Issue Report: The UN should prioritize poverty over climate change

This resource has been created for The People Speak’s Fall 2009 Global Debates competition, which is sponsored by the United Nations Foundation and IDEA. The topic of the event is: “When it cannot do both, the United Nations should prioritize poverty reduction over combating climate change” The resource we’ve created here is designed to help debaters research arguments and debate more effectively. It draws arguments from the main pro and con editorials, opinion pieces, essays, speeches, and other sources on the topic, compiling a comprehensive array of arguments and quotations into a single pro/con article. The topic is timely as, despite the mounting evidence that climate change is occurring, questions are being asked about the relative importance of its occurrence. Would climate change really be a catastrophe for humans? Would it be any worse than global poverty? Will it degrade standards of living, health, and education in nearly half the world’s population, as global poverty has done? While some may lose-out from climate change, will others gain from it? Will it disproportionately harm the poor and “global south”? Does it matter that the consequences of climate change will be felt mostly in the future while poverty effects nearly half the world’s population now? is it necessary to choose or prioritize between climate change and poverty, or can they always be addressed in complimentary ways? Is the UN better designed to address poverty or climate change? Where can the UN have a bigger impact with its limited resources? Overall, should the UN prioritize poverty over climate change, when it cannot do both?

Crisis: Which is the greater crisis, poverty or climate change?

Poverty directly effects more humans than climate change could.

Global poverty plagues nearly half of the world’s population, where it is the cause of extreme suffering, malnutrition, and even death. Global climate change, conversely, may not have such a substantially negative effect on the world’s population, standards of living, health, and survival. It is far more likely to simply force humans and societies to adapt to slightly different temperatures and whether patterns and to migrate to more accommodating climates. It will certainly cause major problems around the world, and increased suffering for some, but it is not as likely to have as significant of an effect as poverty already has around the world. When it must, the UN should prioritize poverty over climate change.

Effect of climate change is too unclear to prioritize it.

It is not clear that global climate change will have as negative an effect on the world’s people as global poverty already is having. While it is possible that it will reach a similar level of destructiveness, the UN should not prioritize it over poverty based merely on conjecture.

Poverty is a more urgent priority than climate change.

Global poverty is having an extremely deleterious impact now, whereas climate change only might have a comparably negative impact in the future. Because it is more important to prioritize problems that are most immediate to humans, the United Nations should prioritize addressing poverty over climate change, at least for now.

Poverty spreads diseases more than climate change could

Philip Stevens. "Poverty: The Real Threat to Health". May 15, 2009:

“the relationship between climate and disease is weaker than claimed. The Lancet report details at length how warmer temperatures will lead to so-called tropical diseases such as malaria moving northwards and to higher altitudes. But this ignores the vast range of human and ecological factors that surround disease.”

Climate change is an equal if not greater crisis than poverty.

Climate change would drammatically alter the delicate balance of life on Planet Earth. It would increase flooding, droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters. When the ice-caps melt, rising sea levels will flood major coastal areas, include large metropolitan areas such as New York. Hundreds of millions of people are likely to be displaced. Entire agricultural sectors will be changed and destroyed. Poverty will be worsened drammatically. The rate of species extinction will increase significantly. And, by disrupting the circulation of the world’s oceans, climate change could send the planet into the next ice-age (perhaps the greatest threat of all). Overall, climate change is certainly a major crisis on par with, or even greater than, global poverty. The UN should not prioritize poverty above climate change.

Climate change must be addressed, or poverty will worsen

If climate change occurs in full, agricultural industries, for example, that rely on certain climates, will be destroyed. If the temperature change does not do this, the subsequent spread of new pests or diseases will present equally devastating risks to crops. This would reduce economic production as well as the provision of healthy foods, subsequently worsening poverty and human suffering. Increased incidence of drought, particularly in the south, and the depletion of water resources would have a particularly negative impact on poverty, malnutrition, and famine. For these reason, fighting climate change is a priority in fighting poverty, and should thus not be deprioritized beneath poverty-reduction. This will happen in all societies around the world, not just in the global south.

Climate change will disproportionately harm poorest states.

The global south is a body of people living in abject poverty, mostly near the equator and in the Southern Hemisphere. Global Warming threatens to drastically reduce rain fall in these areas of the world, which would have a devastating effect on water resources, crop production, and general economic productivity in these regions. The worst effects of sea-level rise are also likely to occur in low lying coastal areas, of greatest concern in densely populated South East Asia, India, Bangladesh, and parts of Africa. Overall, therefore, climate change is one of the greatest threats to global poverty.

UN mission: Is the UN's mission better for fighting poverty or climate change?

UN is more obligated to the poor and human welfare than climate.

The United Nations, as an organization, is more bound to human welfare than to the environment. Considering that poverty is currently, and for the foreseeable future, the greatest road-block to human welfare, the UN should continue to prioritize this field of work over other endeavors such as solving climate change. And, when efforts to fight climate change may worsen poverty, the UN should prioritize the former.

The UN has a special responsibility to the poor.

