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Climate change and the poor: How global warming could affect the neediest

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There's no shortage of discussion about climate change. But it's not often that the conversation shifts to how the world's poorest could be affected by global warming.

There's no shortage of discussion about climate change. But it's not often that the conversation shifts to how the world's poorest could be affected by global warming.

Michael Dorsey, assistant professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College, has made it his mission to bring into the limelight the impact of climate change -- and government policies regarding global warming -- on people already facing economic disparities. With a $300,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, along with funding from collaborations with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the government of Palau and other groups, Dorsey is heading up a project to bring climate justice to the forefront. We spoke last week.

Tell me about your project and its mission.

We're trying to understand, "What is this thing called climate justice?" We've been tracking what different local communities, primarily in the U.S. but also increasingly abroad, say climate justice is. There is a network called Climate Justice Now that formed after the Bali negotiations two years ago. We track what people in that movement say climate justice is, why they make certain claims that they make. That gives us a sense of organizations that represent literally millions of people around the world saying, "This is what climate justice looks like, should be, has to be."

On the other hand, we look very closely at the policies that are coming out of the official process, from things like the Bali agreement up through the Copenhagen accord. We literally go line by line. Will that produce climate justice as embodied and as demanded by social movements and representatives of millions and millions of people around the world?

How does the issue of climate change intersect with economic disparities?

At the end of the day, checking carbon emissions and reducing them means essentially incorporating them into the economy. That means carbon has a price. Whether it's cap and trade, whether it's direct tax from governments, it means when it has that price, your cost of energy goes up. Typically, a poor person spends more of their income on energy. When you increase the cost of energy generally, which is what will happen when we try to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, that fix translates into the economy. We know that those on the margins of society, the poor regardless or race or ethnicity, they're going to feel the hit in their pocketbook more so than the rich.

What's wrong about the way we're currently addressing climate change as far as the lower-income bracket?

The proposals that we're offering -- before we even get to economics -- the very proposals for reductions, are insufficient. It's very hard to say that [Hurricane] Katrina was caused by climate change. It's very hard to put a firm causal link between these things. But what we do know about climate change is that the one thing that it will do -- other than raise the mean average temperature of the climate -- is produce very harsh weather anomalies. These anomalies -- extreme temperature, extreme snow -- happen when you warm the climate. So, when targets and commitments [from the Copenhagen conference] are off the mark, that's a death sentence for people in Africa, people in low-lying areas.

Before you even get to the money, the proposals will produce widespread ecosystem collapse. When we have these 100-degree temperature days for several days running, which we're seeing now in a whole number of cities, the people that die first are typically those that are poor, black, brown, people of color. We already know that the reason why they die first is because their overall environmental quality is worse. They live closer to hazardous facilities. We already have good data that tells us that poor black and brown people of color, their environment is already compromised. Those people are going to be put under more stress -- and that's before the hit in the pocketbook comes.

What are the goals of your project?

The ultimate goal is threefold: To begin to share with policy makers what climate justice is, why it needs to be achieved and how it can be achieved.

More information on Dorsey's project is available here.

Photo: Michael Dorsey / By Joseph Mehling

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure