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No Man is an Island – How Climate Change is Aggravating Economic Inequality


Sarsha Crawley

By

April 3rd, 2019


Carbon emissions have global, but uneven, consequences. Sarsha Crawley explores how climate change is exacerbating multidimensional economic inequality.


For three consecutive years, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report has identified extreme weather events, failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation, and major natural disasters as the greatest risks to business and industry worldwide.[1] The interdependence of economic markets now means the consequences of and major nations producing beyond environmental boundaries in the push for social development means that these consequences are being will be felt internationally. Yet, like many aspects of the globalised financial system, the economic impacts of climate change are generating inequalities that are disproportionately impacting poor nations and further separating the world’s poorest and wealthiest.

The United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) has identified a cyclical pattern of impact whereby climate change catalyses a vicious cycle of inequality. Disadvantaged groups start from a baseline of increased exposure to climate hazards, in turn increasing future susceptibility to these threats which overtime decreases their ability to recover from climate hazards.[2] As inequality is influenced multidimensionally, the This combination of political and social disparities thus compounds the economic consequences of climate change for those most at risk.

There remains an inverse relationship between the largest carbon emitters and those dealing with the immediate impacts of climate change. The poorest half of the global population, approximately 3.5 billion people, contribute only 10 percent of global carbon emissions yet remain the most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. Comparatively, the wealthiest 10 percent is responsible for half of global emissions, largely through caused by the externalities of powering cars, houses and increased consumption.[3]

Average global temperatures have increased 0.8° Celsius since records began in 1880, with two-thirds of this increase occurring since 1975.[4] Rising temperatures have coincided with the increased prevalence of extreme weather patterns, including cyclones, floods and bushfires which are creating subsequent effects on health and economic equality indicators. The Global Report on Internal Displacement states that “over 200 million people have been internally displaced by climate-related disasters” in the past decade.[5] These weather events are more likely to impact economically disadvantaged groups because they live in high risk areas such as flood plains or have reduced infrastructure to deal with extreme weather. And this inequality is further compounded because these groups have a reduced ability to access financial assistance following natural disasters and extreme weather events.[6]

Projections of the permanent consequences of climate change are is driving policy modifications in countries on the frontline. Pacific Island communities are being directly impacted by the measurable and anticipated effects of climate change including sea level rise, shore erosion and ocean acidification.[7]  The immediacy of these pressures has seen affected nations re-evaluate their economic systems to protect themselves against climate threats. Fiji, for example, is restructuring its economic reliance on agriculture to reduce carbon emissions as well as stimulating infrastructure spending and adjusting taxes to combat the impact of climate change. Current estimates suggest that Fiji produces 11.5 times less carbon emissions per capita than Australia, yet illustrates where illustrating how the inequitable burden of comprehensive economic restructuring is being placed on at-risk nations.[8]

Furthermore, climate inequalities are not divided along Global North and Global South lines because these discrepancies exist within nations as well. Per global trends, the wealthiest 10 per cent in the UK and USA are responsible for 50 per cent of national emissions, contributing to the world’s wealthiest one percent producing 175 times the carbon emissions used by the bottom 10 percent.[10] Similarly, patterns of disadvantage replicate themselves within countries because poorer communities are more likely to be impacted by climate consequences, such as pollution and reduced healthcare access than wealthier citizens.

A meta study by the Coalition for Urban Transitions suggests that tackling climate change head on can counterbalance inequalities, with the benefits of climate action to be felt by disadvantaged groups first.[11] In turn, low-carbon policies are predicted to increase employment and improve public health of marginalised groups. This means policy initiatives must address the embedded imbalances of climate change to reduce inequality at all levels of society.

Climate change is currently the biggest risk to global markets, as well as a key driver of the widening chasm between rich and poor. As the bell tolls on addressing climate change, recognising  recognition of its consequent the structural inequalities of climate change emission and this inequitable impact must guide future policy making.

[1] World Economic Forum. (2019). These are the biggest risks facing our world in 2019. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/01/these-are-the-biggest-risks-facing-our-world-in-2019/

[2]United Nations. (2016). UN-DESA Policy Brief # 45. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/development/desa/dpad/publication/wess-policy-brief-the-nexus-between-climate-change-and-inequalities/

[3] Beuret, N. (2019). Emissions inequality: there is a gulf between global rich and poor. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/emissions-inequality-there-is-a-gulf-between-global-rich-and-poor-113804

[4] NASA. (n.d.). World of change: global temperatures. Retrieved from https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/world-of-change/DecadalTemp

[5] Internal Displacement Monitoring Committee. (2018). Global Report on Internal Displacement 2018. Retrieved from http://www.internal-displacement.org/global-report

[6] Colenbrander, S. & Sudment, A. (2018). How tackling climate change could tackle inequality. Retrieved from https://www.iied.org/how-tackling-climate-change-could-tackle-inequality

[7] Grecequet, M., Noble, I. & Hellmann, J. (2017). Many small island nations can adapt to climate change with global support. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/many-small-island-nations-can-adapt-to-climate-change-with-global-support-86820

[8] World Bank. (2019). Retrieved from: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.ATM.CO2E.PC?end=2014&locations=1W-S2-US-CH-EU-CN-FJ-AU&start=2014&view=bar

[9]Brzoska, M. & Frölich, C. (2016). Climate change, migration and violent conflict: vulnerabilities, pathways and adaptation strategies. Migration and Development. 5(2). 190-210

[10]Oxfam. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressreleases/2015-12-02/worlds-richest-10-produce-half-carbon-emissions-while-poorest-35

[11] Coalition for Urban Transitions. (2018). Retrieved from http://newclimateeconomy.report/workingpapers/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2018/06/The-Economic-and-Social-Benefits-of-Low-Carbon-Cities-A-systematic-review-of-the-evidence.pdf

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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