, floods and extreme weather events damage crops, livestock and homes, while flooding impacts health through poorer water quality and sanitation and increased water-borne and vector-borne diseases such as diarrhea and malaria.” 

We are learning ourselves about the role we can play in minimising carbon emissions and helping the most vulnerable communities adapt to the impacts of climate change.

This knowledge has led Opportunity to conduct its own research into how climate change is impacting microfinance clients, and how to build their climate resilience.

“We are learning ourselves about the role we can play in minimising carbon emissions and helping the most vulnerable communities adapt to the impacts of climate change,” Scott said.  

“We have recently begun research with one of our microfinance partners to understand how they can best play a role in building the climate resilience of their clients and many of our partners have developed programs—for example, loans to fund clean energy products—to mitigate carbon emissions and help clients adapt to climate change risks,” he said. 

“Our plan is to learn from our research, and our partners’ experience, to build a practical toolkit that will allow our partners to understand the climate change risks that their clients are exposed to and to tackle those risks in a strategic way.” 

But COVID-19 has heightened what was already an urgent issue. The pandemic being another factor in what has been called the ‘triple threat’—climate change, COVID-19 and conflict—all waging a combined war on the world’s most vulnerable. In October, The World Bank predicted that the pandemic will create 115 million ‘new poor’ just this year as the world economies take a battering. An additional 57 million are expected to be pushed into extreme poverty—living on less than US$1.90 per day—in South Asia alone. Another 40 million will be affected in sub-Saharan Africa. 

“COVID-19 has clearly set back many of the global community’s goals for eradicating poverty,” Scott said. “There is a concern that the attention and effort required to cope with, and recover from, the pandemic will draw energy away from efforts to tackle climate change.” 

Ironically, the global pandemic may have a positive outcome which stems from the insufficient global coordination dealing with the pandemic. 

“The institutions that we rely on are not sufficiently resourced and have been poorly prepared to cope with a risk that had been anticipated by the scientific community. Learning lessons from the pandemic would mean taking action earlier on climate change and recognising the limitations in international cooperation that make us vulnerable and prevent us dealing with these types of systemic risk. We can’t put our heads in the sand,” said Scott.

It can’t be stated enough, but poverty is not simply about low income.

The theme for 2020’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty is: Acting together to achieve social and environmental justice for all. The UN states that the issues of poverty and the environment are “inseparably intertwined” and that “social justice cannot be fully realized without aggressively rectifying environmental injustices at the same time.”

It is a significant acknowledgement according to Scott. “It can’t be stated enough, but poverty is not simply about low income,” he said. 

“The SDGs [the UN Sustainable Development Goals] framework sets out 17 goals that all need to be tackled if we are to eradicate poverty in all its forms. No less than three of these goals have an environmental focus: Goal 13 – Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts; Goal 14 – Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development; Goal 15 – Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss. Of course, poverty is also defined by other dimensions including health, education and unequal access to resources,” he said.

The UN is now hoping for a holistic approach to tackle the climate change/poverty link. One solution is to look at the work already being done.

“Many of the solutions are already there. Across the globe there are examples of advanced farming techniques that make livelihoods more resilient, while also reducing carbon emissions. There is scope to work with the world’s 800M smallholder farmers to promote these solutions,” Scott said.

“This gives me great encouragement, that the solutions to the environmental problems we face are within our grasp. I’m hopeful that the work Opportunity is leading will help develop and spread those solutions and have a lasting impact in reducing vulnerability and poverty.”

In October 2020, Calum Scott was a panellist for the Center for Financial Inclusion / Accion’s webinar: Serving Low Income Households Impacted by Climate Change. Hear Calum speak on climate change and the impacting it is having on those living in poverty here:

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