Latest IPCC Climate Change Report Warns of Disparate Impacts on Economically Vulnerable Populations

Posted April 16, 2014

MP3 Interview with Dr. Michael Dorsey, interim director of The Energy and Environment Program at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just released the third part of its every-seven-years report on global warming. In their most recent climate research report, scientists predict that unless the world acts immediately to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy, the atmosphere will heat up by more than 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit or 2 degrees Celsius – a level at which catastrophic changes will be inevitable and irreversible for centuries, if ever.

Consequences of global warming include the complete melting of the polar ice caps, massive flooding of coastal cities, as well as droughts and desertification. The scientific panel also warned that demand for food and drinkable water could outpace supply, and that those who contributed the least to the problem – poor people living in wealthy nations, and impoverished countries overall – will suffer first and most.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Dr. Michael Dorsey, interim director of The Energy and Environment Program at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C. Originally founded to study the impact of economic and environmental policies on African Americans, the program has since broadened its research to include all marginalized people in America. Here, Dorsey explains the disparate impacts of climate change on different groups of people and points to what action should be undertaken to address and alleviate the crisis.

DR. MICHAEL DORSEY: The first thing to understand is that those that contribute the least amount of carbon pollution to the atmosphere are regrettably those that are harmed the most from the contributions of that very same carbon pollution to the atmosphere, as well as a host of concomitant co-pollutants. So, African Americans in the U.S., their emissions are about a fifth of those of wealthy, white Americans in the country. Yet when we look at the effects of asthma-associated mortality, we find that African Americans are about a third more likely to die of asthma, particularly asthma that is exacerbated by polluted air that can be exacerbated also as the average mean temperature rises. And this particular problem of the disproportionate impact of carbon pollution and its effects on particular marginalized communities in the U.S. is a problem that faces the world. So, indigenous communities in the Arctic; communities in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly poor communities in sub-Saharan Africa; in South Asia; in the high Andes. Those poor, marginalized communities, they are right now living out and experiencing the deleterious effects of the unfolding climate catastrophe that's gripping the planet.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What do you think should happen now?

DR. MICHAEL DORSEY: Within the climate change negotiations taking place under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, there is an ongoing and active discussion on what diplomats refer to as a loss damage waiver. And this is essentially diplomatic speak for coming up with a framework to compensate communities and countries that are the hardest hit by unfolding climate change and more specifically by catastrophic weather events that we can likely say are made worse as catastrophic climate change plays out around the world. Right now there's a desire – and it's a longstanding desire – that countries in the global North – in the U.S., Europe, Canada, Australia, etc. – the wealthy countries that contribute much, much more carbon pollution to the atmosphere, that they need to contribute resources in proportion to the pollution they put into the atmosphere. That's a basic principle in U.S. environmental law, and it's called the principle of making the polluter pay, right? If you pollute excessively, you need to be fined and penalized excessively. This is something that's fundamental to U.S. environmental law. What's happening, however, is that U.S. negotiators, led by our president, President Obama, have essentially tried to water down any sizeable monetary commitments the U.S. will make to other countries, or other developed, rich, high-polluting countries will make to move resources quickly and in robust proportions to countries that need those resources the most. This kind of positioning is fundamentally un-American, it's fundamentally unjust.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Not to mention the Republicans, many of whom deny the existence of human-caused climate change.

DR. MICHAEL DORSEY: You could have no more the kind of sideways and backwards views of science and of reality than those expressed by many members on the Republican side of the aisle. There are those Republicans, however, who are rooted in reality and not in cartoonish hucksterism and charlatanism, who would love to see serious steps made on environmental issues, and some of those folks are having conversations with those on the other side of the aisle. There is a dialogue among both right and left political positions in Washington and elsewhere about what more can be done to get out ahead of the unfolding climate crisis. And in fairness, that level of charlatanism from the Republican Party is something that the White House has to contend with.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Michael Dorsey, it seems like the world has already passed several dates which were presented by scientists as the absolute latest by which we'd need to make serious efforts to rein in greenhouse gases. I kind of think it's too late. What do you think?

DR. MICHAEL DORSEY: Well, the question of whether or not we are beyond certain tipping points is indeed a debate that many scientists are actually having. The real scientific debate has nothing to do with the actual existence of climate change or an unfolding climate catastrophe. The real scientific debate is how bad will unfolding climate change and climate catastrophe be for ecosystems as well as societies and communities. That's the real debate that's in the science. And there's a lot of evidence that indicates that we are indeed beyond certain tipping points.

Find more information The Energy and Environment Program at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies by visiting

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