As a simple scan of the news reveals, the world is getting hotter and it’s having a devastating impact on our lives.
In drought-parched England, where temperatures are breaking records, wildfires that have erupted up and down the country are growing in frequency, while the source of the Thames river has ran dry for reportedly the first time. In Italy, the worst drought in decades has triggered a state of emergency, while fires have broken out in the cities of Palermo and Sicily. In Southwest France, 10,000 people have fled a massive wildfire that has been smoldering since July. In Germany, record-low water levels in the Rhine threaten to run aground the smooth running of the country’s industry.
Closer to home, the story is just as familiar and equally as stark. In Kansas, a June heatwave killed so many cattle so quickly that thousands of their carcasses were disposed of in a landfill and buried in unlined graves. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that this year will be the seventh-consecutive above-average Atlantic hurricane season, a pattern driven, say experts, by climate change.
Those seeking to understand the real-world impacts of climate change in the Global South, however, will be met by more of an information desert.
Over the past few months, there has been limited news reporting about the severe drought in Somalia, and even less coverage of its more recent effects, the displacement of 1 million people. This spring in South America, record temperatures across southern Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay have heavily impacted grain and other crop harvests. Not that U.S. readers would find much in-depth mainstream coverage of the problem — this is in stark contrast to coverage of the threats that the war on Ukraine has had on international grain supplies.
It’s not just news coverage that misses the mark — academia has shown similar biases when it comes to recognizing the impacts of the climate crisis on more vulnerable international communities. The same with political attention and channels of economic assistance from north to south. What’s missed are places that, in the vast majority of cases, are not the primary drivers of greenhouse gas emissions, but that face arguably the greatest challenges from the threat-multiplying effects of a fast-warming planet. The ramifications for everyone, however, are massive.
“The balance of investment from north to south, which is one of the important factors, has been underfunded,” said Sherri Goodman, senior strategist at the Center for Climate and Security, and senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center’s Polar Institute and Environmental Change and Security Program, in an interview with Truthout. When it comes to redressing that balance, Goodman warned, it will be necessary to understand which countries in the Global South need the greatest help, and why.
“That becomes one of the central elements of diplomacy and development now as we look to survive in a more climate-threatened world,” said Goodman.
“They’re Going to Suffer Greatly”
The drumbeat to focus greater time, attention and resources on the Global South has been steadily getting louder.
In a piece for The Nation during last year’s “Covering Climate Now” series, two prominent figures on the issue, Saleemul Huq and Mark Hertsgaard, observed how the Bangladesh-hosted V20 meeting prior to last November’s United Nations COP26 climate summit — where leaders of low-income countries laid out their positions on climate mitigation before assembled global movers and shakers — received scant media coverage. “The unmistakable, if unwitting, message is that some voices in the global climate discussion count much more than others,” the authors lamented.
Reuters recently studied the academic output and social media presence of prominent climate scientists to identify the 1,000 most influential. A subsequent analysis of that list found experts from the Global South to be “vastly under-represented,” with only five scientists from Africa included. Carbon Brief, a U.K.-based outlet covering climate science, climate policy and energy, analyzed 100 of the most highly cited climate science papers from the last five years and found the same disparity.
Experts like Goodman view climate impacts through the lens of global peace and food security. “One of the reasons the Northern Triangle of Latin America has been so deeply affected by narco trafficking and eco corruption and loss of livelihoods is in part because climate change is exacerbating underlying problems in society,” she said. Indeed, should changes in the climate continue on its current trajectory, it is estimated that as many as 170 million people across the globe will suffer malnutrition or under-nutrition. Three-quarters will be in Africa.
Goodman is far from the only expert trying to hammer home this message. In describing the “existential threat” that climate change poses to the world, former California Gov. Jerry Brown, a well-known advocate in the fight against climate change, cites waves of mass migration, global famine and huge swaths of the Global South unequipped to deal with the realities of rapidly rising temperatures.
“There’s going to be political instability,” Brown recently warned the LA Times. “The biggest human rights issue, bar none, is a billion people in India and other parts of the world that are going to suffer because they don’t have nice air conditioning like most Americans have. They’re going to suffer greatly.”
Earlier this year, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan think-tank, assembled a panel of climate science experts to discuss how climate change is affecting the African continent and the Global South, painting a complex picture of human devastation and political tumult.
As an example, Olayinka Ajala, a lecturer in politics and international relations at Leeds Beckett University in the United Kingdom, pointed to simmering animosity between pastoralist herdsmen who move cattle from one place to another and sedentary farmers — groups that had long peacefully coexisted — in 11 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Traditionally, sedentary farmers would plant crops, harvest them, then the pastoralists would swoop in and clean off the rest, explained Ajal. But erratic changes in rainfall patterns have led to the pastoralist herdsmen getting to the farms before the crops have been harvested.
When this happens, Ajal said, the herdsmen’s cattle destroy the plants, leading to tensions and conflict. “This has resulted in lots of deaths,” said Ajala. Indeed, between 2020 and 2021, he said, “this conflict resulted in more deaths than terrorism in Africa.”
“The Greatest Market Failure on Earth”
The aforementioned COP26 left many stakeholders from the Global South ultimately deflated, lacking as it did meaningful measures to keep global warming under target CO2 levels, along with wholly inadequate loss and damage funds for vulnerable communities already struggling with the worse effects from climate change. A key example of this deficit is the broken promise made back in 2009 by some of the world’s richest nations to deliver $100 billion annually by 2020 to poorer countries.
“The developed world has really been very, very resistant of setting up this loss and damage fund within the [United Nations] UN negotiations because that would imply a legal obligation,” said Vanessa Pérez-Cirera, director of the World Resources Institute’s Global Economics Center, in an interview with Truthout. Indeed, the UN has estimated that climate adaptation costs in the developing world alone could hit $300 billion annually by 2030, and as much as $500 billion annually by 2050. “Who’s going to pay that?” said Pérez-Cirera.
Though some countries in the Global South have been better able to weather climate-fueled storms — what experts attribute to strong internal governance, institutional stability and international support — many have already been bludgeoned economically. Just take Dominica, where 2015’s tropical storm Erica wrought damage to the island’s roads, bridges, buildings and farms equivalent to 90 percent of the country’s GDP. “When you think about cases like that, it just puts things into perspective,” said Pérez-Cirera.
As global leaders wonder how to stretch an underfunded piggybank, a central problem can be boiled down to this conundrum: Should developed nations — especially the largest historic emitters of greenhouse gas releases like the U.S. and Europe — prioritize their own emissions reductions, or invest in those vulnerable countries at the brunt end of the climate wrecking ball? Agreement has been hard to come by, and an unwillingness to provide adequate funding for emission reduction projects only makes it harder.
Ultimately, said Pérez-Cirera, climate-proofing the Global South is a matter of economic sense and moral urgency. Climate change is “the greatest market failure on earth if you think about the basics of economics and capitalism,” said Pérez-Cirera. But, she added, more economists are slowly shifting away from one driven by a profit motive. At the end of the day, she said, “we should move to societies that really value life and value equity in a much greater way.”