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Is it possible to fight climate change and poverty at the same time?

Wind turbines are built along a highway near Jiamusi, in northeastern China's Heilongjiang province. (Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Tremendous progress has been made in reducing global poverty over the past 15 years, but it has come at a high price: Increased use of energy sources that fuel climate change.

“Two decades ago, many countries used coal-fired power plants or carbon-heavy energy as they focused on accelerating economic growth to meet the extreme poverty target of the (Millennium Development Goals),” said Anthony Pipa, the U.S. State Department’s special coordinator for the post-2015 development agenda. He noted that while such a strategy worked to bring down poverty levels, it caused new health and environmental problems.

To reign in such contradictions, the latest development agenda, approved by the United Nations in September, was conceived as a set of 17 interdependent targets. A U.N. conference on climate change, starting in Paris in two weeks, will formalize the final goal – a legally binding agreement to keep global warming levels below what most scientists consider the critical threshold, 2 degrees Celsius.

Many believe that this climate action goal, perhaps more than any other, is critical for successfully implementing the development agenda.

“Climate change is the linchpin because it affects every other goal,” said Paul Miller, senior policy adviser for Lutheran World Relief, in an interview with Humanosphere. The global charity, which emphasizes its work with smallholder farmers who supply fair trade coffee and cocoa, is concerned about the impact climate change is likely to have on vulnerable groups in these industries.

Indeed, a new report by the World Bank warns that more than 100 million people could slide back into poverty by 2030 as a result of climate change.

In discussing the scenario of increasing economic growth through greater fossil fuel consumption, Miller said, “Depending on their point of view, there are people who say you may produce more jobs, but you’re mortgaging the climate.”

For those who hold this view, such a tradeoff is inherently unacceptable.

With the support of their investment partner, Threshold Group, The Lemelson Foundation is the latest organization to sign the Divest/Invest initiative. The campaign, which recently hit the $2.6 trillion mark, has challenged philanthropies and individuals to dump their fossil fuel financial holdings and switch to clean energy investments.

In speaking with Humanosphere about the Lemelson Foundation’s decision to join the campaign, Executive Director Carol Dahl explained: “It’s important not to damage with your investments what you’re working to clean up with your funding.”

Dahl wouldn’t hazard a guess as to why other foundations have been reticent to join the divestment movement, though the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in particular, has come under increasing scrutiny for its steadfast refusal to do so. Former Seattle mayor Michael McGinn, senior adviser to the Gates Divest advocacy campaign, compares such action to stepping on the accelerator and the brake at the same time.

The Guardian and have also teamed up to petition the Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust, the two largest global foundations, to divest. Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, has said, “Divestment serves to delegitimize the business models of companies that are using investors’ money to search for yet more coal, oil and gas that can’t safely be burned. It is a small but crucial step in the economic transition away from a global economy run on fossil fuels.”

Despite a report Tuesday that shows that the Gates Foundation scaled back its holdings in fossil fuel companies in 2013, Bill Gates maintains his position that divestment won’t lower emissions.

While Gates and others may disagree about whether divestment is indeed the best way to reduce fossil fuel consumption, for business-minded global development advocates, innovation is key.

In an interview with The Atlantic recently, Gates called for “an energy miracle” to help wean the planet off fossil fuels once and for all. Though critics have questioned the need for a miracle to make progress on the clean energy front, they do agree that innovation must be part of the solution.

Dahl said she believes that science and technology should have been emphasized more in the development agenda. Last year both the Lemelson Foundation and the Gates Foundation supported the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in its efforts to identify some 50 transformational breakthroughs that could help unlock major global development challenges.

Outside of innovation, others believe the challenges go deeper still. In an interview with Humanosphere, Joe Brewer, research director for The Rules, an advocacy group focused on structural causes of poverty, says he believes the latest development agenda is “doomed to fail.” Brewer sees economic growth itself as a primary driver of global inequality and environmental destruction, and has called it a “killer virus.”

Much to the ire of free-market advocates, Pope Francis has also called for changes to the current economic system. In his Encyclical, the pope references a proposal by his predecessor, Benedict XVI, for “eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment.”

An estimated 50,000 participants are expected to attend the climate conference starting in Paris in two weeks, despite the horrific terrorist attacks there last Friday. Those on the inside remain optimistic that a deal will be reached. Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, says, “[i]nternational negotiations don’t cause change, they mark it.” In her view, we are currently living in a world that is ready to mark such a transformation.


About Author

Andie Long

Andie is a writer and PR/marketing consultant, based in Seattle. She focuses on inclusive solutions to poverty and climate change. She's also a certified game designer. Follow her on Twitter @andielong