Reality Check: The Human Cost of Climate Change

By Alice Thomas
A family shelters under a tarp after being displaced by flooding in Pakistan. Reuters Photo/Akhtar Soomro

Tomorrow at 6pm Eastern time, I’ll be participating in “24 Hours of Reality,” the third annual live-streamed show organized by the Climate Reality Project, founded by former Vice President Al Gore.

The theme of this year’s broadcast is the “Cost of Carbon” – that is, the many ways in which we’re all paying the price of carbon pollution. Undoubtedly, a large portion of the discussion will focus on the economic costs of climate change (as outlined in recent reports) and why it will be far less costly to prevent global warming than to pay for its unmitigated impact in the future.

But the cost of carbon goes well beyond dollars and cents. Speaking as a humanitarian trying to assist people who are displaced by extreme weather and other climate change impacts, I find myself somewhat at a loss when trying to accurately calculate the human cost of climate change. It is so great and wide-ranging as to be almost immeasurable.

In 2012, close to 32 million people were forced from their homes by weather-related disasters. That is almost twice the number displaced during the previous year. The largest disasters occurred in India and Nigeria, where the number of people displaced came to close to 7 million and 6 million, respectively. The U.S., too, was not immune, with Hurricane Sandy forcing close to 800,000 people from their homes.

Sure, there are price tags that we can attach to assisting people made homeless by extreme weather events fueled by global warming. Take a major disaster like a severe flood or a violent storm. These hazards often affect thousands – sometimes millions – of people who, in a matter of hours or days, urgently need emergency assistance like food, water, medical care, and shelter. Delivering that assistance – especially when the disaster itself has wiped away roads and other major infrastructure – is a tremendous undertaking that has significant financial costs.

The figures are really stunning. Each year, donor governments and private organizations spend hundreds of millions, and sometimes billions, of dollars responding to natural disasters. The U.S., for example, spent close to $1 billion responding to the 2010 mega-floods in Pakistan alone, while the cost of responding to drought in East Africa in 2011 topped $330 million.

In addition to immediate humanitarian needs, the work of rebuilding homes, roads, schools, and businesses following a disaster imposes major economic costs on national governments as well as donors. The U.S., as the largest contributor of humanitarian and development assistance, picks up the largest part of the tab, but will also incur some of the most costly damage from climate-related disasters.

Over the long-term, climate change also threatens international efforts to eradicate poverty and it could wipe away hard-won gains made in recent decades. These “lost opportunity costs” are also hard to calculate. I remember talking to a government official in Pakistan following the 2010 floods who told me that the disaster had set the country’s development back 30 years. This past June, a poor farmer in Burkina Faso who lost nearly all his livestock to drought told me it would take him more than a year of hard labor to buy back a single cow.

These climate-driven events are also putting severe pressure on the international humanitarian community, which is already severely overstretched and underfunded. Whether it’s the war in Syria or the cyclone in India, the more humanitarian crises we have, the harder it will be to provide timely, sufficient aid to displaced people in desperate need. Barring an enormous increase in funding for humanitarian aid, many people – especially those living in the world’s poorest countries – will receive no help at all.

Still harder to calculate is the cost of human suffering. Whether you're Chinese or Pakistani or American, seeing your home destroyed, losing all your worldly belongings, and having your entire community split apart is devastating – something from which many people never fully recover. And no matter where you live, being displaced is likely to make you poorer and put you at greater risk of abuse, including violence, discrimination, and neglect. Indeed, the data show that these risks increase the longer you are homeless. 

And what about the citizens of low-lying island nations who could lose their entire territories to salt water inundation and sea level rise, becoming permanently displaced from their homelands? How do you put a dollar figure on one’s culture or nationhood?

In today’s gloomy economic environment, people not directly impacted by climate change might claim that we can’t afford to confront this issue right now. But ultimately, whether or not you’re directly affected by climate change, we will all pay for it in terms of disaster response, economic instability, rising food prices, lost development investments, and increased insecurity. More than that, we have a moral obligation to protect our families, communities and future generations from carbon’s human costs.