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Climate change

Despite doing the least to cause it, poor people are experiencing the full force of climate change. Oxfam is working to reduce the impact of global warming - now and in the future.

In 2016/17, 85,000 people benefited from innovative responses to climate change.

 We can now produce and gather seeds during a flood

Marta, talking about an Oxfam-funded, flood-resistant farming method in Bolivia.

The issue

Life is already a struggle for poor communities. But climate change is making things so much harder. Droughts and floods are becoming increasingly frequent, while growing seasons are more and more unpredictable. It means that millions of people are going hungry.

People living in poverty are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change for many reasons. They're often forced to live in temporary settlements, on land prone to flooding, storms and landslides. Making a living is hard - so few will have savings to fall back on in an emergency. And when disasters strike, poor diet, sanitation and health care mean that diseases spread rapidly.


What is climate change?

Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that there have been changes in the global climate since the early 1900s, and that these climate changes, and future climate change predicted over the next century, are largely due to human activities and excessive greenhouse gas emissions, which are warming up the Earth. This is climate change, often referred to as "global warming".

Is climate change really happening?

Yes. In the last 20 years in particular, there has been an increase in some kinds of extreme weather events, notably erratic rainfall, contributing to floods and droughts, as well as rising sea levels and seasonal unpredictability. The results of these climate changes are failed harvests, disappearing islands, destroyed homes, water scarcity and deepening health crises. And that means millions upon millions of people who were already struggling are finding it even more difficult to get food, water and shelter.

Why is Oxfam working on climate change?

Because the effects of global climate change are already having a devastating impact on people's lives. Extreme weather events are destroying homes, schools, crops and animals - the foundations of everyday life. Climate change is also throwing the seasons out of sync, causing crops to fail and water supplies to dry up. Extreme weather is pushing people backwards as they strive for progress. In short, Oxfam works on the causes and effects of climate change because the people we work with are being hit first and worst - and it seems that worse is to come. 

When did Oxfam start working on climate change?

Oxfam has been concerned about climate change for more than 25 years. In 1983, Oxfam produced Weather Alert, a briefing paper that recorded the human impacts of various climate anomalies affecting our programmes around the world. In 1992, Oxfam discussed the special threat that climate change posed to people living in poverty, along with other environmental crises highlighted at the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Brazil. For the last ten years Oxfam has been increasing its work around climate change. So much of our work and expertise - for example, preparing for and responding to disasters, or helping farmers get better yields from their crops - is now inextricably linked with the changing climate.

Is climate change already having an impact on Oxfam's work?

Yes. Oxfam staff and partners are seeing how poor people are being hit first and worst by the impacts of climate change, despite being least responsible. The people we work with are reporting ever-changing and unpredictable weather patterns, which contribute to deeper and longer lasting floods in South Asia; irregular rainfall in Mozambique, or hotter temperatures that are melting glaciers in Bolivia and Tajikistan. Because of all this, so much of our work now needs to include the impact of the changing climate.

What is Oxfam doing about climate change?

We're already helping people cope with severe weather events, as well as plan for the consequences of future climate change. Like everything we do, our climate change work focuses on three core areas:

  • Humanitarian
    We're constantly responding to disasters such as the floods in Bangladesh. Climatic hazards like these are expected to increase in frequency over the coming years and decades. What's more, we're making sure these communities are better prepared for extreme weather events in the future too. That means things like raising homes up on stilts, or improving early warning systems for when disasters strike.

  • Development
    Helping communities adapt to climate change is a key part of our development work. In Thailand, rice farmers are innovating with on-farm water harvesting systems for irrigation and are diversifying their crops to protect their livelihoods against drought. And in Pakistan, we are supporting farmers to reclaim fields damaged by salt water and helping them get fresh water for their fields and for household use.

  • Campaigning
    We're demanding urgent and decisive action on climate change from world leaders - action that results in a global deal that is fair for all people, not just those with power and money.

What does 'climate change mitigation' mean?

