Otaviano Canuto, the World Bank’s Vice President for Poverty Reduction, had an interesting post on HuffPo yesterday in which he argues that we cannot understand the true cost of climate change until we can better measure poverty – “as long as we are unable to measure the poverty impact of climate change, we run the risk of either overestimating or underestimating the resources that will be needed to face it.”  I agree – we do not have a particularly good handle on the economic costs of climate change right now, just loose estimates that I fear are premised on misunderstandings of life in the Global South (I have an extended discussion of this problem in the second half of my book).

However, I find the phrasing of this concern a bit tortured – we need to better understand the impact of climate change on poverty so we can figure out how much it will cost us to solve the problem . . . but which problem?  Climate change or poverty?  Actually, I think this tortured syntax leads us to a more productive place than a focus on either problem – just as I am pretty sure we can’t address poverty for most living in the Global South unless we do something about climate change (which I think is what Canuto was after), I don’t think you can address climate change without addressing poverty.  As I argue in my book:

Along globalization’s shoreline the effects of climate change are felt much more immediately and more directly than in advanced economies. More and more, as both climate change and economic change impact their capacity to raise the food and money they need to get through each day, residents of this shoreline find themselves forced into trade-offs they would rather not make.

For example, most of the farmers in Dominase and Ponkrum agree that deforestation lowers the agricultural productivity of their farms, due to both the loss of local precipitation that accompanies deforestation and the loss of shade that enables the growth of sensitive crops, such as cocoa. At the same time, the sound of chainsaws can still be heard around these villages every once in a while, as a head of lineage allows someone from town to cut down one of the few remaining trees in the area for a one-time payment of a few hundred dollars. These heads of family know that in allowing the cutting of trees they are mortgaging the future fertility of this land, but they see little other choice when crops do not come in as expected or jobs are hard to find.

From a global perspective, this example may not seem that dire. After all, when one tree falls, the impact on the global carbon cycle is minuscule. However, if similar stresses and decisions result in the cutting of thousands of trees each day, the impact can be significant. All along the shoreline, people are forced into this sort of trade-off every day, and in their decision- making the long-term conservation of needed natural resources usually falls by the wayside.

Simply put, we have no means of measuring or even estimating the aggregate effect of many, many small livelihoods choices and the land use impacts of those choices, yet in aggregate these will have impacts on regional and global biophysical processes.  When we fail to address poverty, and force the global poor into untenable decisions about resource use and conservation, we create conditions that will give us more climate change.  If we don’t do a better job of measuring poverty and the relationship of the livelihoods and land use decision-making of the poor (something I have addressed here), we are going to be caught by surprise by some of the biophysical changes that persistent poverty might trigger.