Climate change and poverty

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Demonstration against climate poverty (2007)

Climate change and poverty are deeply intertwined because climate change disproportionally affects poor people in low-income communities and developing countries around the world. Those in poverty have a higher chance of experiencing the ill-effects of climate change due to the increased exposure and vulnerability.[1] Vulnerability represents the degree to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change including climate variability and extremes.[2]

Climate change highly influences health, economy, and human rights which affects environmental inequities. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth National Climate Assessment Report found that low-income individuals and communities are more exposed to environmental hazards and pollution and have a harder time recovering from the impacts of climate change.[3] For example, it takes longer for low-income communities to be rebuilt after natural disasters.[4] According to the United Nations Development Programme, developing countries suffer 99% of the casualties attributable to climate change.[5]

Climate change raises some climate ethical issues, as the least 50 developed countries of the world account for an imbalanced 1% contribution to the worldwide emissions of greenhouse gasses which are theorized to be attributable to global warming.[5] Climate and distributive justice questions are central to climate change policy options. Many of the policy tools are often employed to solve environmental problems such as cost-benefit analysis; however, such tools usually adequately abstain from dealing with such issues because they often ignore questions of just distribution and the environmental effects on human rights.

Poverty Percentage World Map

The concept of 'atmospheric colonization' refers to the observation that 92% of accumulated greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to countries from the Global North, comprising 19% of global population, while only 8% of emissions are attributable to countries from the Global South that will bear the heaviest consequences of increasing global temperatures[6][7]

A 2020 World Bank paper estimated that between 32 to 132 million additional people will be pushed into extreme poverty by 2030 due to climate change.[8]

Connection to poverty[edit]

The cycle of poverty exacerbates the potential negative impacts of climate change. This phenomenon is defined when poor families become trapped in poverty for at least three generations, have limited to no resources access, and are disadvantaged in means of breaking the cycle.[9] While in rich countries, coping with climate change has largely been a matter of adjusting thermostats, dealing with longer, hotter summers, and observing seasonal shifts; for those in poverty, weather-related disasters, bad harvest, or even a family member falling ill can provide crippling economic shocks.[10]

Besides these economic shocks, the widespread famine, drought, and potential humanistic shocks could affect the entire nation. High levels of poverty and low levels of human development limit the capacity of poor households to manage climate risks. With limited access to formal insurance, low incomes, and meager assets, poor households have to deal with climate-related shocks under highly constrained conditions.[11]

Relationship to environmental racism[edit]

The Global map shows sea temperature rises of 0.5 to 1 degree Celsius; land temperature rises of 1 to 2 degree Celsius; and Arctic temperature rises of up to 4 degrees Celsius.
Average surface air temperatures from 2011 to 2020 compared to a baseline average from 1951 to 1980 (Source: NASA)

As the climate has changed progressively over the past several decades, there has been a collision between environmental racism and global climate change. The overlap of these two phenomena, many argue, has disproportionately affected different communities and populations throughout the world due to disparities in socio-economic status. This is especially true in the Global South where, for example, byproducts of global climate change such as increasingly frequent and severe landslides resulting from more heavy rainfall events in Quito, Ecuador force people to also deal with profound socio-economic ramifications like the destruction of their homes or even death. Countries such as Ecuador often contribute relatively little to climate change in terms of metrics like carbon dioxide emissions but have far fewer resources to ward off the negative localized impacts of climate change. This issue occurs globally, where nations in the global south bear the burden of natural disasters and weather extremes despite contributing little to the global carbon footprint.

While people living in the Global South have typically been impacted most by the effects of climate change, people of color in the Global North also face similar situations in several areas. The southeastern part of the United States has experienced a large amount of pollution and minority populations have been hit with the brunt of those impacts. The issues of climate change and communities that are in a danger zone are not limited to North America or the United States either. There are several communities around the world that face the same concern of industry and people who are dealing with its negative impacts in their areas. For example, the work of Desmond D’Sa focused on communities in south Durban where high pollution industries impact people forcibly relocated during Apartheid.

Environmental racism and climate change coincide with one another. Rising seas affect poor areas such as Kivalina, Alaska, and Thibodaux, Louisiana, and countless other places around the globe. There are many cases of people who have died or are chronically ill from coal plants in Detroit, Memphis, and Kansas City, as well as numerous other areas. Tennessee and West Virginia residents are frequently subject to breathing toxic ash due to blasting in the mountains for mining. Drought, flooding, the constant depletion of land and air quality determine the health and safety of the residents surrounding these areas. Communities of color and low-income status most often feel the brunt of these issues firsthand.

Reversing development[edit]

Climate change is globally encompassing and can reverse development in some areas in the following ways.

