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As cleanup and repair work begins in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the link between climate change and extreme weather events is back in the spotlight. Sandy makes a mockery of Washington’s inaction on climate change, but the different toll of the hurricane on New York and Haiti also highlights a central truth of disaster economics: The best strategy for resilience against violent acts of nature is to be rich.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo suggested on Tuesday that we are having 100-year flooding events every two years nowadays. That’s because even small rises in sea levels create the potential for far more frequent extreme weather events—something we’ve long understood. A Pacific Institute study published 22 years ago looked at flooding in the San Francisco Bay area. It noted that, due to climate change, the absolute sea level has risen 4 inches to 6 inches in the past century and a further sea-level rise of 6 inches will change the frequency of the 1 in 100-year storm events into a 1 in 10-year storm at the entrance to the Bay.
So events like Sandy should hardly come as a surprise to politicians—or the rest of us. At the same time, Sandy demonstrated once again that those who will suffer the most from increasingly common extreme weather events are poor people. Even though the storm’s tail only clipped the island of Haiti, Hurricane Sandy killed 52 people there, left 200,000 people homeless, and destroyed 70 percent of the crops in the south of the country. There is flooding across the country, making the lives of the 370,000 people still living in temporary shelters after the 2010 earthquake even more precarious. Haiti’s population is about half that of New York City’s metro area, yet even a glancing blow from Sandy carried a higher death toll in the Caribbean nation than did the direct hit on the Big Apple.
Current rates of global mortality from natural disasters amply demonstrate that being poor makes people far more vulnerable to the impact of climate change. Just in the past year, flooding killed 140 in the Niger Delta and left hundreds homeless, 66 dead in Manila and 440,000 in evacuation centers across the Philippines, 100 dead in northeastern India with 2 million people forced from their homes—and that’s a partial list. More broadly, around 90 percent of the 60,000 people who die in natural disasters each year die in the developing world.
That’s because surviving natural disasters is expensive. The best disaster resilience strategies involve paying for infrastructure—from sea walls to all-weather roads to irrigation systems—and solidly constructed buildings, alongside quality public services such as fire fighting, police, and ambulances. And withstanding a catastrophe requires being able to afford food and medicine even if prices for such goods rise in times of scarcity. Look at food scarcity from droughts: We’ve known since economist Amartya Sen’s Nobel prize-winning work that the best way to stop people dying in a famine is to make sure they have enough money to buy food.
So global consumption patterns may need to change dramatically to halt unsustainable climate change—not least, we need to switch over to renewable energy sources and reduce our addiction to meat. But the poorest people worldwide still need to consume a lot more than they do now to reach a minimum standard of quality of life and to be able to weather shocks from the climate and other causes without falling back into extreme deprivation.
According to the World Bank’s Branko Milanovic, the bottom 10 percent of the world lives on 0.4 percent of global income expressed at purchasing power. That compares with 55.5 percent for the richest 10 percent—more than a hundredfold difference. It’s the rich world, in other words, that’s doing the consuming and emitting of greenhouse gases, while the planet’s poorest 10 percent suffer the worst consequences of those emissions.
That’s why rich people worldwide—with Americans and Europeans in the lead—should be tackling both the causes and the consequences of climate change. When it comes to reducing the impact of climate change on the poor, an important part of the answer is to help people in the developing world get richer themselves—through increased trade, investment, and targeted humanitarian assistance. That is not a matter of charity but a requirement of justice.