The United Nations is a body whose greatest impact has been helping the poor, mitigating conflict, and protecting innocent civilians during conflict. In general, its mission has evolved to be more of a humanitarian organization than a global governance body. It should make an effort to live up to this mission by prioritizing poverty over climate change, when the two come into conflict.

General statements that poverty is greater crisis than climate change

Austin Thompson. "A Pro-Poor Approach to Reducing Carbon Emissions".July 28, 2009:

“In [the “global south”] it is poverty eradication, not an impending environmental catastrophe that is the spending priority for governments.[…] Global Poverty is the Planets Greatest Catastrophe.”

Saving the planet is more important than reducing poverty.

There are many creatures on the planet, and by addressing climate change, the UN will be saving the natural environment, animal life, and human life. Saving the planet, and all its creatures, from global climate change is more important than problems that only relate to humans, such as poverty. Considering all its impacts, therefore, the UN should prioritize climate change over poverty.

The UN can do more to address climate change than poverty.

Addressing climate change means reducing carbon emissions. This is something that can be mandated, regulated, and enforced by the UN. Poverty, however, is much more complicated, requiring economic growth and societal maturity, none of which can be systemically affected by the UN. The UN is indeed capable of offering aid, but this cannot build economies, and some say even impairs economic development and sustainability.

National governments, not UN, better address local poverty.

National governments are best suited to address poverty issues within their territories, cities, and towns. The UN is not well suited to govern and aid these kinds of local, demographic, societal, and economic details. The UN, therefore, should let national government deal with the more local issue of poverty, and focus its attention on the more global issue of climate change.

Economics: Can the UN have a greater impact on poverty than climate change?

UN money will go further in fighting poverty than climate change.

UN money can go straight to the poor in the form of aid, directly addressing a clear human need. Money that goes toward the problem of climate change, does not have such a direct return-on-human-need as the effects on human needs are very indirect (protecting humans from changes in temperature and the possibility of negative effects in the future). And, of course, all efforts by the UN to combat climate change may do nothing to prevent its eventual occurrence. Because poverty reduction entails lower risks and more direct bang-for-buck, the UN should prioritize it over climate change.

Climate change may be inevitable, while poverty can be stopped.

Climate change is almost certain to occur, considering current and projected emissions level and the general trends in temperature increases and glacial melt. In addition, it seems likely that, even if emissions rates are slowed, all available fossil fuels will eventually be burned and the contained carbon released into the atmosphere. Therefore, even if climate change were the “greater crisis”, it is irrelevant because nothing can be done to stop it. It is better that the UN focus its attention and limited resources on issues it can affect, such as poverty, where there is a bigger bang-for-buck and lower risks of wasting trillions of dollars on a lost cause.

UN money can have more effects in fighting climate change than poverty.

Money to climate change has more positive effects and thus “goes further” than money directed toward poverty. It staves-off climate change, creates green jobs for the poor, provides cheaper energy to the poor, and reduces pollution that impairs the health of the poor and wealthy alike. It also increases international energy security by diversifying energy sources. The overarching, diverse economies of the UN using money to address climate change, therefore, are superior to the economies of poverty reduction.

Combating climate change with renewable energy lowers energy prices.

Addressing climate change with renewable energy has the additional benefit of offering new and often cheaper sources of energy. Particularly because wind, solar, and other renewable energies can be localized, they are effective at offering cheaper energy for rural poor communities that are “off the grid”. These are additional reasons for the UN to prioritize climate change equally or above poverty reduction.

UN efforts on poverty may actually stunt development.

There is a major debate about whether international aid through the UN benefits poor countries, or whether it creates artificial and unsustainable dependencies that stunt economic growth. At a minimum, it is not entirely clear that UN efforts to fight poverty are actually helping the problem.

Markets should address poverty, not the UN.

The markets should be allowed to work to address poverty. Any government action, by the UN or national governments, is more likely to harm economic development than to help it.

False choice: Is it wrong to see this as a false choice?

In some cases, the UN must prioritize between poverty and climate.

There are many instances in which the UN finds itself, or could find itself, in a position in which it has to prioritize poverty and climate change against one another. The most obvious is any circumstance in which certain actions on climate change entail a clear cost to development and efforts to fight poverty. India’s objections in 2009 to mandatory carbon emission targets are a good example, where it argued that meeting these targets would impair its development and poverty reduction efforts. Clearly, there are times when environmental aims have economic costs, and where the UN must prioritize poverty reduction or climate change. This debate, therefore, does not present a false choice; it is legitimate to prioritize poverty over climate change, when the two come into conflict.

Poverty vs climate change is false choice; they are complimentary

There is no reason that the United Nations must choose between fighting climate change and fighting poverty. They can both be done simultaneously. In many cases, fighting climate change is a means to creating green jobs and affordable renewable energy and reducing poverty. In general, therefore, it would be misguided for the UN to prioritize poverty reduction over combating climate change. Instead, fighting poverty and climate change should both be seen as equally important priorities that must be fought jointly and in complimentary ways.

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