Ecology and Economic Justice – Preparing for the Pope’s Encyclical

By Carolyn Burstein
June 10, 2015

On May 28, Father Thomas Reese, in this article in the National Catholic Reporter, predicted that Pope Francis’s upcoming encyclical will insist that attempts to deal with the burden of climate change should not be borne solely by the poor.

Three billion of the seven billion people on earth are mired in poverty – and one-third of these, or over one billion people (two-thirds of whom are women) live in extreme poverty on less than US$1 a day. The other two billion live on about US$2 a day. And let us not forget that “poverty pockets” exist in both rich and poor countries.

Climate change compounds the problems because so many people in poverty are critically dependent on natural resources and have limited capacity to adapt to a changing climate. Think of the changes being experienced already in the frequency, intensity and duration of heat waves, heavy precipitation and drought, to mention only a few climate change issues.

In general, people’s vulnerability is highest in the least developed (poorest) countries in the tropical and sub-tropical areas of the world, which have the fewest resources to cope with depletions occurring in fishing grounds and in agricultural areas. Not only do crop yields suffer, which could easily result in malnutrition, but higher prices are also a nasty outcome.

Livelihood sources are usually narrower and more climate-sensitive than for those who are not poor. Extreme weather events often cause extensive damage and substantial loss of life in a developing country; whereas the same type of event might cause only limited damage and few, if any, casualties in a developed economy. In addition, poor and vulnerable people may be forced to sell off their physical assets in periods of stress, thereby undermining the sustainability of their livelihoods.

A recent World Bank article provides an example of this latter problem, which is becoming more common over time. In eastern Africa, a herder who “loses one or two cows to famine amid a drought may feel he has little choice but to sell other livestock at very low prices – the only prices he can get – to keep his family fed. The family may survive the crisis, but they will have lost productive economic assets they relied on, assets that had paid for the children to attend school and were helping the family move out of poverty. The children lose the advantage of an education, the herder has lost an economic base to build from, and he becomes less likely to take risks that could increase his income. Escaping the poverty trap becomes more difficult, and the effects can extend for generations”

Indeed, climate change is a distinct obstacle to ending extreme poverty because those who are very poor have the fewest resources to adapt or recover quickly from shocks of any kind. They often live on the most vulnerable land because it is the most affordable, such as homes along creeks or rivers that flood or hillsides prone to landslides or farmland with limited water access. Where economic diversification is low, options for developing alternative livelihoods in response to climatic changes may be limited or even non-existent. Migration may be the only strategy available, and migration itself, as we have seen recently, can lead to potential conflicts.

And climate variability and extremes will worsen these conditions in the future. Even today, over 96% of disaster-related deaths occur in these countries.

Consider the devastating droughts in Syria and Africa (even California, certainly a developed area, though it, too, has pockets of poverty); these extreme weather events always hit poor communities the hardest.  The shrinkage of glaciers, thawing of permafrost, changes in the frequency and intensity of rainfall, shifts in the growing season, sea level rise, the emergence of insects, shifts in the distribution ranges of plants and animals in response to changes in climatic conditions – these are but some of the climate changes we are already beginning to experience.  As a matter of fact, climate change is a serious risk to poverty reduction efforts and threatens to undo decades of work in this area of development.

Climate change will reduce access to water, negatively affect the health of poor people, and pose a real threat to food security, especially in small food-importing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Poor people are often directly dependent on goods and services from ecosystems either as a primary or supplementary source of food, building materials and fuel. This makes them especially vulnerable to ecosystem degradation. These impacts are superimposed on existing vulnerabilities and threaten all aspects of development and poverty reduction efforts.

In addition to water scarcity, food insecurity, greater salinization due to rising sea levels, temperature-related health issues and a myriad of other problems, we must add the risk of potential conflicts, including social unrest and political instability, even wars over decreasing natural resources and mass migration. The UN report was cautious about sending the message that climate change causes war, but instead stated, “Climate change canindirectly increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence” [my boldface].

As we’ve stated several times in the course of this blog, climate change threatens efforts toward poverty reduction. This has been particularly true for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by 189 nations in 2000 and that will expire this year. Few of these eight goals dealing primarily with poverty eradication have been actualized for many reasons (not just climate change, but this serves as a brake) and will be replaced with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015.

The SDGs will emphasize climate change adaptation as an integral and urgent part of the overall poverty reduction strategy. But nations’ acceptance of the SDGs will rely on an understanding of the twin approach ofadaptation and mitigation of greenhouse gases, the latter goal intended to be part of a universal agreement on climate change in Paris in December 2015 at the UN Climate Change Conference, COP21.

But funds from several sources will be needed to ensure that adaptation strategies in developing countries actually are transformed into effective poverty reduction and sustainable development. Realizing these funds has been a sticky issue in the past and real progress in decreasing poverty cannot be assured without the help of developed countries.

Many people have placed their trust in the moral authority of Pope Francis to convince the leaders of nations to assist those who are more vulnerable than they. Everyone seems to be awaiting the pope’s encyclical on the changing environment and his address in September to the United Nations Special Summit on Sustainable Development to transform the thinking and values of world leaders so that they are willing to work toward the necessary mitigation of greenhouse gases and to provide the funds to assist poor nations= in their progress in adaptation. Both the pope’s addresses are anticipated to place a heavy focus on the world’s poor communities, on inequality, human development and climate change.

It should not be forgotten that the pope’s engagement on these issues will provide an opportunity as well as an encouragement for faith leaders across religions to speak out about global climate change and should be a major boost to achieve strong agreement in Paris at the end of the year.

If, at this eleventh hour, we are to adequately manage climate change and take seriously our obligations of sustainable development, then we must avoid the consumerist society and its attendant “throwaway culture” rightly deplored by Pope Francis, which, unfortunately, we have also applied to the natural world, planet Earth. As Cardinal Peter Turkson (who wrote the first draft of the Pope’s forthcoming encyclical) said in his address at the April 28 conference convened by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican on the Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Development, “We need to shift away from an unthinking infatuation with GDP and a single-minded zeal for accumulation.”

Cardinal Turkson also said later in his address, “let us adopt the primary virtues of stewardship and solidarity.Without stewardship, the Earth will be less and less habitable. Without solidarity, greed will wreak ever greater havoc. But with stewardship and solidarity, we are sure to generate greater sustainability and greater security.”

Let us return for a moment to Thomas Reese’s excellent NCR article quoted at the beginning of this blog. He says, “The pope is a prophet, not a policy wonk… it is up to environmentalists, economists, business leaders and public officials to come up with concrete solutions to the environmental crisis we face… The pope’s encyclical will be his invitation to all of us to join in this conversation and this work.”

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