Can Earth Sciences help Reduce Global Poverty?


2004 Fall AGU Special Session. (The Earth Sciences, Human Well-being and the Alleviation of Global Poverty)     Tuesday 12 th Dec. 14 th , 2004.


(Title slide) I would like to conclude the session of prepared presentation by first thanking all the speakers, and then making some remarks that will in part reflect on some of the observations of previous speakers and add some of my own thoughts as a way of introducing the Panel discussion..  

The title of my remarks was intentionally posed in the form of a question, perhaps even as a challenge to my geophysical colleagues mostly because I don't pretend to have more than the beginnings of an answer.  

(Slide with poor people) Put more bluntly, we are asking whether our science can help people such as these?    

It is really imperative that we find an answer because people like these are dying in their thousands.   In the time we take for this unique session about 2800 people will have died merely because they are too poor to continue to live.   That's based on a poorly known average of about 30,000 deaths per day.


The children in this picture have survived odds that made them 40 times less likely to survive past the age of 12 months than any of our children.   The woman suffered even greater jeopardy; her chances of surviving pregnancy being 250 times worse than any woman in this country.   And if she is an average woman in many poor countries she has dodged that bullet 6 times.


Whatever the proximate cause is, be in malaria, malnutrition, AIDS, the true cause is poverty.


But the question raised by this AGU Session is, in effect, “tragic as poverty is, is it any of our business as geophysicists?”   I will claim that it is our business.  


(Word slide of points). I will try to support that claim by making a case in a three-part argument that there is a co-dependence between human well-being and the state of the planet.  

•  Natural disasters preferentially imperil the poor.  

•  Small variations around the norm in poor countries can act like disasters in rich countries.  

3. There is a global ecology of human well being


(Word Bank disaster mortality map). The World Bank will soon publish a map like no other.   It shows the global distribution of disaster mortality risk.   That is, it shows the relative likelihood, depending on where you happen to live, that you will die as a result of Earth's natural extremes – floods, earthquakes, landslides, storms, and volcanoes – all the catastrophes that Nature can hand out that cause death.  


All of us in the Earth sciences will recognize what this is NOT a map of.   It is not a map of where natural hazards are most intensely focused.   Mortality risk and hazard intensity are only weakly correlated in the map.   So we need to ask what governs the distribution?


(GPW) Although the WB analysis attempts to mask out the effects of population density perhaps that is the underlying cause of the distribution.   But compared to CIESINs gridded population of the world that correlation is fairly weak also.   Some correlation does exist though so population density is a factor in some way.  


(Infant Mortality map).    A much closer correlation derives from the sort of analysis Alex De Sherbenin presented.   There is a strong correlation between disaster mortality risk and infant mortality/malnutrition; which it itself a very good predictor of poverty.   Children are hungry and ill dominantly in poor countries.   Sadly, because life expectancy is now so low in poor countries and birth rates are highest there, fully half of all children today live in conditions of significant deprivation (NY Times, last Sunday).    


(Deaths versus death rate) To look at this correlation in a Cartesian sense I draw from the UNDP that this year published a report on Disasters and Development that provides statistical quantification to this rather bleak picture.   The plot of deaths against deaths per capita expresses mortality risk in a different way and when colored with the UNDPs Human Development Index (HDI) we see that societies low in HDI have populations that are the most susceptible to harm from Nature.  


(HDI explanation)   HDI includes measures of income, health status and education and is a better guide to the human condition than GDP per capita or other purely economic indicators. Longevity -- life expectancy at birth;

Knowledge -- a combination of the adult literacy rate and the combined primary, secondary, and tertiary gross enrolment ratio;

Standard of Living -- GDP per capita (Adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity, PPP, in US$).

  HDI is a more comprehensive measure of deprivation than income.  


