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OPINION - Poverty, Infrastructure, and the Environment

By Southern Poverty Law Center at 4:17 PM 5/30/2020 (PDT)

As the committee session progressed in the ASEAN, countries came to a dilemma whether to prioritize building public transportation infrastructure or prioritize minimizing environmental impacts like climate change.

During this discussion, countries like Laos, Thailand, Singapore, Nepal and Indonesia emphasized the need to minimize impacts on climate change while also building infrastructure. On the other side of the discussion, China states that protecting the environment should come after building public transportation infrastructure. However, when asked: “Do you prioritize minimizing climate change over building infrastructure,” all countries present responded no. So what does this answer mean for the citizens in the ASEAN? What questions does this prompt about government consideration of citizens? And why might the overwhelming response to this question show the larger scope of why climate change affects the poorest?

First, it can help to step back and look at how exactly climate change increases poverty. First, agricultural changes. ¾ of people in poverty rely on agriculture to sustain them and as climate change worsens conditions for farming with unpredictable and often disastrous environmental changes, agriculture fails. Globally, climate change has led to torrential rails that damages farms, droughts that lead to crop failure and the destruction of farmable soil. If this impact from climate change is not great enough, the failure of agriculture leads to a massive increase of citizens needing food support, children suffering from malnutrition and inflation to the cost of food. These conditions steal sources of income from already vulnerable people in poverty and hurt their health. Second, education. As farms fail, families begin to pull their children out of school because of the cost. UNESCO estimates that even learning how to read would break over 171 million people out of the cycle of poverty and obtaining a secondary education would allow over 420 million people to escape poverty. All of the effects of climate change disproportionately affect people in poverty. While people of higher income can adjust to these environmental changes and will not be greatly impacted, little changes due to climate change heavily change the lives of people in poverty all around the world, worsening conditions for them.

But why are these issues especially relevant to the nations of the ASEAN? It's because of the sheer number of people facing poverty in East and Southeast Asia. In 2019, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific reported that an estimate of 400 million people lived in poverty in this region alone. Even more overwhelmingly, an additional 100 million people in this region are economically insecure according to the World Bank in 2018. As the evidence shows, there are nearly half a billion people living in poverty in East and Southeast Asia and in some countries like Thailand, the number continues to grow every year.

As civilians in the ASEAN battle with poverty, their representatives willfully ignore the pressing issue exacerbates their struggle. People facing poverty don’t need public transportation to be built first, they need all the help they can get to escape poverty. The issue of prioritizing climate change and poverty go hand in hand. When countries address climate change, they help civilians in poverty. When countries ignore climate change, they ignore their citizens suffering from the destructive effects of being under the poverty line. While millions of their citizens suffer, the ASEAN makes out of touch and irrational decisions to prioritize building public transportation rather than helping the wellbeings of their people. As countries turn their back towards their citizens, it leaves vulnerable people in the dark. It is both unwise and disheartening that these countries with hundreds of millions of citizens in poverty would choose to not prioritize climate change, an issue which increased the number of people in poverty and drastically damages the quality of life for millions. We can only hope that these countries will begin to address climate change and help their citizens rather than turn their back towards them in the future.

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