Agricultural production and food security[edit]

Microorganisms and Climate Change

There has been considerable research comparing the interrelated processes of climate change on agriculture.[12] Climate change affects rainfall, temperature, and water availability for agriculture in vulnerable areas.[11] It also affects agriculture in several ways including productivity, agricultural practices, environmental effects, and distribution of rural space.[13] Additional numbers affected by malnutrition could rise to 600 million by 2080. Climate change could worsen the prevalence of hunger through direct negative effects on production and indirect impacts on purchasing powers.[11]

Water insecurity[edit]

Of the 3 billion growth in population projected worldwide by the mid-21st century, the majority will be born in countries already experiencing water shortages.[14] As the overall climate of the earth warms, changes in the nature of global rainfall, evaporation, snow, and runoff flows will be affected.[15] Safe water sources are essential for survival within a community. Manifestations of the projected water crisis include inadequate access to safe drinking water for about 884 million people as well as inadequate access to water for sanitation and water disposal for 2.5 billion people.[16] With a population ranging between198 to 210 million people in Nigeria, existing sanitation and water infrastructural facilities remain inadequate with 2.2billion people lacking access to safe water and 4.2 billion lacking safe sanitations both in the rural and urban areas.[17]

Rising sea levels and exposure to climate disasters[edit]

Sea levels could rise rapidly with accelerated ice sheet disintegration. Global temperature increases of 3–4 degrees C could result in 330 million people being permanently or temporarily displaced through flooding [13] Warming seas will also fuel more intense tropical storms.[13] The destruction of coastal landscapes exacerbates the damage done by this increase in storms. Wetlands, forests, and mangroves have been removed for land development. These features usually slow runoff, storm surges, and prevent debris from being carried by flooding. Developing over these areas has increased the destructive power of floods and makes homeowners more susceptible to extreme weather events. In some areas, such as coastal properties, real estate prices go up because of ocean access and housing scarcity, in part caused by homes being destroyed during storms.[18] Wealthy homeowners have more resources to rebuild their homes and have better job security, which encourages them to stay in their communities following extreme weather events. Highly unstable areas, such as slopes and delta regions, are sold to lower-income families at a cheaper price point. After extreme weather events, Impoverished people have a difficult time finding or maintaining a job and rebuilding their homes. These challenges force many to relocate in search of job opportunities and housing.[18]

Ecosystems and biodiversity[edit]

Coral Bleaching of Coral Reefs in Hawaii

Climate change is already transforming ecological systems. Around one-half of the world's coral reef systems have suffered bleaching as a result of warming seas. In addition, the direct human pressures that might be experienced include overfishing which could lead to resource depletion, nutrient, and chemical pollution and poor land-use practices such as deforestation and dredging. Also, climate change may increase the number of arable land in high-latitude regions by reduction of the number of frozen lands. A 2005 study reports that temperature in Siberia has increased three degrees Celsius on average since 1960, which is reportedly more than in other areas of the world.[19]

Human health[edit]

A direct effect is an increase in temperature-related illnesses and deaths related to prolonged heat waves and humidity. Climate change could also change the geographic range of vector-borne, specifically mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria dengue fever exposing new populations to the disease.[11] Because a changing climate affects the essential ingredients of maintaining good health: clean air and water, sufficient food, and adequate shelter, the effects could be widespread and pervasive. The report of the WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health points out that disadvantaged communities are likely to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden of climate change because of their increased exposure and vulnerability to health threats.[20] Over 90 percent of malaria and diarrhea deaths are borne by children aged 5 years or younger, mostly in developing countries.[5] Other severely affected population groups include women, the elderly, and people living in small island developing states and other coastal regions, mega-cities, or mountainous areas.[5]

Aspects of Climate Change on Human Health[edit]

Likely Relative Impact on Health Outcomes of the Components of Climate Change[21]

Health Outcome change in mean,


extreme events rate of change

of climate




Heat-related deaths and illness +++ +
Physical and psychological trauma

due to disasters

Vector-borne diseases +++ ++ + ++
Non-vector-borne infectious diseases + +
Food availability and hunger ++ + ++
Consequences of sea level rise ++ ++ +
Respiratory effects:

-air pollutants

-pollens, humidity



++ +
Population displacement ++ + +

++++= great effect; += small effect; empty cells indicate no known relationship.

Human rights and democracy[edit]

In June 2019, United Nations Special Rapporteur Philip Alston warned of a "climate apartheid" where the rich pay to escape the effects of climate change while the rest of the world suffers, potentially undermining basic human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. When Superstorm Sandy struck in 2012, he recounts, most people in New York City were left without power, while the Goldman Sachs headquarters had a private generator and protection by "tens of thousands of its own sandbags".[22]

Security impacts[edit]

