Climate Change in Asia and the Pacific: Hitting the Poor Hardest

Feature | 15 June 2012

Carola Donner-Reichle, Senior Advisor at ADB's Regional and Sustainable Development Department, speaks to ADB.org about the need to mitigate the social and economic impact of climate change, particularly on the poor and most vulnerable sectors of society.

Why do we need to consider the social dimensions of climate change?

In Asia, the effects of climate change are threatening the health and livelihood of millions, especially the poor and vulnerable who lack the resources to adapt to it.

Climate change is influenced by social factors, such as models of living, population growth, urbanization, and inequalities between and within countries. Climate change affects everyone, but it does not affect everyone equally.

Therefore, responses to climate change must address varying degrees of impact and include changing patterns of innovation, production, and trade. There should also be public participation and transparency in decision-making.

What is to be done in terms of policies to address the social impact of climate change?

Climate change adaptation strategies should promote learning and innovation, reduce inequality, as well as include changes in health, education, and social protection policies.

Climate change adaptation strategies should promote learning and innovation, reduce inequality, as well as include changes in health, education, and social protection policies.

Greenhouse gas emissions have a negative impact on agriculture, energy, forestry, industry, and transport. We need low-carbon technologies, policies for protecting forests, green jobs, and training and skills development for new technologies.

We must ensure that policy makers, climate negotiators, development agencies, and the private sector (such as the reinsurance industry) are well-informed and that they take into account social concerns when carrying out climate negotiations and taking climate-related policy decisions.

What are the social dimensions of climate change in different sectors?

This can be explained by giving examples such as migration; food security; health; energy; urbanization and water; and gender as a crosscutting issue.

How is climate change affecting migration patterns in Asia and the Pacific?

In 2010, the Climate Change Vulnerability Index produced by Maplecroft, a risk analysis firm, identified 16 countries, including fast-growing economies in Asia, as being at extreme risk. The countries in Asia are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Thailand.

In 2010, more than 30 million people in the region were displaced by environmental disasters, including floods and storms. While many of the displaced later returned to their homes when floodwaters subsided, some migrated because they decided to seek a more secure life elsewhere or they simply could not return to their communities. Labor migration from rural to urban areas is one result.

Social protection, including labor market measures and social safety net programs, are important in disaster risk management to prevent impoverishment through natural disasters.

In future, research should concentrate on identifying trends in environmental migration among different groups, such as male and female, young and old; areas of residence; tipping points for migration; and understanding how slow-onset environmental change affects migration.

What will be the impact of climate change on food security?

Climate change has a major impact on food security in terms of lower agricultural production and yields resulting from higher temperature and changes in precipitation patterns. In South Asia, average crop yields are estimated to drop by 44%. Lower availability of agricultural land is also predicted, due to rising sea levels. In Viet Nam, a rise of 1 meter will affect 30% of the rice-growing areas.

The global food price crisis also has consequences for poor households as they have to reduce their spending on health care and children's education, especially for girls.

Investments in agricultural adaptation, such as changing planting dates, using more resilient crops, employing crop residues and appropriate fertilizers, improving soil and water management as well as putting in place social infrastructure, such as productive social protection schemes and credit and risk insurance, should be part of new strategies.

Is climate change also expected to impact human health?

Climate change will affect health in most countries in Asia and the Pacific.

In a report, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) states that climate change is expected to worsen the plight of millions of children in East Asia and the Pacific, home to more than 25% of the world's children. Higher temperatures have been linked to increased rates of malnutrition, cholera, diarrhea, and vector-borne diseases, such as dengue. Country studies from Indonesia, Kiribati, Mongolia, the Philippines, and Vanuatu indicate issues such as poor access to water in connection with climate change and sanitation services in addition to other challenges.

Climate change is expected to magnify the current burden of diseases in Asia. Public health policies and programs need to tackle climate-induced health risks, especially for the most vulnerable groups.

Governments should not concentrate on the health sector alone, but also on the interlinked relationships between health issues in agriculture, water projects, and urbanization (e.g. air pollution, heat waves).

More research is needed to better understand the health impact of investment projects, including adaptation projects in agriculture or water. It is important for government agencies, such as the ministries of health, infrastructure, and agriculture, to work together.

What are the actions needed in the areas of energy, urbanization, and water?

New energy supplies will be needed to lift billions of people out of poverty, but they have to be from carbon-free sources. How can poor households be included in the phaseout period for fossil fuels? Are targeted cash transfer programs a good way to protect vulnerable households during the transition period? How can governments speed up universal access to energy for all?

Climate change will reinforce an urbanization trend in the region. Urban planning should include incentives for people to settle in less vulnerable areas as well as portable social benefits for incoming migrants. Basic social services must be targeted to the poor, including migrants, women and men.

In Asia, megacities must plan to provide infrastructure and services to an expected one billion additional people over the next 20 years. It is the form of urbanization that will significantly determine the outcome of global efforts to address climate change.

Is there also a gender dimension to climate change?

Women and men are affected differently by floods or environmental stress due to traditions, resource use pattern, gender roles and responsibilities. In many societies, the women's participation is not at the same level as that of men in the planning and management of climate change-related issues. Inclusion of women in decision-making is part of good governance, as argued in the Cancun Agreements, which recognized the need for gender equality and participation of women in all aspects of climate change resilience.

Why is participation at all levels so important?

Climate change cannot be tackled without the full participation of societies. The transformation to low-carbon economic models and climate change adaptation and mitigation needs the consensus of all people.

Climate change cannot be tackled without the full participation of societies. The transformation to low-carbon economic models and climate change adaptation and mitigation needs the consensus of all people.

A top-down approach risks alienating people and accentuating equity issues. Participatory approaches empower people and ensure their involvement in assessing and choosing levels of risk rather than just being onlookers or passive recipients of instructions.

Governments need to promote accountability of officials and transparency.

Human rights must be the cornerstone for the challenges ahead. It is important to make use of the human capital and social solidarity that often come to the fore as communities build resilience in the face of threats to their livelihood and way of life.

What is ADB doing to address these issues?

ADB is active on so many fronts and with so many initiatives. For instance, last year we initiated and implemented a workshop together with Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) in the Republic of Korea. This event was the first of its kind as it focused on the social dimensions of climate change in adaptation, water, energy, and green employment. The participants were not climate change experts but senior finance and planning officials from the developing member countries of ADB.

These kinds of events are needed to increase awareness and capacity of policy makers addressing the social dimensions of climate change in all aspects of planning and policy making.