The term “green economy” danced around the corridors at the Paris climate talks, evoking visions of electric cars and “clean tech.” But “decarbonization” is a messier story in the Global South. Workers in the rapidly warming “developing world” need more than wind turbines and highbrow organic farms; they need to build livelihoods that can mitigate ecological crisis—and leap ahead of the dominant fossil-fuel based economies, which historically have both controlled and stifled their development.
A report by the New Delhi–based Just Jobs Network (JJN) explores the risks and possibilities that climate change presents for labor in India, Indonesia and Bangladesh, where global warming can be a creative as well as destructive force.
One primary impact of climate change will be rising volatility in agricultural production, which will disrupt traditional farming, fishing and pastoral communities. Ecological disruption will in turn upend related industries down the production chain, undermining logistics and retail markets.
Then comes the human fallout: By choice or out of desperation, many displaced rural people will turn to wage work or start ad-hoc businesses. Often, people’s struggles to cope with environmental risk breeds new threats. In Bangladesh, for example, where climate change and sea level rise will intensify existing vulnerabilities to flood or drought, some farmers have tried to adapt by turning to small-scale aquaculture operations. But rather than gaining alternative income in the burgeoning seafood-farming trade, in many cases farmers have sunken into debt, gotten bilked by predatory landlords, or lost their enterprises to lethal infection.
JJN researchers found that in Indonesia, sea level rise will drive displacement of more than 80,000 farmers. Meanwhile, export-driven, unsustainable palm-oil farming is ravaging precious forest tracts, leading to public-health catastrophes like this summer’s ferocious wildfires in Kalimantan and Sumatra. Facing the incursion of the seas and toxic smoke overhead, people may try to flee flood and fire by moving again into harm’s way. “Climate change will speed up migration to urban areas,” according to JJN, “but most of its cities are vulnerable to coastal flooding.”
But migration, for better or worse, serves as a sociological barometer for the climate crisis. A basic coping mechanism in response to declining crop yields, for instance, might be more Indian farmers streaming into cities to pursue low-wage, dangerous construction jobs. Some may migrate to the Middle East as low-wage guestworkers, where they are even more vulnerable to abuse. Wherever they go, JJN reports, “migrant workers enjoy little to no legal protections when they migrate, making them particularly susceptible to exploitation.”