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Johannes Mueller SJ

Climate Change and World-wide Poverty


From: Stimmen der Zeit 10/2007, P. 649 f.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


For a long time the principal purpose of all development policy has been the fight against poverty. At present one tries internationally to halve the world-wide poverty by the Millennium Development Goals up to the year 2015. Among them is also the goal "ecological lastingness". Why? Environmental destruction intensifies the poverty in the developing countries, but itself is substantially a consequence of poverty. So poor people for instance can often win some land for their survival (accommodation, food) only by clearing wood or fuel for cooking and heating by felling trees. Inversely they are usually the main victims of environmental damage triggered as a result, as for example landslides. Besides poor countries try to reduce the burden of their debts by the export of tropical wood that brings foreign exchange. But with it they endanger their long-term foundations of living. That is why every environmental policy is doomed to failure without the reduction of poverty.

Certainly, at present a completely different topic (seemingly) dominates the public attention, i.e. the climate change with its consequences. At the latest since the publication of the Stern-Report and the newest report of the intergovernmental group of experts of the United Nations about the global climate changes (IPCC) the fact of a man-made climate change is hardly any longer deniable. Those studies proved that it is also economically meaningful to fight the causes of the climate change (mitigation), and not only to place one's hopes on later adaptation, which will anyway be necessary. This realization gave new dynamics to the political debate on climate policy, last at the world economy summit in Heiligendamm.

The present discussion mainly circles around the global consequences of the climate change. The greatest concern is apparently directed at the protection of the prosperity of the industrialized countries. That is certainly a quite short-sighted view, for the causes as well as the consequences of the climate change are most unequally distributed: Main victims will once more be the poorest countries, regions and people.

First of all a large number of the poor lives in regions that are threatened most of tropical cyclones, floods or drought disasters. In addition there is the gradual rise of the average temperatures and the sea level. The poor who for instance are living in slums near the coast or on landslide-endangered slopes are particularly affected. But in many places weather extremes such as droughts or floods also make it more difficult to meet the elementary basic needs. So just for tropical and subtropical regions where the greatest danger of famines exists, partly substantial losses of yield are predicted.



On the other hand the poor countries and the poor have far fewer possibilities than the wealthy countries and the rich to master the negative climate effects, and to adapt themselves to the changed environmental conditions. So the poor almost never have an insurance protection. Besides, poverty always means social vulnerability. A usual consequence of it is that the poor in crisis periods - due to small purchasing power, missing knowledge and political powerlessness - are unable to give effect to their interests.

But the climate change brings forward still another, so far hardly noticed perspective, i.e. the problem of future poverty. For many of the prognosticated consequences will become visible only at longer term. There is the risk that the poor of tomorrow will be still less capable of adapting than the poor of today. Hence it is an important task of research to point out that the fight against poverty as well as climate policy are not alternatives but linked with each other. Just that aspect still needs thorough ethical reflections, in order to bring out the connection of intra- and inter-generational justice with its manifold aspects.

A sustainable fight against poverty that contributes to coping with the consequences of the climate change in a better way has three basic conditions:

  1. The capacity to act of the poor countries and regions, particularly however of the poor on the spot must be strengthened. This is the most effective way of fighting poverty, which at the same time reduces the vulnerability by the climate change and improves the ability to master unavoidable effects in a way worthy of human beings.
  2. To strengthen their capacity to act the poor depend on the assistance of supporting institutions. There it is about political, legal and economic basic conditions on national and international level that promote and strengthen the potential and the personal initiative "from below". A fair international economic system is here of central importance. With it various feedbacks between climate change and poverty are to be considered, which partly are not yet sufficiently searched into. There is at present for instance the danger that the forced cultivation of regenerating raw materials for allegedly environment-friendly energy (bio-petrol, ethanol) weighs heavily on the production of food and the preservation of tropical rain forests, what again would speed up the climate change.
  3. A loadable linkage of climate- and poverty politics will only succeed if a share in the discussion about the climate change and its consequences is given to the people on the spot with their respective socio-cultural and religious traditions and their views are taken seriously.

This question is a new and great challenge also for the Christian churches. With it they will above all have to pay heed that their concern for the poor is not abused by groups with quite different interests with the argument that determined climate politics fall heaviest on the poor and are therefore at present of subordinate importance.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiracy for-with-of the Poor'