Climate change will increase inequality across and within countries and there is little to argue for. Inequality has been a persistent issue in the climate change discussion, particularly concerning “climate justice”, which in turn, is a particular case of “environmental justice”.
Targets for temperature limiting set by the international authorities should not be taken too lightly. Every fraction of a degree counts because the impacts of climate change increase with rising temperature in a non-linear way. For instance, while an increase of 1.5°C would expose 245 million people to a new or aggravated water shortage, this number becomes 490 million at 2°C.
However, not all countries and people will be affected in the same way. The countries that will be particularly damaged because of flooding, droughts, and storms are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Chad, Haiti, Kenya, and Nigeria. In the worst-case scenario, in Afghanistan, the temperature will arise by 6°C by the end of this century. Moreover, people in low and lower-middle-income countries are around five times more likely to be displaced by sudden extreme weather disasters than people in high-income countries. This means that the poorest half of the world’s population, which is responsible just for 10 per cent of carbon emissions, will suffer the most.
However, the focus should not be on poor people only, but on socially disadvantaged1 groups in general. Natural disasters hit marginalized communities first and worst. At this point, the question is: why disadvantaged people are more exposed to climate change effects independently of the country in which they live?
According to the UN, 80 per cent of people displaced by climate change are women. Women are estimated to be 70 per cent of those living below the poverty line and more likely to bear the heaviest burdens. For example, women and girls must travel miles to collect water and fuel and are often the last to eat. Also, during and after extreme weather events they are at increased risk of violence and exploitation.
Communities of colour are also disproportionally impacted by climate change. Marginalized communities do not have access to well-resourced and planned residential areas, ending up being more vulnerable to the impacts of climate crises. In fact, these communities are more likely to live in flood zones, have difficult access to water, and be surrounded by toxic facilities due to a history of exclusionary zoning practices.
According to the United Nations, existing inequality exposes already disadvantaged groups to higher climate risk, aggravating their conditions even more. In this context, climate change affects them by increasing their exposure to climate hazards, increasing their susceptibility to damage caused by climate hazards, and by decreasing their ability to cope and recover from damage, ending in worsening their already precarious situation. For example, one of the consequences of climate change is the increasing amount of flooding events. Evidence shows that inequality first compels disadvantaged groups to live in areas that are more prone to flooding, thus increasing their exposure to flooding caused by climate change. Consider for example that a significant part of the population of developing countries lives in low-elevation coastal zones or precarious parts of deltas because they cannot afford to live in safer areas. And now their number is increasing both in absolute terms and in proportion to population. Second, among all living in flood zones, the disadvantaged groups are more susceptible to the damages caused by flooding. For example, their houses get completely washed away or damaged seriously because are often made of flimsy materials. Many times disadvantaged people in this way lose all that they have. Finally, the disadvantaged groups have less ability to cope and recover from the damages caused by floods. The rich may buy the insurance and thus get compensated for the damages, while disadvantaged groups may not be able to afford such insurance and thus, they have to absorb the entire loss, leading to a greater reduction in their assets. This vicious cycle affects mostly disadvantaged groups, it ends increasing inequities, and in many cases poverty even more. A World Bank report estimated that an additional 68 to 135 million people could be pushed into poverty by 2030.
But why should the increase in inequality worry everyone?
First of all, there is evidence that high levels of income inequality increase instability and can lead to financial crises, while more equal societies tend to have longer periods of sustained growth. Income inequality also leads to higher levels of personal and institutional debt and rates of inflation.
As the poorest tend to be excluded from the decision-making process, there is always a risk of underinvestment in actions that would be particularly beneficial to them, since the political debate is mostly influenced by the top of the income spectrum because of lobbying and ownership of media outlets. Another effect of this influence leads to deregulation which increases instability and can result in economic crises.
Moreover, social welfare decreases with the increase of income inequality because of the lower productivity of workers. In turn, inefficiency is created in the economy due to low wages and rent-seeking, that is when people at the top of the income spectrum increase their gains beyond the amount needed at the expense of the lower-income people.
Not only the economic side is affected in unequal societies, but so are health and social problems. The most plausible explanation for income inequality’s effect on health and social problems is status anxiety. Inequality places people in a steep hierarchy that increases status competition and causes stress. This in turn leads to poor health and other negative outcomes such as shorter life expectancy, adult obesity, and mental illnesses like depression and schizophrenia. Moreover, income inequality is linked to lower educational scores on average and lower rates of both social and civil participation, e.g. lower levels of voter turnout and cultural activity.
Furthermore, the correlation between economic inequality and crime is well established. Especially property crime and some types of violent crime, like homicide, murder, and robbery, are strongly related to income inequality changes. This fact is linked to the change in attitude presented by more unequal societies: increased inequality leads to lower levels of trust because individuals perceive themselves as more different and distant from others. Willingness to help each other and altruism decrease because of the more likely false belief that competition between groups leads to efficient outcomes.
To some extent, inequality is also correlated with lower levels of happiness and in developed nations with lower levels of well-being and life satisfaction, while for developing countries the relation is more complex. One
possible explanation is the inferior perceived security and trust in the national authorities: inequality increases social distance, and political entities seem aloof from citizens’ problems. Another reason is social mobility: children of high-paid individuals in unequal societies are more likely to be highly paid and children of low-paid individuals are more likely to be low earners, decreasing the perceived possibilities in realizing hopes and projects for the future.
To make matters worse, inequality aggravates environmental deterioration. Among OECD countries, consumption of water, meat and fish, and per capita levels of waste generation tend to be higher in countries with higher inequalities. Moreover, there is evidence of a weakly positive correlation between inequality and per capita GHG emissions, thus fostering climate change and reinforcing the vicious circle already described.
Given the conclusions above, major attention should be put into preventing social inequalities to grow, also to hinder the long-term growth trend. Recent historical evidence has changed the perception of contemporary distributive dynamics by leading to the realization that the very long-run tendency has been for inequality to grow, with a decrease in income and wealth inequality only after major calamities such as the Black Death and two World Wars. Distributional developments in recent years lead us to think that this is what we should expect from the future, too. History also offers evidence that long-term inequality trends were heavily affected by human agency, mainly by redistributive policies and the development of welfare states, particularly from the 1950s to the early 1970s. When those policies were weakened and welfare development was arrested, both income and wealth inequality found fertile ground to grow again. As already discussed, the current situation of climate emergence will foster even more this process leading to a further increase in social inequalities if serious and imminent measures will not be taken to prevent this threat from happening.
1 Social inequality (within-country setting) refers to inequalities based on demographic characteristics (e.g. gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age), inequalities regarding assets and income, and inequalities regarding public decision-making and access to public resources (e.g. publicly financed health, education, housing, financing, and other services). These different types of inequalities are interrelated.
Inequality concerns differences in income or wealth.
Poverty involves individuals below a given threshold or lacking access to basic needs.
- “The poverty impacts of climate change: A review of the evidence” Emmanuel Skoufias, Mariano Rabassa, Sergio Olivieri (https://doi.org/10.1596/1813-9450-5622)
2. “Wealth and Income Inequality in the Long Run of History”, Guido Alfani
5. DESA Working Paper No. 152 ST/ESA/2017/DWP/152 “Climate Change and Social Inequality” https://www.un.org/esa/desa/papers/2017/wp152_2017.pdf