It is almost impossible to separate the scientific, economic and political implications from the massive social impact that climate change is already having on our global population.
This is the ultimate concern for me; the wellbeing of all people and the likelihood that huge numbers of people will have to migrate and be displaced. The social structure of our world will change and we aren’t yet planning for it properly. Before that situation arises, however, other concerns are beginning to surface, like health and poverty, as a result of affected nations losing the ability to maintain their lifestyle in an already changing climate.
In some cooler counties, global warming might improve health, due to warmer temperatures, fewer winter deaths and better food production. However, worldwide, the effects on health will be less kind. High temperatures mean more air pollution and higher pollen content in the air, which in turn raises the risk of respiratory conditions and cardiac disease. Climate change affects things like water quality, air quality, food production and a secure living environment, which are all basic to good health.
We are also seeing an increase in severe storms and natural disasters and these are affecting populations worldwide. Injury and loss of homes can create huge health and social pressures in developed countries. In poorer countries, they are devastating and these counties struggle to recover.
Inequality, displacement and cultural change
Climate change will force huge population movement and this will alter our societies in an unprecedented way. Somehow, it has to happen in a manner that is fair and respectful and which treats all people equally. History tells us of many such population movements, but this time around we do not want to see one or two populations dominating or displacing others.
We need to make provision for people to move without the loss of their culture and dignity, allowing the world’s populations to reconfigure in the face of changed climate. Until recently, discussion on climate change has focused on the scientific facts and gaining agreement on those. However, it is becoming increasingly obvious that climate change is bringing about rising inequality, with very real threats to particular population groups. At the moment, people migrating because of climate change threats are not granted refugee status, yet this will have to change. Currently it means that people who would like to move before their environment is in crisis, cannot necessarily find a new country to settle in.
Some Pacific nations, for example, are already under real threat. The Kiribati Republic is an atoll, a group of islands only feet above sea level. Global warming is putting their coastal environment at risk and also their drinking water supply and horticulture. In the not-so-distant future, the Kiribati population will have to move elsewhere in the Pacific. Their islands will be submerged. The loss to those people is not just their homeland, but their lifestyle, their unique culture and their ability to support themselves. They do not know what lies ahead.
Uncertainty and powerlessness
For many people, young and old, the certainty of 50 years ago no longer exists. Many seaside communities are the home of retired people or families who earn their living from the sea. Not all seaside communities are the domain of the wealthy. For older people or families, the prospect of their home being taken by the sea is a cruel setback. They know it will happen but not when. There is a glimmer of hope that efforts to reverse global warming might be successful and the timeframe may extend beyond their lives. But they feel powerless because the outcomes rely heavily on the actions of politicians and scientists. Long term uncertainty about their homes and their livelihood can undermine the physical and mental health of these communities.
Fairness and equity
One outcome of the Climate Change summit in Paris in November was the ongoing commitment of developed countries to financially support the efforts of third world countries. This is fair, as it is the heavy industrial activity in developed countries that has brought about the rapid change in global warming. People in developing countries see this and probably resent it. Some third world countries do not have the resources to meet climate change targets and they are, in many cases, the most affected. Already they need support to mitigate the effects of rising temperatures and rising sea levels. They don’t have the resources or the capacity to achieve global targets for carbon reduction.
Resentment and Conflict
Already our world is in a state of conflict. Global warming can only make this worse. There is a fine balancing act between efforts to reduce global warming and at the same time efforts to cope with the effects. Populations who are heavily affected and impoverished due to climate change caused by commercial activity by developed countries, must feel resentment and anger. If they subsequently have to emigrate they will feel displaced and undermined. Refugees due to climate change are real victims and they do not deserve to live in the terrible conditions that we see in some refugee camps today. Planning needs to happen now, but because scientists are still hoping to mitigate some of the damage that has been done, and the timeframe for change is still being debated, it is hard to decide what moves to make and when.
It will take a hugely inventive social policy to bring the population of our “common home” together as a united group with common goals and a respectful blend of cultures, lifestyles and abilities. Our world will change and the need for peace and co-operation will never be greater. It will take great leadership and co-operation. The scientific community will be fully tested meeting the health demands of the future, at the same time working to slow the rate of global warming and the deterioration of our living conditions.