The concept of human security and the effects that climate change may have on it will become increasingly important as the affects become more apparent.[23] Some effects are already evident and will become very clear in the human and climatic short-run (2007–2020). They will increase and others will manifest themselves in the medium term (2021–2050); whilst in the long run (2051–2100), they will all be active and interacting strongly with other major trends.[23] There is the potential for the end of the petroleum economy for many producing and consuming nations, possible financial and economic crisis, a larger population of humans, and a much more urbanized humanity – far in excess of the 50% now living in small to very large cities.[24] All these processes will be accompanied by the redistribution of the population nationally and internationally.[24] Such redistributions typically have significant gender dimensions; for example, extreme event impacts can lead to male out migration in search of work, culminating in an increase in women-headed households – a group often considered particularly vulnerable.[25] Indeed, the effects of climate change on impoverished women and children is crucial in that women and children, in particular, have unequal human capabilities.[26]

Infrastructure impacts[edit]

The potential effects of climate change and the security of infrastructure will have the most direct effect on the poverty cycle. Areas of infrastructure effects will include water systems, housing and settlements, transport networks, utilities, and industry.[27] Infrastructure designers can contribute in three areas for improving the living environment for the poor, in building design, in settlement planning and design as well as in urban planning.[27]

The National Research Council has identified five climate changes of particular importance to infrastructure and factors that should be taken into consideration when designing future structures. These factors include increases in very hot days and heat waves, increases in Arctic temperatures, rising sea levels, increases in intense precipitation events, and increases in hurricane intensity.[28] Heat waves affect communities that live in traditionally cooler areas because many of the homes are not equipped with air conditioning units.[18] Rising sea levels can be devastating for poor countries situated near the ocean and in delta regions, which experience increasingly overwhelming storm damage. In parts of eastern Caribbean nations, almost 60 percent of the homes were constructed without any building regulations.[18] Many of these endangered populations are also affected by an increase in flooding in locations that lack adequate drainage. In 1998, close to 200 million people were affected by flooding in China’s Yangtze River Valley; and in 2010, flooding in Pakistan affected 20 million people.[18] These issues are made worse for people living in lower income areas and force them to relocate at a higher rate than other economic groups.[18]

In areas where poverty is prevalent and infrastructure is underdeveloped, climate change produces a critical threat to the future development of that country. Reports of a study done on ten geographically and economically diverse countries show how nine out of ten countries revealed an inability to develop infrastructures and its expensive maintenance due to the influence of climate change and cost.[29]

Proposed policy solutions[edit]

Mitigation efforts[edit]

Climate change mitigation is the action to decrease the intensity of radiative forcing in order to reduce the potential effects of global warming. Most often, mitigation efforts involve reductions in the concentrations of greenhouse gases, either by reducing their source or by increasing their sinks.[30]

Nuclear power plants provide clean, reliable energy to over 31 countries globally and is the world’s second-largest source of low-carbon power.[31] India, China, and South Korea have utilized nuclear energy to develop advanced, high-energy economies. In contrast, developing countries with emerging economies often face problems in financing renewable energy sources, they are forced to rely on fossil fuel-based energy sources.[32] The support of nuclear power for energy generation is growing as an option to combat climate change in developing countries. These nuclear power plants have the potential to contribute to energy security and reduce the need for fossil fuels in these areas.[33]

Adaptation efforts[edit]

Adaptation to global warming involves actions to tolerate the effects of global warming. Collaborative research from the Institute of Development Studies draws links between adaptation and poverty to help develop an agenda for pro-poor adaptation that can inform climate-resilient poverty reduction. Adaptation to climate change will be "ineffective and inequitable if it fails to learn and build upon an understanding of the multidimensional and differentiated nature of poverty and vulnerability".[34] Poorer countries tend to be more seriously affected by climate change, yet have reduced assets and capacities with which to adapt.[34] One can see this effect by comparing outcomes between Bangladesh and The United States following two severe storms. In the United States, Hurricane Andrew killed 23 people when it made landfall in 1992; however, one year before, in Bangladesh, a tropical cyclone killed approximately 100,000 people.[18] Bangladesh, having a poorer population, was less prepared for the storm; and the country lacked sufficient weather forecasting systems needed to predict meteorological events. After the storm, Bangladesh required assistance from the international community because it didn’t possess the funds needed to recover. As events like these increase in their frequency and severity, a more proactive approach is needed.[18] This has led to more activities to integrate adaptation within development and poverty reduction programs. The rise of adaptation as a development issue has been influenced by concerns around minimizing threats to progress on poverty reduction, notably the Millennium Development Goals, and by the injustice of impacts that are felt hardest by those who have done least to contribute to the problem, framing adaptation as an equity and human rights issue.[34]

Proposed policy challenges[edit]

The most difficult policy challenge is related to distribution. While this is a potentially catastrophic risk for the entire globe, the short and medium-term distribution of the costs and benefits will be far from uniform.[5] Distribution challenge is made particularly difficult because richer nations who have largely caused the problem are not going to be those who suffer the most in the short term. The poorest nations are the most vulnerable to greenhouse gas emissions; although they did not and still are not significant contributors to it.[35]


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