Helping the Most Vulnerable Face a Changing Climate

Helping the Most Vulnerable Face a Changing Climate

Imagine a world in which mountain glaciers are shrinking. Their meltwater flows into rapidly growing lakes that eventually burst through their banks, causing flash floods that threaten lives and livelihoods in towns and villages below.

Imagine a world in which rising seas destroy coastal farmland and contaminate drinking water, forcing millions of people to abandon their homes, moving inland or fleeing their countries altogether.

Imagine a world in which long-lasting droughts cause violent conflicts between farmers and nomadic herders as the herders seek new grazing territory for their starving livestock.

You don’t have to imagine very hard: this is not a hypothetical world of the future under a scenario of global warming. It’s the world in which we live today. Lakes formed by melting glaciers already imperil villages in Peru and Nepal, the rising tide has uprooted many coastal families in Bangladesh and small island nations, and droughts in East Africa pit pastoral herders against farmers.

According to a new report by the World Meteorological Organization, 1.94 million people lost their lives between 1970 and 2012 from weather-related disasters such as droughts, extreme temperatures, floods, and cyclones. Most of those deaths occurred in developing countries—more than 1.6 million in Africa and Asia alone. And they’re likely an underestimate. For example, a recent study found that while the direct impacts of typhoons kill an average of 740 people per year in the Philippines, the ultimate death toll from indirect effects following a storm is 15 times higher—mainly from baby girls, who apparently lose out to their older siblings in the competition for scarce resources after a storm. 

Scientists predict that developing nations will be the most vulnerable to future climate change. But many of these countries have trouble handling even today’s climate and weather. How will they survive the much greater changes to come?

Last month on The Life You Can Save's blog, Cody Fenwick showed us how climate change affects the most impoverished communities around the world. The good news is that help is on the way. The Green Climate Fund, created under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, aims to raise $100 billion annually by 2020 to support climate adaptation and greenhouse gas reduction projects in developing countries. That’s an ambitious target, one that depends on donor countries making good on their promises. But other efforts are already underway: the World Bank’s Pilot Program for Climate Resilience has pledged $1.3 billion to date, and the development agencies of many industrialized nations are stepping in with their own programs. The U.S. Agency for International Development, for example, currently invests about $150 million annually to help developing countries adapt to climate change. Many of these efforts will reduce vulnerability to today’s weather extremes, not just those of the future.

From the Ground Up

Woman holding a livestock insurance policyShamsa Kosar, a beneficiary of an innovative, affordable livestock insurance program in Wajir, northern Kenya.
Photo credit: Riccardo Gangale, ILRI, Creative Commons

With all that money and technical support starting to flow, is there any need for individual private donors? The short answer is yes. Building resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change are tasks that will require many heads, hands, hearts, and boots on the ground to address. Climate change is a global problem, but its impacts are local. It’s certainly important to work from the top down, integrating climate resilience into national development plans and policies, but much of the work of reducing vulnerability needs to happen at the local level—and that’s where charities can play an important role.

A community’s vulnerability to climate change depends on three factors: sensitivity, exposure, and adaptive capacity. “Sensitivity” refers to the degree to which something is likely to be affected by climate or weather. For example, some crop varieties are very sensitive to drought, while others can survive long periods of dryness. Farmers whose crops die off during dry spells can reduce their vulnerability by using more drought-tolerant varieties. “Exposure” refers to the degree to which something or someone is exposed to an impact. For example, older adults tend to be sensitive to extreme heat, but if they live in air-conditioned buildings they might never be exposed—and thus they aren’t vulnerable unless the electricity fails. “Adaptive capacity” refers to an ability to adapt to changes in climate or weather extremes. A coastal village that is frequently hit by tropical storms but lacks the funds or technical know-how to build its resilience has low adaptive capacity.

How You Can Help

Each of the charities recommended by The Life You Can Save can contribute in some way to improving adaptive capacity: a healthy, more financially secure population will be better able to adapt. But some charities address climate vulnerability specifically. For example, Oxfam helps poor communities reduce vulnerability by building their flood defenses, or by implementing drought-resistant farming techniques. The UK-based charity Practical Action works on a range of adaptation projects in Africa, Asia, and South America. Most large charities, such as CARE International, have climate change adaptation programs. Research organizations, such as the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University, accept donations for their work on developing and testing new approaches to adaptation. 

Many charities also work on projects that reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions. Others, such as Cool Earth, focus on avoiding the destruction of rainforests and other natural “sinks” that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But while these efforts are important and will help limit future climate change, it's important to understand that the world would continue to warm for centuries even if we could magically flip a switch and stabilize emissions today. Some degree of climate change is inevitable, and developing countries are the least ready to deal with it.

For the most part, the effectiveness of adaptation projects cannot yet be evaluated: if we’re trying to build resilience to changes in climate that won’t occur until later this century, we won’t be able to judge their effectiveness until decades from now. But many of these programs and projects also help reduce vulnerability to today’s climate, and will save lives today by giving the world’s poorest people the resources to protect themselves against natural disasters caused by climate change.

Take some time today to learn more about how taking action on climate change can help save a life. Start by exploring the resources below. Note that not all of the charities mentioned in this blog post are recommended by The Life You Can Save. If you are considering making a donation to one of them, do your own research on how your donation will be used.

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About the author:

Brad Hurley

Brad Hurley is a writer, editor, and project manager working in the areas of climate change communication and children’s environmental health. A former science journalist, he now works as a contractor and consultant to government and international agencies.

The views expressed in blog posts are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Peter Singer or The Life You Can Save.