The UN Climate Summit happens against the news that the world is headed for 3 degrees of global warming as greenhouse gas emissions have again risen. Secretary-General Gutierrez has called this the world’s most defining issue. Climate change has taken this spot over from eradicating poverty. However, the two issues are intertwined, and we need to see more discussion about poverty when climate change is being discussed.
Here in Zambia, the south and west of the country face near famine conditions due to drought – starting in 2017/8 and worsening in 2018/9 – it will be challenging to deal with the impacts of drought in a situation where government is facing a massive debt and so has little fiscal room for manoeuvre. Buying food on international markets, and importing electricity to compensate for the low levels of drought affected Lake Kariba, Zambia’s main source of power, is difficult given the size of debt repayments, which President Lungu has said in his address to Parliament on September 13th are consuming 50% of the government budget, leaving only 10% for services (40% going on salaries and wages). Electricity is being rationed (‘load shedding’), to the detriment of people and businesses alike, and leading to problems for small businesses too. Business closures, reduced incomes, job losses and impoverishment is likely if load shedding is prolonged. The rains are expected to start next month and may bring some relief. Not so for farmers in the south and west, who will face a hungry season through to the next harvest (March-April 2020), and the government has recently turned to the UN to mobilise help.
Not only is the food insecurity resulting from drought (and other climate related hazards like floods and landslides) a frequent cause of impoverishment, of people struggling to escape poverty being able to make only temporary escapes before falling back in, and a contributor to chronic poverty, it also contributes to long term nutritional deficits especially in children, among other outcomes. This issue was highlighted in an expert group meeting [convened by UNEP, UNRISD and CPAN, in Geneva also on September 13th. To keep poverty reduction in the eyes of the world’s decision-makers now focused as they rightly should be on halting climate change, this meeting produced a key messages document to carry to the Secretary-General’s summit. Perhaps the outcome of the summit will have a little more acknowledgement of the links between climate change and poverty than the Secretary-General’s remarks before the summit.