Climate change mitigation means reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Oxfam believes it's vital that greenhouses gas emissions are cut dramatically (by 80% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels) in order to limit global warming to as far below 2°C as possible.

Why do we need to limit global warming to 2°C?

The global average temperature has risen almost 0.8°C above pre-industrial levels. It's already causing serious climate change impacts for millions of people. If global temperatures rise more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the impact on water resources, food production, sea levels, and ecosystems is predicted to be catastrophic for billions of people. At that point, scientists believe that climate change would begin to have an overwhelmingly negative impact on societies worldwide, and on the ecosystems on which we all depend, with a heightened risk of extreme climatic events resulting in extreme droughts, floods and heat waves.

Shouldn't we wait until the global financial crisis is resolved?

The battle to halt the current financial crisis is not separate to the fight against climate change. A new, green economy can create jobs while reducing carbon emissions. It does mean making tough decisions, but that's part of the deal already in this economic climate. The two must go together.

Will Oxfam continue to work on climate change?

Absolutely. This is a long-term issue for Oxfam and ultimately the number one threat to overcoming poverty and suffering.

Is nuclear power the solution to climate change?

In general, we believe energy solutions must:

  • Be consistent with an urgent and radical shift to a low carbon future consistent with what action on climate change requires;
  • Contribute to delivering modern energy services to the billions of people around the world who do not currently have access to them; and
  • Be cost-effective under conditions that ensure the above.

On all three counts, nuclear power is not one of these. Nuclear energy generation cannot currently be installed fast enough over the next 10-15 years, when low carbon alternatives are required. Quite apart from the problems of nuclear waste and security risks, nuclear energy is also a very expensive form of energy that is not without its own carbon footprint.

Do Fairtrade products contribute to emissions because they come from developing countries?

Yes, but their impact is miniscule. For a start, only a tiny proportion of Fairtrade goods are transported by air. The vast majority are shipped, which has a much lower carbon footprint. Fairtrade also promotes sustainable agricultural practices and encourages farmers to invest in environmental protection programmes too, which reduces emissions at farm level.

Given that Fairtrade products make such an overwhelmingly positive contribution to poor producers' livelihoods, and make a negligible contribution to climate change, Oxfam does not believe that the poorest and least responsible people should pay first for the need to lower global CO2 emissions.

The first things we can do are to change what we do in our homes, how we travel, and how we make governments more responsible in tackling climate change.

What's the difference between global warming and climate change?

While the meanings of climate change and global warming are, in most cases, interchangeable, Oxfam generally prefers the term 'climate change' over global warming. This is because the effects of global warming are not limited to increasing temperatures - they also include sea level rise, acidification of oceans, and changes in rainfall patterns. While millions of poor people are experiencing more intense drought, millions more are suffering from other extreme weather and climatic events, such as floods and rising sea levels.


How does coal affect climate change?

Fossil fuels account for more than 80% of global carbon dioxide emissions. Pollution from coal-fired power stations is responsible for half of these emissions - making it the single biggest driver of climate change on the planet. Pollution from coal-fired power stations builds up in the atmosphere and warms the climate, leading to extreme weather events and unpredictable seasons. There's an obvious environmental cost. But the human cost is also rising at a terrifying rate.

How does burning coal affect people in poorer countries?

Climate change caused by coal pollution is hitting the world's poorest people hardest. When their crops fail, their fragile livelihoods and food supplies are destroyed - and their families go hungry. If we keep burning fossil fuels like we are now, climate change could push an extra 50 million people into hunger by 2050. It's absolutely vital that we phase out coal from our energy mix by the early 2020s.

What will a coal phase-out mean for jobs?

It's important to remember that coal-fired power plants will not shut overnight. There are ten coal plants left in the UK and we're calling on the government to commit to a plan to phase them out by the early 2020s. UK employment from coal mining and production has dropped dramatically in the past decade. Meanwhile employment in the UK's solar and wind energy sectors increased by 74% between 2010 and 2013. By 2020, the renewable energy sector could support around 400,000 jobs directly - and create thousands more jobs further along the supply chain.

