Navigating through climate displacement and adaptation

In this episode of ‘Climate Course Correction’, Teevrat Garg, Associate Professor of Economics, School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California, San Diego, talks to Smitha Verma about the ways in which water pollution and deforestation affects local communities and how climate change is impacting social security programmes across geographies. Edited excerpts from the interview. 

How is climate change affecting people differently in different communities? 

We need to understand first how much climate change is affecting poor communities. So if you are a person with means, even if it’s in a city, like Delhi or Bombay, or in New York or San Francisco, on a really hot day, the option for you is very simple. You stay indoors and turn on the air conditioner.  But if you are a poor farmer on the outskirts of Punjab and Haryana or in Bihar or anywhere else in the country, then the way you are affected by climate change, with rising temperatures is fundamentally different. It affects you in a couple of ways. One, because your occupation is likely to be agriculture or outside manual work, which are inherently climate exposed occupations. So, office work is less climate exposed than agricultural or outdoor construction work or any other form of outdoor work. The second is that you don’t necessarily have means of adaptation. By being poor, you don’t necessarily have the means to be able to adapt. And then the third part about this is that because you’re already poor, you already face different constraints that it’s not just the immediate direct effects of climate change that affect you, there are also knock on effects. So for instance, in the study in India, amongst the poor populations, in hotter temperatures agricultural yields go down, your income goes down, kids start doing worse in school. 

How is climate change making people opt for social security programmes more, be it in India or Mexico?

Our discovery here was that if climate change is fundamentally affecting the poor through their income and having these knock-on effects, then social protection, social safety net programmes can play a very important role in mitigating, though not removing, the direct effects of climate change. We have seen that in our hotter years, more and more families sign up for NREGA (the government’s rural job guarantee scheme), and more and more people complete the 100 days, and they are more likely to utilise the full programme. We are seeing this not just in India, but in several other countries. So social safety nets form an important aspect of adaptation to climate change for poor communities.

How do you think developing economies can look at their economic growth while racing towards net-zero? 

We need to disassociate ourselves with some of the traditional fights that we seem to have, which is to think that economic development and environmental quality are fundamental trade-offs, they’re not.

Increasingly we are finding that they are co-inputs into the production of human well-being. So, if you’re achieving large economic growth by increasing air pollution levels, that is sort of a defeating proposition, because those rising air pollution levels are going to decrease the labour productivity, there’s going to be more demand on the hospitals because people are getting sick, and the kids are not developing their human capital. We are seeing, elderly people dying and infants dying. Those are the populations that are most vulnerable to air pollution levels.

So we have to think about how we can generate win-win solutions, and increasingly, we’re seeing that there are a lot of opportunities for those win-win solutions. So we evaluated Uttarakhand’s massive tax benefit policy which provided very concentrated development in the state..

But it had one key feature. It said we will provide all of these subsidies, these tax breaks for 10 years, but they drew up a negative list and you could not get these tax breaks if you were on that list. So, as long as you were not an industry in that list, and it had a transformative effect. A 130% increase in economic growth and very little environmental damage. So we can design policies that achieve transformative economic growth without compromising the environment. 

And if we incorporate social security programmes too. So prior to COVID-19, I think something like 60 countries had some form of a cash transfer programme. And then, during the COVID-19 crisis, or at least the first two years of the crisis, that number jumped up to something like 190 countries. So I am thinking of social safety nets as a responsive programme to any kind of external stress.. But you can easily think of climate change as an external stress. I think that recognition can play a very important role.

What is missing in the climate change conversations at international forums? 

I think in the international forums there is a little bit of penny pinching happening amongst rich countries, in terms of thinking about how we are going to deal with climate damages in low and middle income countries.

We can provide funding for safety net programmes that allow people to make climate adaptive investments, rather than waiting for it to become a full blown crisis at various countries’ borders.

As sea level rises, as lands become more arid, people are going to move. So rather than waiting for that moment, we can think of smart investments. If we don’t make those investments now then we are going to look back 20 to 25 years from now, and think of that as a very, very cheap investment that we could have made and avoided a lot of future costs.

It’s so much cheaper to reduce the same metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions in Delhi, or in India, or in Bangladesh or in Vietnam, than it is to do it in California, right? So to not make those investments at a global level just seems like an institutional failure that we really should think about.

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