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How does climate change affect the drive for global equality?

Source UN, DESA Working Paper 152

Great Effect on Poorer Countries

There is growing evidence that poorer countries or individuals are more negatively affected by a changing climate. Climate change is affecting weather. During 2020 alone, the high level of droughts, heatwaves, water shortages, severe storms, flooding, erosions and fires greatly affected millions of people causing billions of dollars of economic losses, hundreds of thousands of lost lives, affecting billions of animals (the severe fires in Australia alone is estimated to have impacted 3 billion animals), and the destruction of millions of hectares of land.

There are three main ways in which the inequality-aggravating

effect of climate change materializes:
(a) increase in the exposure of the disadvantaged groups to the adverse

effects of climate
(b) increase in their susceptibility to damage caused by climate change; and
(c) decrease in their ability to cope and recover from the damage suffered.



Exposure tends to be determined primarily by the location of dwelling and work. A significant part of the population in developing regions now live in “low-elevation coastal zone” and 100-year flood plains, and their number is increasing in both absolute terms and as proportion of the population. In general, coastal and near-shore habitats and their ecosystems are more exposed to the effects of climate change. A large percentage of the populations of low elevation coastal zones are rural – 84 per cent in Africa, 80 per cent in Asia, 71 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean and 93 per cent in the least developed countries. These are the most vulnerable to climate change as they are frequently subject to flooding of both types – coastal flooding due to sea level rise and river flooding from higher precipitation. In addition to flooding and erosion, the people living in coastal areas and in deltas also suffer from salinity intrusion. This affects both their living conditions and their livelihoods.



In Asia, Central and South American countries, disadvantaged groups can also be found to set up their dwellings in the mountains or along risky hill slopes surrounding urban areas, exposing them to mudslides that are becoming more frequent due to climate change.


Given the higher rates of households engaged in agricultural production in rural areas and in low-income countries, the rates of exposure of disadvantaged groups to droughts and water scarcity is likely to increase further with climate change. With 29 percent of the world’s population living in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid aridity zones, the number of people exposed to droughts could rise by between 9 and 17 per cent by 2030 under scenarios where emissions growth rates are not reduced.


Impact on Health

One of the important ways in which inequality increases susceptibility of the disadvantaged groups to damages caused by climate change is through its health effects. People living in poverty are more susceptible to the diseases that many climate hazards help to spread, including malaria and water borne diseases causing diarrhoea. This may be due to several reasons. For example, disadvantaged people may not have access to piped water sources, forcing them to drink contaminated water caused by climate hazards. Similarly, disadvantaged people suffer more adverse health effects from heatwaves and high temperatures, because they cannot afford heat alleviating amenities, including air conditioning.

Disproportionately affects Women

Gender plays an important role in determining the susceptibility to damage caused by adverse effects of climate change. Heat waves, droughts, rising sea levels, and extreme storms disproportionately affect women who are required to take on higher workloads, face
occupational hazards, and endure more psychological and emotional stress during climate disasters. That is because women are more likely to live in poverty than men, have less access to basic human rights like the ability to freely move and acquire land, and face
systematic violence that escalates during periods of instability. In rural communities across the globe, women and girls overwhelmingly undertake the labour of gathering food, water, and household energy resources. As droughts worsen and forests burn, they have to travel further distances and spend more time acquiring these resources. Natural disasters and saltwater intrusion from rising sea levels can tarnish water quality. Women in parts of India and Bangladesh, for instance, have faced health consequences and seen their economic prospects diminish as rivers become saltier.  These factors, and many more, mean that as climate change intensifies, women will struggle the most. In fact, the Paris climate agreement includes specific provisions to ensure women receive support to cope with the hazards of climate change.

Loss of Income and Employment

The greater susceptibility to health effects frequently undermines the income and asset position of disadvantaged groups in both short run and long run. In the short run, they suffer from loss of productivity, employment and income. In the long run, they suffer from
loss of human capital (from lost school days, the development of chronic conditions such as stunting, and from general health and growth impacts, even future morbidity and higher mortality). So how has climate change effects hampered the growth of developing countries? Research work is still ongoing but in general it is estimated that in poor countries there is >90% likelihood that per capita GDP is lower today than if global warming had not occurred. 

Social Justice

Given that wealthy countries have been responsible for the vast majority of historical greenhouse gas emissions, any clear evidence of inequality in the impacts of the associated climate change raises critical questions of international justice.

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