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Environment

How is climate change linked to poverty?

A woman scoops water in a dry riverbed near Kataboi village in remote Turkana in northern Kenya.
Photo: UK Department for International Development/Flickr

Imagine that you are a herder living in sub-Saharan Africa. The dry-season has been unusually long and hard – as it has been for the past several years. Drought has ravaged crops, and made food scarce. Your family’s income depends on the money you are able to earn from your flock – but disaster has struck. Three of your animals have died from thirst and starvation. Desperate for income, you are forced to sell some of your herd at low prices in order to provide food for your children. Finally, after months of waiting, the rain comes – but your family is still dealing with the consequences of the long drought and the selling of a portion of your livestock.

Having lost most of the source of your economic assets, you have been unable to buy school uniforms for your children and pay for their tuition. As a result, your children are forced to stop attending school. Further, you are scrabbling to put food on the table each evening. You find it increasingly difficult to escape the trap of poverty. While you are focused on living day-to-day, you don’t know that your current handship with continue for many, many years. The loss of your income during the long drought will impoverish your family for generations, as your children suffer the life-long consequences of facing undernourishment and lack of schooling in their early years.

While this story is a hypothetical, it is a reality for many of the world’s poor. Environmental changes are making it increasingly difficult for impoverished families to bounce back - particularly as climate change is prolonging periods of drought, flood, famine, and everything inbetween. Bottom line: In order to combat extreme poverty, we, global citizens, need to start campaigning our efforts around climate change.

Defeating poverty takes a comprehensive approach, with the underlying causes, not simply symptoms, being addressed. This calls for a holistic and sustainable approach that transforms the way global citizens think about the climate change - and its effect on humanity as a whole.

In a recent climate change report, climate scientists project that if we do nothing to control carbon emissions, temperatures could rise by as much as 4 degrees Celsius (that means for you Americans, a a large 8-9 degrees in Fahrenheit) by the 2080s. Allow me break this down even further - mean temperatures from the last ice were roughly 4.5 to 7 degrees Celsius (10 to 14 degree Fahrenheit) lower than today, and these temperatures shifted slowly over millennia. The type of temperature shift scientists are projecting would take place in a generation - making life on Earth fundamentally different than it is now.

These climate shifts are already impacting the way we, global citizens, live TODAY. Extreme temperatures, floods, violent storms, and droughts are causing serious effects across the globe. Over the course of the last 20 years, the world has lost more than 2.5 million people to natural disasters - and more than three quarters of these lost lives were in developing nations, and low-income countries.

In order for global poverty to be successfully combated, Jim Yong Kim, former President of the World Bank, in an editorial for the Huffington Post, suggested five areas of action that could help the world get off the path toward 4 degrees of warming. In his essay, Kim outlined putting a price on carbon, phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, encouraging energy efficiency and renewable energy, build low-carbon cities (LOVE this idea), and enabling climate-smart agriculture as a way to combat climate change.


Climate change needs to become part of the consideration in everything we, global citizens, do. If climate change is not confronted, there will be no way to end extreme poverty, or or boost global prosperity. This is not a matter that we, global citizens, can delay on - action must be taken now - in both our personal lives, and in urging our politicians to change policy.

While climate change might seem to big to reverse, we, global citizens, can all do our part. Interested in finding inspiration and doing more? Read about Laura Singer, who is fighting climate change by eliminating waste, and Sarah Gonzalez, who is using a law degree to campaign for environmental justice. And your part? Making small changes in your everyday life is HUGE! By making sustainable, environmentally friendly choices, we can all protect the planet and its people.