Crop failure, property loss from extreme weather, higher food prices, heat stress — climate change is clearly posing significant challenges for the world's poor. But when we consider the range of climate impacts that can afflict vulnerable populations, a disconnect can occur. We might assume that such populations are clustered solely in subtropical, lower- income countries and that citizens of wealthier nations would be buffered against similar hardships. The evidence suggests this is not the case. When we consider climate change as having only international poverty implications, we are overlooking our own challenges at home.
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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released this week warns that climate change will create new poverty pockets in wealthy countries where inequality is on the rise. The Occupy movement has cast a scathing light on societal inequality, on the growing gap between the haves and have-nots. It is not only absolute poverty but also relative poverty that is drawing advocates' attention. This further validates the ethos of the environmental justice movement, built on the notion that environmental impacts are disproportionately borne by a society's poorest members.
There are many examples of how poverty can be exacerbated by climate change, even in wealthier countries, and they are clustered toward the base of Maslow's hierarchy. One example that has already received attention this year is homeowners' insurance. Last year's swell of extreme weather events saw a record for insurance payouts in Canada. Insurers are raising premiums in response. This additional cost will make housing less affordable for the poorest 20 per cent, who already spend twice as much of their income on shelter relative to the wealthiest 20 per cent. For some it will mean losing everything in the wake of a disaster. This is a reality already endured by most people in the developing world, where insurance coverage is largely inaccessible.
Another direct impact is the price at the grocery store. Canadian agriculture has already been directly affected by climate change, with both flood and drought conditions over the past five years resulting in decreased production. Such disruptions to food commodities in an increasingly globalized supply chain can have pronounced price effects, as we saw with Russia's ban on grain exports in the face of 2010's epic fire season. The impact on Canadian shoppers is also heavily influenced by climate impacts south of the border. More frequent droughts such as those that have crippled agriculture in California and the Midwest could lead to more food being exported by Canadian farmers to meet U.S. demand, increasing Canada's $1 billion agriculture trade surplus along with domestic prices. Food and price security for low-income households should not be overlooked when it comes to mitigating against climate disruption.
We must also consider health within the umbrella of climate-related impacts that are particularly burdensome to poorer people. With the incidence of heat-related deaths set to increase , those who are least able to pay for adaptive technologies, medical care or relocation are the most vulnerable. This is especially so for senior citizens, who are more likely to succumb to heat-related stress.
While larger Canadian cities have developed adaptation plans, most smaller communities have not. Canada as a whole has a long way to go to ensure it is adequately prepared for the full range of climate change impacts. Focusing solely on responding to major events is not enough. Yes, we need better community planning to protect against river flooding, sea level rise and major storms. But Canada must also start delving deeper into the more insidious, systemic effects of climate change. Are we doing enough to understand how these global changes are likely to affect the lives of all Canadians, regardless of whether they own waterfront property? The communities that understand this and put plan to action are the ones that will be most resilient to future change.