January , 2021
How does climate change impact on human development?
19:24 pm

Kuntala Sarkar


Human development is concerned about expanding human freedoms and opening more choices. It is a common belief that with economic growth, scale of human development will improve. But this is not sacrosanct.


Looking back


United Nations Development Programme publish the Human Development Index (HDI) yearly to assess developmental choices. But in the initial days, climate related concerns did not grasp much attention. HDI was coined by Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq and was introduced in 1990. Then United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) released the ‘Human Development Report 1990: Concept and Measurement of Human Development’, along with launching the HDI. Per capita income, expenses in healthcare, education, life expectancy, adequate food-consumption became the parameter to scale HDI. But later, people started to pay notice because development-economists understood that national income, or Gross Domestic Product (GDP) could not necessarily account for the social or human dimensions of development. They realised that people’s expenses are not only influenced by their income but also by their outer circumstances.


Climate change issues came into notion prominently in the last decade. UNDP’s ‘Human development report 2006: Beyond scarcity: power, poverty and the global water crisis’ and ‘Human development report 2007/2008: Fighting climate change: human solidarity in a divided world’ highlighted climate and nature related issues to scale human development. The former report paid robust attention to inequality of water scarcity and the effects of global warming that disproportionately harm the poor. The report questioned why “poor people get less access to clean water and pay more for it” and records that “sanitation remains a powerful indicator of the state of human development in any community.” The second report on global warming specified how global warming leads to reduced agricultural production, coastal flooding, collapse of ecosystems and increases health risks. Recently, the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2015) and the Paris Climate Agreement (2016) also highlighted climate change issues.


Why co-related?


A large number of people are completely dependent on nature for their income. People living in forest areas, hill-stations or coastal areas are directly impacted by the nature and climatic patterns for their earning. They are either involved in fishing, rock-cutting, wood-cutting, small scale farming or even in the tourism business. In the plains, most of the people are engaged in agricultural and related activities which are also linked with climate issues. Affected rainfall, temperature and water availability for agriculture will obstruct economic activities and food security. From fishing to agriculture, every activity can get hampered for poor climatic issues. It also threatens the ecosystem of wetlands and coral reefs thus impacting those who are engaged with them for their earning. Climate change fallouts like floods, storms and sea level changes also leaves negative impact on transport, waste and overall urban infrastructure. These factors are also responsible for poor HDI. 


In the global context, climate change and obvious consequences of imbalanced access to land, water and other natural resources have been a crucial challenge in countries like Chad, Kenya, Sudan and other African countries. Due to inadequate land, desertification and drought, violence emerged between settled cultivators and nomadic pastoralists and that also affected the population’s livelihoods and development in all senses. Setting an example, Kenya has introduced the ‘National Climate Change Response Strategy (NCCRS)’ and the ‘National Climate Change Action Plan (NCCAP) 2013-2017 and Mitigation Action Plan (NAMA)’.


Impact on forests


People who are engaged in forests for livelihoods, deforestation is a major cause for their poor human development. Women who are mostly involved in wood collecting are now being forced to walk more for their wood gathering. This is making them weaker. Their children who used to attend schools are now being asked to help the elders and leave their education. Even after that, they are not earning enough to secure their food and shelter.


Around 36% of the world’s intact forest landscapes are within indigenous peoples’ lands whose lives are threatened now. Healthy forests are essential for food security and the sustainable livelihoods of an estimated 1.6 billion people globally, including around 60 million indigenous people are dependent on forest lands. This year, as Amazon experienced the worst fire in the decade, it will leave massive ill-impacts on both indigenous and other people of South America.


Oceanic factors


Climate change, which is a long-term process, impacts human life-styles and marine lives intensely. The oceans absorb about 25% of annual carbon emissions and more than 90% of the additional heat generated from those emissions.


Sandip Mukhopadhyay, Scientist, Ministry of Earth Science, Government of India, told BE, “In the climate change process, there will be warming of the earth system. Due to this the glaciers will melt and that will lead to rise in the sea level. So, the most affected area will be the coastal parts. From human settlement to industries, major cities in the coasts will be hampered largely. Additionally, the marine food web is the major source of food for the terrestrial organisms and fulfils the demand of protein for them. Additionally, an obvious impact of climate change will be on fisheries - they will horizontally shift themselves either to northern parts or relocate into deeper parts of the oceans. So, these fisheries will be less available for the fishermen and this will be impacting the lives of fishermen directly and can lead to food scarcity.”


Present situation stated in the HDR


The recently published UN’s Human Development Report (HDR) 2020 clarified that “while the world’s richest countries could experience up to 18 fewer days of extreme weather each year within our lifetime because of the climate crisis, the poorest countries may face up to 100 extra days of extreme weather. That number could still be cut to half if the Paris Agreement is fully implemented.” The 2019 HDR also revealed that many inequalities in human development have been increasing and continue to do so. The 2020 report now added, “Climate change, among other dangerous planetary changes, will only make them worse.” 


There are major evidences that economic development along with social well-being has been systematically affected by climate change. The HDR 2020 confirmed that in most countries, GDP (per capita) is lower than in the counterfactual without climate change, particularly in lower income countries where it is estimated to be 17%-31% lower. Additionally, overall cross-country income inequality is estimated to be 25% higher because of climate change.


In a paper titled ‘The sustainable development index: Measuring the ecological efficiency of human development in the anthropocene’, ecological economist Jason Hickel proposed an alternative index and called it the Sustainable Development Index (SDI). The SDI retains the base formula of the HDI but places a sufficiency threshold on per capita income and divides it by two key indicators of ecological impact: CO2 emissions and material footprint, both calculated in per capita consumption-based terms and rendered vis-à-vis planetary boundaries.” 


Looking forward


Joseph Stigliz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi in their book ‘Mis-measuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up’ commented, “Questions such as climate change require a specific consideration which drives us back to the distinction between weak and strong sustainability.” They also raised questions like what is to be sustained and how do the various assets that will be passed on to future generations affect this measure of well-being? They have focused on sustainability of development and that can lead to improved HDI for all - in the long term. 


Accepting and acknowledging the climate change problems is the initial step to mitigate the crisis. Ecosystems are influenced by human activities and later human activities are affected by the ecosystem. So, the responsibility along with the government is on everyone to protect the nature and mitigate the ill-impacts of climate change. Otherwise, human development will remain poor for the mostly required section. On the other hand, during the pandemic, major economies implemented lockdowns and industrial work was barred. Mukhopadhyay added, “The carbon credit has reduced in 2020 than the previous year. So, this can be a healing process for the earth.”



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