Poverty and climate change: An interview with Eliot Levine, Mercy Corps senior climate change advisor

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Poverty and climate change: An interview with Eliot Levine, Mercy Corps senior climate change advisor

Yangon, Myanmar - With the iconic Swe Dagon looming in the background, crews clean up broken trees and debris left in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, which hit Myanmar on May 2, 2008. Photo: Jacqueline M. Koch for Mercy Corps.

When Cyclone Nargis ravaged Myanmar in 2008, inundating its lowlands and killing some 138,000 people, experts blamed the severe weather conditions on climate change. What most didn't talk about, though, was how the people hit hardest by the disaster were the poor. 

"Climate change is happening now and it is affecting those with the least defenses,” said Eliot Levine, Mercy Corps' new senior climate change advisor, in an interview with Global Evision. In contrast, in the developed world, buffers like solid infrastructure often blur the consequences.

Climate change is largely responsible for the increased frequency and severity of weather-related natural disasters like Cyclone Nargis, explained Levine. And the environmental, social and economic impacts from the storm are still felt in Myanmar today, five years later.

To address this interplay of poverty and environmental sustainability--the watchword of climate change--Levine's team at Mercy Corps is looking at creating a market in Myanmar for innovations like fuel-efficient stoves that can help families reduce their dependence on firewood. Besides causing deforestation, collecting firewood takes a substantial amount of time, time that kids could be at school and families could pursue other income-generating activities, like a small business.

"We're also working to develop some rather complex analysis tools to help us better understand the broader set of environmental, social, and climate conditions in which the communities we work with exist," said Levine. "The goal is for those analyses to help inform Mercy Corps’ work with communities, and to help Mercy Corps design programs that contribute to their long-term sustainability and resilience.”

We sat down with Levine, who spent five years at the World Wildlife Fund before coming to Mercy Corps in April, at a coffee shop in D.C. Here's what he had to say:

Global Envision: If you were explaining to a young person, say high school, why an aid organization cares about climate change, how would you describe it?

Eliot Levine: Mercy Corps cares about climate change because the world’s poorest are reliant on the climate for all sorts of things: water availability, food consumption, and health factors to name a few. If changes in precipitation levels result from climate change, crop yields could be affected or planting times could be thrown off. Droughts, floods, and other weather-related disasters are becoming more severe and frequent. All of these factors affect the livelihoods of the world’s poorest people. Mercy Corps’ mission is to help the world’s poor, so climate change is an extremely important issue within development.

GE: What do you think people most misunderstand about climate change and poverty?

EL: Many people believe that climate change is an issue that can be taken care of in the future. There is no sense of immediacy or urgency. This perception needs to change.

GE: What climate change issue do you wish people talked about more, but don't?

EL: Those of us in the development and environmental communities need to do a better job of communicating how climate change affects us. It's true that a contributing factor to the skepticism of some in the U.S. regarding the severity of climate change is the fact that we may not always feel the effetcs as severely as countries without our vast wealth, institutions and infrastructure. Howerver that is changing quickly, and severe storms are just one example of that.

For example, if a drought causes a farmer in the United States to lose some of his crops, he may have insurance to cover these losses. In the developing world, that buffer doesn't exist always. If it does, it's likely that many can’t afford it.

GE: What is your priority issue or project these days?

EL: I’m looking at how social-ecological systems can withstand and recover from shocks to the system. We do this by conducting vulnerability assessments that examine how climate change, social conflict, political jockeying, and other potentially harmful factors interact with one another. Knowing how these factors interplay with each other is incredibly helpful when devising programs to solve these issues. Vulnerability assessments collect data that, in conjunction with community-level insight, help us create programs that can make these communities less vulnerable to shocks like climate change.

GE: The UN’s self-imposed deadline to achieve its Millennium Development Goals is 2015. What must be done differently moving forward, from a climate change policy perspective, to achieve these goals?

EL: We need more experimentation. We need more attempts for communities to become climate adaptive. We also need more funds to help governments and NGOs conduct climate change work.

We need to do a better job of documenting our attempts to adapt to climate change and effectively communicating both our success and our failures. The lack of learning from the global community is hindering us.

GE: Why did you decide to work for an aid organization?

EL: Traditionally there's been a disconnect between the development community and the environmental community. Environmental organizations need to take development issues into consideration when working on programs and vice versa. Mercy Corps is one of the few development organizations doing this.

GE: What gets you most excited about this job?

EL: Trying to figure out the answers to very complex issues. Its keeps me up at night. It’s what I think about when I stare off into nothingness on my commute on the bus. Getting up every morning and knowing that my job is to work to help people all over the world with these complex problems keeps me going.

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