(Series of four slides on individual The aggregate of all hazards can be broken into specifics and we see that most show the broad separation that identifies the poorest as the most susceptible particularly from floods and especially from drought that causes deaths only in the poorest countries.   No matter how severe, a drought in this country will not cause deaths (not since the dust bowl).   Even earthquakes show some trends and these data do not include the Gujarat event or the recent Iranian disaster.  


‡ I think these data bring some level of statistical validation to something we have always known anecdotally; that here in this country, but even more so in other parts of the world, the suffer the most at the hands of Nature.


So we know that high disaster mortality risk is an outcome of poverty.   


But for our science to make a valuable contribution we need to determine if that vulnerability is a contributing factor in determining poverty in the first place.  


The analogy with health status is useful.   We know and can simply understand that poor health is an outcome of poverty, but a moment's reflection will tell you that poor health will contribute to poverty.   If you are sick you can earn and you can't learn and in countries with little in the way of pubic health structure ill health will cause great hardship.   Poverty leads to sickness, but sickness also leads to poverty.


A case for the causal influence of Earth systems is very plausible but unproven at present.   Nations that must devote scant resources to disaster relief divert those resources from development-related programs such as education, sanitation, and public health that could improve people's lives.   Disaster recovery is just that, recovery back to where you were.   It has been argued that repeated disasters may lead to a recovery gap that is so large that countries can never progress.    Poor families and individuals face the same issues and have limited ability to cope in an environment where insurance is difficult to obtain, sometimes because of lack of property rights, and disposable income is essential unknown.    Just as diseases like malaria that Madeleine Thomson discussed are demonstrably an outcome and a cause of poverty it is highly likely that Nature's actions are similar.  


(Malaria slide) To advance the case further I would argue my second point, that in the poorest settings humanitarian disasters follow not only from Nature's extremes, but from unexceptional variations around base conditions.   Madeleine showed that malaria incidence responds to ENSO cycles.   These are not infrequent catastrophes but the normal range of seasonal conditions that vary on 4 to 7 year intervals.  


The salient point then is that when base conditions are miserable, relatively small changes around the base can profoundly increase that misery.


(Jeff's latitudinal plot turned sideways)   Finally, my last point, Jeff Sachs has argued that there is a global ecology to human well-being: that poverty is not randomly distributed over the planet.  


He showed that GDP/capita (PPP adjusted) has a latitudinal dependence with the poorest countries being in the tropical regions (not in the South as is often stated).


(Latitude/HDI) Re-cast with the HDI as variable rather than GDP we see that all the low DHI countries cluster near the equator.   


(Series of four Latitude/Vulnerability/HDI) Retaining the color grading as before we can plot vulnerability (numbers killed relative to exposure) to Earth's actions against latitude as Jeff suggested and see that there is a geographic separation that sets apart the poor and susceptible, from the rich and immune.


  ‡ The graphs certainly show a great deal of scatter, particularly in the mid-range countries.   Many factors are no doubt in play in determining poverty.    Population density relative to resources is a factor (some African countries fulfill Malthus' prophecy), as is governance.   The differences between North and South Korea, Haiti and the DR, and perhaps Israel and Palestine are often sited in this regard.   But what is suggested by these data is an underlying complex co-dependence of the Earth and human well-being that is particularly stark for the poorest.   This relationship is subtle at times, always complex and non-linear involving many feedbacks and contingent factors.   But it suggests that the state of the planet could be a crucial missing factor in understanding the causes of poverty.

Social scientists, economists and many others have grappled for many years to understand why, in a world of such great prosperity for some, so many still remain so destitute.   They have seldom accounted for the role that the planet that is host to humankind might play in this profound human tragedy.

(Back to picture of the poor with question).   What we have laid out in this series of talks suggests, if only empirically, that the answer to this question may be affirmative.   If there is even the glimmer of a suggestion that the answer is indeed yes then we hold a responsibility and a duty to these people to seek a full answer and some of us to do what we can to use what we know to help relieve these people's burden.  

Our Panel will now convene to address some specific issues that amplify the question.