Above photo: A man stands amid what was once his home after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico last year. From Green Left Weekly.
“Climate change affects everybody.” You’ll hear this from time to time, particularly when someone is trying to advocate action on a global scale. It’s a way of binding us to a collective issue — letting us know that we’re all in this together, so we might as well work together to resolve it. After all, climate change is, by definition, a worldwide phenomenon and issue. The more global temperatures rise, and the ice caps melt, the stranger and less predictable the weather will get for all of us.
It is not true, however, to assume that climate change affects us all equally. Those living in poverty find themselves particularly impacted by the changes associated with the rising tides and temperatures. Both data and specific examples provide evidence to this end: Those living in fragile conditions are the most vulnerable to abrupt and dangerous changes.
Some areas around the world are more vulnerable to climate change than others. Landlocked, temperate zones, for instance, may experience fairly mild shifts in temperature and precipitation, while warm coastal and island states may find themselves the subject of raging typhoons and massive flooding. Typically island nations such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Samoa will be hit with terrible weather from time to time. The seasonal rains help grow crops, and occasional hurricanes strike the countries, dealing significant damage and requiring cleanup.
However, with the continued warming of oceanic temperatures, the regularity of violent hurricanes is already increasing. This past year, for instance, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico — both island states — were blasted with a series of hurricanes, each of which might have been considered a ‘storm of the century’ in its own right. While 2017 was certainly an outlier, it would have been a near impossibility a few decades ago. The trends in oceanic storm activity paint a troubling picture, particularly for those living on island nations.
Beyond just geography, it is important to understand that island nations are often homes to large communities living below the poverty line. For many, these areas provide a relatively warm home and a fair chance at food from local flora and fishing. Whereas surviving in a northern climate can be a life-threatening challenge — particularly when winter comes on — small islands comparatively close to the equator rarely pose this problem.
The problem is that those living in the shanty towns of Haiti have little protection when a hurricane rips through the island. Geographically, islands are the homes to much of the world’s poverty, and they will also be the worst-hit areas as the world heats up.
Other aspects of poverty also make surviving the post-climate change world difficult. In an example vividly illustrated by Puerto Rico, we begin to understand the necessity of strong infrastructure and an emergency response apparatus. Throughout the commonwealth, people struggled to survive during a shortage of supplies, the destruction of sanitation facilities and the contamination of drinking water.
Throughout the area, ocean water had swept through and destroyed homes, buildings and factories. For many of the impoverished groups of the community, a reliance on the public goods and facilities had become a way of life, and the temporary disaster relief camps did not have the capacity nor the supplies to adequately handle such an inflow of citizens in need of aid. Likewise, those in large divisions of public housing faced the nearly complete destruction of their lives at the hands of the flood that followed — something that commonly happens with major storms.
Looking even further back, one might remember the horrors of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans — another warm-weather impoverished area. Though much of the destruction was partially defined by a sluggish response from FEMA and other government institutions, the worst of the destruction centered around low-income housing and homeless populations, many of whom found their homes swept away or swamped beyond recognition.
The Vulnerability of Poverty
What poverty represents is a certain fragility of life. Hurricane Sandy — which would have represented a nearly apocalyptic scenario for areas like New Orleans or Puerto Rico, perhaps taking thousands of lives in the process — blew through New York City, and was handled and covered within a matter of weeks. The destruction resulted in billions of dollars in cleanup, and roughly a hundred people lost their lives, but the storm has faded into memory.
In other cases, it is a simple lack of necessary facilities. For example, roughly 33% of our land on Earth is no longer fertile enough for growing food, and a whopping 1.3 billion+ people live on this deteriorating land. These people are at risk of water shortages and depleted harvests which, of course, lead to hunger and poverty.
Climate change can cause other quick and unpredictable changes in weather as well, such as record heat waves, wildfires and snow storms. When one can afford the contingency options against these shifts, they are insulated from the worst of the environmentally-wrought damage. For instance, a person who can afford air conditioning may not suffer when the heat waves start. The same goes for heat, shelter, bottled drinking water and a plethora of other factors.