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Don’t blame the weather when people die from climate change

August 11, 2009

The majority of the deaths occurring now and in the future “due to climate change” are as much to do with political, social, technological and economic failings, as meteorological alteration.

This is a good thing, because it’s much harder to change the weather than introduce good and effective policy change.

And it means that every climate-related death is not fait accompli. Deaths are avoidable. The flip-side to this, is that by shrugging our shoulders and accepting that large populations of poor people will die from extreme weather events/flooding/sea level rise/drought and so on, we are effectively committing manslaughter.

Avoiding deaths will require political, social and economic change, particularly in those countries where the deaths are otherwise likely to be: the poor countries.

It is unfair that people in poor countries are being affected by climate change that they had no part in creating, just as it is unfair that much of the poverty there results from centuries of exploitation by the rich world.

The world is unfair.

If we had all the time in the world, this unfairness could be addressed perhaps. But we don’t. We are all trapped on the one warming planet with some people more at risk of death than others.

Rich countries have a responsibility, indeed a duty, to help poor countries to adapt to the changing conditions, and to help pay for their clean economic development, this includes assisting in the cost of clean power provision.

But the governments of poor countries also have a responsibility to the people that they represent. Good and effective governance can save lives. This includes removing the barriers that prevent people and communities from improving their lives, tackling corruption and caste/ethnic/religious/tribal inequalities, empowering women, removing incentives that promote bad agricultural practice or poor water management.

The deaths that occured in Burma last year in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis cannot be separated from what is happening to Aung San Suu Kyi today. An oppressive regime like the one in Burma renders its citizens unable to cope with extreme weather disasters, which are becoming more frequent with climate change.

Government responsibility also extends to not exacerbating the situation by adding more carbon to the world’s atmosphere. Poor countries as well as rich countries must accept emissions caps.

Yes, it is unfair that the West got to develop their economies in a cheap, dirty way. But to claim, as IPCC chair Pachauri and the Indian government do, that this means that India should therefore be allowed to develop its economy without carbon caps, is a foolhardy act of bravado that the country’s next generation is unlikely to thank them for.

The rich south of the USA got to develop its economy with the assistance of slaves. Would it be acceptable for India to use slaves now?

We approach Copenhagen, in this post-Bush world, with India (the world’s biggest democracy) and China (the world’s biggest single party state) on the ascent. The amount of carbon being produced by these emerging economies is already significant. The world’s leaders all have a responsibility to protect the poorest people from the impacts of climate change, whether they be in the slum housing of New Orleans or the industrial heartland of Ahmadabad.

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