Poor Communities Hit First and Worst

In 2007 damages from severe flooding alone in Northern Fiji cost FJ$10m ($7.1m).4 In Tuvalu king tides destroyed many homes and contaminated food supplies.5 In the 2004-05 cyclone season the Cook Islands incurred millions of dollars of damage from five cyclones in one single month, heavily affecting its economy and infrastructure.6

People living on low lying islands around the world—in the Pacific, Indian Ocean, or in the Caribbean—are already being affected by rising seas and salt water inundation which contribute to crop losses, destruction of fresh water sources, and flooding. For them, climate change is already a terrifying, and all-too-real future. Ben Namakin, a resident of Kiribati, says:

During my childhood ... we never experienced severe sea flooding. There were storms, but they weren't that bad. As the sea levels continue to rise in Kiribati, several king tides hit the island. Saltwater intrusion affects the quality of water in wells; floods taro patches, gardens, and puts stress on plants/trees which are very important to the life and culture of an I-Kiribati.7

In the Western world we are slowly waking up to the issue. In 2006 the world watched Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth. In 2007

the Nobel Peace Prize was jointly shared by Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In the same year climate change played a significant role in the Australian Federal Election. The sustained media interest around the current drought, recent bushfires and floods, and most recently the Garnaut Climate Change Review are further examples that we are now paying attention.

However, despite these events, within the current debate in the Western world we are lacking in-depth analyses on climate change from a development perspective. Climate change is already beginning to undermine poverty reduction and sustainable development objectives under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and is set to get worse.8 It affects all sectors of development, from food and water security, to health and sanitation, to displacement and migration, and conflict and disasters.9 And developing countries are more vulnerable to climate change because they are more dependent on their natural resources than developed countries, and have a lower capacity to cope with environmental hazards and shocks.10 In the Pacific for example, many nations sit only a few metres above sea level and populations are concentrated in coastal areas, or in the coastal plains. Added to this, agricultural land, tourist resorts and associated infrastructure are concentrated in coastal zones. All these factors added together make these nations particularly vulnerable.

In this debate we have forgotten to consider issues outside of science and economics: the issues of social justice, equity and responsibility. For poor people in developing countries who currently lack a voice these issues are a matter of life and death. Their voices must be heard in order for international policy to reflect real needs, and not just economic arguments. The reality is that climate change is the biggest moral and ethical issue facing our planet today, and how we rise to the challenge, ask and answer the ethical questions will play a significant part in determining the future of the world's poor.

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