Human security poverty and vulnerability

Climate change does not by itself undermine human security or increase risk of conflict; these usually depend upon a combination of 'vulnerability' factors. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has produced measures for these linkages in its Human Development Index (HDI), which correlates with its Disaster Risk Index (DRI), especially for less developed countries (UNDP, 2004). Not surprisingly, these show that climate change is likely to create or exacerbate human insecurity where livelihoods are already vulnerable, poverty levels are high, states are weak, extensive human migration exists, or where gender issues play a significant role (Delaney and Shrader, 2000).

These factors explain why climate change and other environmental effects hit hardest at the world's poorest inhabitants, including the 50 million 'environmental refugees' whom the United Nations University's Institute for Environment Security estimates will be displaced in the next five years. In its Fourth Assessment Report, the IPCC relates human security to basic needs addressed in the Millennium Development Goals for food, water, health and a place to live. Poor communities, it said, can be especially vulnerable as they tend to have more limited adaptive capacities, and are more dependent upon climate-sensitive resources such as local water and food supplies (IPCC, 2007).

Human security, therefore, raises issues of equity, political economic power, human rights and sustainable development. People do not contribute equally to the causes of climate change; nor are they equally capable of shaping responses or adapting to its effects. Questions such as 'whose security is threatened?' or 'how are responses constrained or facilitated by existing institutions and power structures?' are exemplified in large parts of Africa, 'one of the most vulnerable continents to climate variability and change because of multiple stresses and low adaptive capacity' (IPCC, 2007, p10). In the debate over climate change, we must constantly be reminded that much of the world does not require weather events to experience human insecurity. For the nearly one half of the global population - 3 billion people - who live on less than US$2 a day, and the one fifth (1.5 billion) who live in extreme poverty, existence is already precarious and human security a dream.

As the Human Development Report points out, however, 'Human poverty is more than income poverty - it is the denial of choices and opportunities for living a tolerable life' (Baker Institute and Energy Forum, 2006). Lack of access to energy services for the poor poses a serious human security challenge, as it renders basic social goods such as healthcare and education even more costly and inaccessible. Substantial social and economic development simply cannot occur, and MDGs cannot be met without major improvement in the quality and quantity of energy services in developing countries (UNDP, 2006).

Even though electricity supply has been extended to 1.3 billion people in developing countries in the last 25 years, 1.4 billion people will 'still' lack access to electricity, while the number reliant on biomass will increase from 2.5 billion in 2006 to 2.7 billion by 2030 (Baker Institute and Energy Forum, 2006).

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), exposure to indoor air pollution as a result of biomass is responsible for the nearly 2 million excess deaths, primarily women and children, from cancer, respiratory infections and lung diseases and for 4 per cent of the global burden of disease. In relative terms, biomass pollution kills more people than malaria and tuberculosis each year (Bruce et al, 2000).

Thus, while the end of 'cheap oil' may stimulate alternative energy and conservation, it is likely to tax local and national capacity that is already overextended, particularly for the poor, according to the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM). 'Security of supply and sustainable development', it says, 'remain at the heart of the political debate around energy' (ICEM, 2006). In fact, spiralling oil prices have become a growing source of poverty for many of the world's poorest countries that depend on energy imports, including top recipients of debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, which are forced to spend resources on oil rather than meeting such needs as education, improving access to health services needed to counteract HIV/AIDS, improving water quality or enhancing their infrastructure (Roche and Perez, 2006).

To this injustice can be added the fact that the global dependence on fossil fuels is a major cause of the global climate change that is already triggering weather events that can wipe out local economies and kill thousands of people, particularly in poverty-ridden communities that often do not have immediate access to relief services or adequate resources to recover from disasters, not to mention the threats it poses to food production and human health (McMichael et al, 2003). As well, the poor have always been most vulnerable to the boom-and-bust cycles of energy resource-dependent economies. Instead of benefiting from their energy resources, they bear the brunt of oil spills and inadequate public services, as in the Niger Delta, where communities near oil facilities typically lack electricity and running water, or in Aceh, Indonesia, where natural gas exports were interrupted by protests and risk of violent conflict among indigenous people - another side of unsustainable energy policies and practice (Baker Institute and Energy Forum, 2006).

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