Will a coal phase-out mean the lights will go out?

No. Even if all the coal plants were closed overnight, we'd still have enough power to cover ordinary usage. Between now and the early 2020s, we've got plenty of time to build back-up capacity by investing in energy efficiency and supporting energy storage, for example. And, if we ramp up our renewable energy capacity in the meantime, we will have a long-term energy solution that works for everyone.

Will a coal phase-out put up energy bills?

No. A clear plan to phase out coal could actually stop dramatic energy bill increases. Firstly, energy efficiency policies would be an important part of a coal phase-out. Once everyone becomes more energy efficient, we'll end up paying for less energy while still getting better results. Secondly, we could introduce a carbon cap to help phase-out coal. This would limit the amount of emissions existing power plants can release. At the moment, energy producers are required to pay a tax on the carbon they release - and they usually pass on this cost to consumers. But with a carbon cap, they'll pay less carbon tax and will have one less reason to put up your energy bill.

What about China and India? Aren't they the worst offenders?

This is a commonly held view, but let's put it into perspective. An average person in the UK creates around three times more pollution than an average person in India. Per person, CO2 emissions in China are similar to CO2 emissions in the UK, and less than half of CO2 emissions in the US. Plus, a huge amount of China's emissions are used to produce goods for the West - making our own carbon footprint even bigger. Rich countries like the UK have historically contributed most to climate change, so now we need to lead by example. That said, climate change is a global problem and all countries need to be part of the solution.

Right now, China is trialling emissions trading schemes and has implemented plans to limit coal. The country is already the world's largest investor in renewable energy and has pledged to generate more than a third of its electricity from non-fossil sources by 2020. India has pledged to create 100 GW of solar power by 2022 - a move that will double the amount of solar power in the world.

How can you be against coal when it is a cheap and essential way for poor countries to develop?

Coal is the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. It's causing climate change and pushing people further into hunger. It's not the answer to the challenges faced by millions of people living in poverty today. Even now, in sub-Saharan Africa, 70% of the population has no electricity, almost a third of health facilities have no energy access and half of all vaccines are ruined due to a lack of refrigeration. Renewable energy provides lots more opportunities to make the power supply more accessible for people living in poor countries. For example, it costs half as much to power a hospital with solar energy compared with a diesel generator. And a school could save up to 60% on energy bills just by switching from diesel to wind power. Rich countries, who are most responsible for climate change, must ensure that financial and technological support is available for poorer countries to make the most of these new opportunities - and then the sky's the limit.

What is Oxfam's view on fracking?

The longer we fund new ways of extracting fossil fuels, the longer we delay a shift to low carbon energy. Until we prioritise renewable energy sources, climate change and global hunger will continue to get worse.

What we're doing

Reducing the risks

Tackling climate change is a vital part of Oxfam's work, especially as it threatens to reverse many of the advances made in tackling poverty over previous decades. So we help people to understand and adapt to the changes they're facing, and to reduce risks from hazards.

We work with local communities, bringing together the things that we do best - linking people to the support and skills they need for a positive and sustainable future. We invest in poor communities' knowledge, skills and resources to not only cope with a changing climate, but thrive.

And we employ some great ideas and innovative thinking to help people adapt:

  • In South Africa - farmers are planting faster-maturing crops, making the most of less-reliable rains.
  • In Vietnam - communities are planting dense mangroves along the coast, to diffuse storm waves.

Campaigning for action

Our experiences in the field are reflected in our campaigning and lobbying work. We are still campaigning for a fair and binding global deal, demanding action to:

  • Reduce emissions.
  • Enable vulnerable countries and communities to adapt to climate change - including an international climate fund.
  • Push for a global move towards low-carbon economies.

We believe that climate change can be tackled, and disaster avoided, if world leaders act together, and act soon.

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Policy & Practice

More about climate change

on our Policy & Practice website.

Other issues we work on