Researchers Seek Sustainable Ways to Improve Conditions for the World’s Poor

The development community knows that it can’t ignore climate effects and sustainability while trying to improve the lives of the poor, but it needs interdisciplinary scientific input on how to do it.
Waterways in Jakarta, Indonesia | Farhana Asnap/World Bank

Climate change effects are being felt across the globe, and new reports are documenting unprecedented levels of greenhouse gases, melting ice, sea level rise, record-breaking temperatures and severe weather events. Meanwhile more than 1 billion people live in poverty around the world without energy and access to clean water. Addressing these problems together in ways that leave behind sustainable environments, economies and social structures is a challenge that scientists need to help the development community meet, said ecologist Rosina Bierbaum.

Bierbaum, a professor and Dean Emerita at the University of Michigan, made these remarks in the 14th Annual Robert C. Barnard Environmental Lecture, which she delivered at the AAAS headquarters in Washington D.C. on 7 May. Bierbaum serves on President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, is a lead author of the U.S. National Climate Assessment, chairs the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel of the Global Environment Facility, and is an Adaptation Fellow at the World Bank. She was also a AAAS Congressional Fellow from 1980-81, serving in the Office of Technology Assessment.

"Managing ecosystem resources [to improve livelihoods] in a changing climate is really an urgent agenda for scientists and policymakers," Bierbaum said. "I would argue that the development community has been thinking about the linkage between mitigation and adaptation for a much longer time" than others, because they know that sustainable development is not possible if climate change isn't abated, she said. The president of the World Bank, for one, has said he can't fulfill the bank's mission of alleviating poverty without confronting climate change, Bierbaum said.

Doing so will require policymakers, businesses and funders to shift from old ways of working on individual problems site-by-site, regulating the use of resources, and tackling pollution at the end of the pipe or the point of degradation. Instead, they must move upstream to address the drivers of consumption and to align economic and societal goals with environmental health, she said. The global philanthropic community is also trying to find more systemic ways to pursue global environment benefits, she said. While many of the World Bank's projects do not currently include an evaluation of climate risks, the institution will begin requiring all new projects funded by its International Development Association, the division that funds the world's poorest countries, to be screened for short- and long-term climate risks, and other development institutions may follow suit.

Rosina Bierbaum | AAAS/Kathleen O'Neil

Another example is taking deforestation out of the supply chain, she said, citing programs which both the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation have adopted. They are analyzing the demand for beef, palm oil and other products that are driving deforestation in the Amazon and elsewhere, and "thinking about the potential roles of certification, the greening of supply chains, even the intensification of some cows on some lands, as well as consumer education and changing demand…and looking for interventions all along the way," Bierbaum said.

However, sustainable development must improve economic, social and environmental systems together, she said, since each component is indispensible and can't function without the others. Hurricane Katrina's social and economic effects on the Gulf Coast are an example of the breakdown that can happen after an environmental disaster, even in a rich country, she said. Also, "[w]e are seeing increasing concern that the changing availability of natural resources, particularly fresh water and food, the spread of disease vectors, and environmental refugees could lead to conflict," Bierbaum said.

There is still a great need for research to help achieve sustainable development that also improves economic and social systems, Bierbaum said. She found this personally while reviewing data for a report that the Science and Technical Advisory Panel of the GEF has just released on the impacts of protected land areas. "One of the tenets of environmental movement has been to protect lands from degradation," she said. While the amount of protected land has increased, a review of the analyses published in the peer-reviewed literature failed to turn up any clear link to improved livelihoods for people living around them.

"It was a real shock to me," Bierbaum said. "I think it is very clear from this study that there is a lot of work that we as a science community need to be doing as ecologists and as economists and as political scientists…especially to bring more lessons from the development and practitioner world into the academic world and to bring data sets in that can be evaluated so we can figure out what our ecological efforts are actually doing for livelihoods." Green development also needs help from scientists who can cross disciplines and integrate information to develop the new paradigms and principles for green growth, she said. 

Bierbaum noted that the new U.S. National Climate Assessment and a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report both include chapters on adaptation in addition to discussing ways to reduce fossil fuel emissions to avoid the worst-case, business-as-usual scenarios. "We are rapidly running out of time," to change our global emissions and limit warming, she said. The scientists writing the reports are now "recognizing that we need both mitigation to reduce emissions and adaptation, or coping and preparedness, to confront the changes underway," Bierbaum said.

But ultimately, unless we want to live in a "roasted" version of the world, "[w]e need to very rapidly reduce emissions and to enhance resilience," Bierbaum said. We need to exchange knowledge, technology, finance and policy ideas so we can help developing countries leapfrog the most polluting stages. We need both public and private funding, and since there's not enough public money to go around, collaboration between countries is essential to bridge the financing gap, she said. "And really, it sounds trite, but we can't do it unless we act now, act together, and act very differently."