Does climate change matter to the poor?

Development Policy04 Dec 2013Bernadette Fischler

Why do some surveys show action on climate change at the bottom of the priority scale, while others demonstrate the urgent need for adaptation and mitigation strategies? While this seems contradictory, it is important to not jump to conclusions.

Does climate change matter to people living in poverty?

Based on what we learnt when we asked them, I would say “yes, definitely”. CAFOD’s recent research report ‘COMPASS 2015’ used several participatory methods to provide in-depth evidence on the priorities, challenges, visions and aspirations of poor or marginalised people. The participatory nature of the research empowers participants to articulate the messages they want policy-makers to hear.

As my colleague Sarah Wykes outlines in her recent blog, the results of our conversations with women, men and children at the margins of society show that environmental disasters can have a devastating impact. They annihilate any progress made and often have lasting effects. Sometimes they force people to adopt coping strategies that worsen both their current situations and future options. Smallholder farmers reported that climate change is noticeably reducing their ability to make a living.

These observations are also reflected in the report on the collective output from civil society consultations held in 39 countries by Beyond 2015, GCAP and IFP:

“There was a consensus in all countries: climate change poses an eminent threat to society. In every region it was noted that people living in poverty are already feeling its effects.[…] Particularly in rural areas, where many marginalised communities live, climate change is affecting everything from access to services to maternal health.”

Does the COMPASS point to My World?

However, there are also surveys on people’s priorities for the post-2015 framework that show action on climate change at the bottom of the priority scale. Why is that?

This is not necessarily a contradiction and shouldn’t be used as an argument for de-prioritizing action on climate change in development policies and programming. The stark difference depends on what questions are asked, the time participants spend on engaging with the questions and the depth of conversation.

In the My World survey and the household survey undertaken by the ONE campaign, participants were asked what was most important to them and their families by ranking predefined priorities, taking the relatively short time needed to complete such a survey. In these settings, participants tend to choose concrete, tangible options and consider things they would like to receive or access. In the results, environmental concerns and action on climate change are listed towards the bottom, while education, health and employment rank highest.

In participative study like COMPASS 2015, participants engaged in a collective analysis exercise which took several days and looked back over the last 15 years. The national Beyond 2015/GCAP/IFP consultation sessions also used a range of participative methods. The participative process of analysis captures the complexity of people’s situations. In the COMPASS sessions, marginalised communities identified climate change as one of the major threats to their development. Employment, education and health, which score high in the surveys, were identified by COMPASS participants as central to their ability to live dignified lives and that they are key to finding viable livelihoods and coping strategies to respond to the impacts of climate change, environmental degradation and natural disasters. For example, livelihoods dependent on farming in Bolivia have become more precarious due to the impacts of climate change, but waged employment would offer an alternative that is not dependent on an environment which is rapidly being degraded.

This shows that it is important to read across the results of research before jumping to conclusions. Qualitative research like COMPASS 2015, and quantitative surveys like My World are not contradictory but complementary, with the participatory research giving a deeper understanding of the complex ways in which external factors and experiences of poverty are interrelated. Consequently, the architects for the next batch of UN development goals need to acknowledge that addressing climate change is a prerequisite to addressing poverty, and integrate it across the post-2015 framework that intends to end poverty once and for all within our lifetime – as several recent UN reports on post-2015 suggest:

“Above all, there is one trend – climate change – which will determine whether or not we can deliver on our ambitions.”

“Without tackling climate change, we will not succeed in eradicating extreme poverty.” – (UN High Level Panel Report)

“Climate change is an existential threat to human development in all countries.”

“Unless the climate challenge is addressed it may become impossible to end extreme poverty, particularly in vulnerable countries, and achieve the other sustainable development priorities.” – (UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network)

“Biodiversity loss, the degradation of water, drylands and forests and the intensifying risks of climate change threaten to reverse our achievements to date and undermine any future gains.”

“In all countries, the achievement of Goal 7, on ensuring environmental sustainability, remains at significant risk because of the profound and urgent challenges posed by climate change.”

“The international community must reconcile the challenges of mitigating and adapting to climate change while supporting the growth of developing countries.” – (UN Secretary General Report on MDG progress)