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World Environment Day: What is the human cost of inaction?

We need to go beyond financial numbers to look at the real cost of climate change and environmental collapse. Two important new studies show what's at stake

Migrant labourers caught in a dust storm.
Migrant labourers caught in a dust storm. (Hindustan Times)

When we talk about the cost of the climate crisis, the implications are almost always depicted in financial terms. As a result, when it comes to nations and businesses laying out policies to cut planet-warming greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, these too are presented as dry jargon and plenty of numbers. And not in terms of its effects on people. 

While the former approach is perhaps necessary at a scientific and policy level, for the layperson, the unintended consequence is that a real, consequential and immediate planetary problem becomes an abstraction, a problem that can’t be touched, felt or seen. The irony, of course, is that Earth’s rapid warming due to our fossil-fuel based economies, is ensuring that an increasing number of people are being subjected to unlivable conditions—from heatwaves to droughts to crop failures. Whether it be intense Bay of Bengal cyclones or disappearing Himalayan glaciers, the effects of climate change is anything but an abstraction for the people who are suffering.

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It is in this context that two recent scientific reports assume importance: not just for what they say, but also for how they communicate the truly frightening cost of climate inaction. The first of these is a study that came out last week. Quantifying The Human Cost Of Global Warming evaluates how climate change is pushing an increasing number of people out of the narrow climate niche that humans have lived in for the past 11,000 years. 

The study, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, states that although humans have adapted to a wide variety of local climate conditions, most people live in places with a mean annual average temperature of about 13ºC. A second population peak occurs at about 27ºC, where people live in “monsoon climates”, such as India. Perhaps not so surprisingly, these are also the two habitation zones where the bulk of the world’s domesticated crops and livestock too occur, as does accumulation of wealth (measured in GDP growth). Life in temperatures either lower or higher than these two peaks destabilises human health and productivity badly, perhaps even fatally.

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The crux of the report is this: At the current level of global warming (1.1ºC above pre-industrial times), over 600 million people (around 9% of the world’s population) are already living outside this niche, usually in places with extreme heat. If the world sticks to the current climate action pledges from the world’s governments, this would result in a whopping 2.7ºC of warming by 2100. In such a scenario, at least 2 billion people (22-39% of the world’s population) would be exposed to extreme, unlivable heat by the end of the century. In a worst case scenario of runaway climate change and between 3.6-4.4ºC of warming, half the world’s population would be exposed to extreme heat, an “existential risk” for our species, as the report states.

“For every 0.1ºC of warming above present levels, about 140 million more people will be exposed to dangerous heat,” said Professor Tim Lenton, director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter, and one of the co-authors of the report. “Limiting global warming to 1.5ºC rather than 2.7ºC would mean five times fewer people in 2100 being exposed to dangerous heat,” he added. With carbon emissions not declining, the world is currently on track to at least temporarily exceeding the 1.5-degree heating barrier by 2027, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said on 17 May.

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The report has alarming implication for India, the one country which is most at risk from climate change. The current global population is just over 8 billion people, and the report assumes that by 2100, it would be about 9.5 billion. In the event of a 2.7ºC increase in global warming, that would mean over 600 million Indians would be pushed out of the climate niche and be exposed to extreme, probably fatal heat by the end of the century. If heating stabilizes to 1.5ºC, it would still expose about 90 million future Indians to unlivable conditions. 

However, it is not just a matter of stabilizing the planet’s climate to within a safe limit of warming. What has increasingly become equally important over the past few years is the need for climate justice. After all, the countries and people that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change bear the least responsibility for causing the problem in the first place. As the climate niche report points out, the lifetime carbon emissions of every 1.2 US citizens alive today will push 1 future person out of the climate niche by 2100.

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This need for not just a ‘safe’ world, but also a ‘just’ world where every human being can live a life of dignity underpins another report that was released on 31 May. Safe And Just Earth System Boundaries, which was published in Nature, is the product of the Earth Commission, a worldwide group of scientists set up some of the biggest research institutions in the world. 

For this study, the researchers analysed the state of eight indicators of the Earth’s health, including climate, natural ecosystems, water, air pollution and soil nutrients. What the report finds that human activities have pushed seven of these eight indicators into the danger zone, and that urgent action is required, especially on the part of the richest countries to nurse the planet back to health.

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Because of the inclusion of “just” boundaries—i.e. not just the boundaries within which the planet can sustain life, but also one where all human beings can access basic resources and be protected from harm—the requirements to meet the optimal conditions are more stringent that just “safe” boundaries. For example, while limiting global temperature rise to 1.5ºC of warming by 2100 is the safe boundary for climate, the just boundary would be the current level of heating: 1.1ºC above pre-industrial levels. 

Ironically, the climate boundary is still the only one where we remain within the just limit. For example, the safe and just boundary for the world’s natural ecosystems is for 50-60% of it to be restored and preserved. However, at present, only 45-50% of the global ecosystem area. The same is true for soil nutrients. Rich countries overuse fertilizers like nitrogen and phosphorous, overloading soils and leading to pollution. Meanwhile, poorer countries need more fertilizers than they currently have access to, and what the world needs is a just redistribution of these resources.  

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“Justice is a necessity for humanity to live within planetary limits. We cannot have a safe planet without justice. Anyone building a resilient company, institution or nation for the long term should work towards this future,” said Joyeeta Gupta, Earth Commission co-chair, and professor of environment and development in the Global South in the University of Amsterdam. The study’s authors seek to form a new benchmark to guide all future government and private action to ensure a sustainable future for the planet and people. The scientists insist that the scale of the task isn’t massive, but real work needs to happen right now. To wait and continue with business-as-usual is to put more lives at risk. And that is the true cost of climate change and environmental degradation.  

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