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The Unfair Burden of Climate Change

The burden of climate change is carried by each of us. But some are impacted more than others.


In 2019, you can’t turn on the news or read much past the headlines without coming to a discussion of the inequities and unequal opportunities baked into the global system.  But even as politicians and commentators are (finally) starting to give this subject the attention it deserves, there’s one area they’re almost entirely silent on: the unequal burden of climate change.

What does that mean? Well, look at the splintered homes after the latest hurricane or the trains of migrants forced from their farms by never-ending drought and you’ll see a social law as absolute and unchanging as gravity:

The rich pollute the atmosphere. The poor and people of color suffer the consequences.

What does this mean in real life? Read on.

Vulnerable Countries Suffer the Most

After Hurricane Dorian battered the Bahamas with sustained winds of up to 185 mph earlier this year, the devastation was almost biblical.

The wide-ranging destruction was in part due to geographic factors. More than 80 percent of the island stands at a meter above sea level (or less), making Dorian’s storm surges of up to 23 feet all the more destructive.   

Natural factors aren’t what’s standing in the way of recovery, however. The country’s relatively low population, location, high costs for repairs, and reliance on tourism for 60 percent of its economy mean recovering from emissions-super powered events like Dorian will be a long and costly process.

Costs are expected be at least $7 billion. This for a country whose contribution to global emission is so small as to not even crack the top 20 polluters. Luckily for the Bahamas, its tourism industry is strong. But not all countries have that luxury.  

The Future Price to Pay 

Wealthier countries such as the US and China contribute most of the emissions driving the climate crisis.

Already, the economic costs of climate change are becoming visible in the US. As just one example, damage from Hurricane Harvey alone reached an estimated $125 billion.

For developing nations, this picture is much grimmer. Researchers project that – without urgent action to limit emissions – the poorest 40 nations will see average incomes drop a staggering 75 percent by 2100 thanks to climate impacts.

Social Issues Worsen Due to Climate Change 

Not all the costs of a changing climate can be measured in dollars and cents.

When you’re living in a place where access to adequate healthcare, food, water, and education is already difficult, climate change can make just getting by a near superhuman accomplishment.

Experts project that as temperatures rise, we’ll see a whole range of growing health threats from food security, water-borne illnesses, and air pollution to allergens and mental health complications. As these threats increase, so do the knock-on effects in society.

For example, environmental degradation from drought can lead to forced migration and civil conflict, which can potentially have strong impacts on mental health. Another example would be how a decline in water quality can lead to cholera, leptospirosis, or other waterborne diarrheal diseases.

As a result, climate change will only increase gaps between the poor and the rich. Developed countries as well as all countries working toward further development need to close these gaps in order to improve living conditions, public health, education conditions, and ultimately global economic conditions.  

What Can We Do? 

Tomorrow is not yet set in stone. There is still hope for us to change the future of our planet, which is why it is so important for each of us to do our part. Join our email list for updates on ways you can help make a difference.