climate change equality poverty

How climate change increases global inequality

The injustices of climate change take many forms, including economic injustices: emissions have mainly come from the richest countries, but those suffering the most harm are those in poorer countries. But it’s worse than that, because climate change is also one of the reasons that countries remain poor.

According to a 2019 study, climate change has already increased inequality between rich and poor countries, pushing the gap between rich and poor 25% wider than it would be in a world without warming. There’s a vicious circle at work here. Poorer countries are more vulnerable because they don’t have the money to adapt, and then climate change undermines their economic growth.  

The gap is driven wider in both directions – a warmer climate holds back economic growth in hotter countries, while improving it in cold countries. Warming conditions have raised crop yields in the global north, and brought health benefits. Most of the global north has benefited to a certain degree, with more northerly countries gaining more. The opposite applies in the south, where increased heat has been a drag on health and productivity.

The graphic above shows the top five countries that have benefited from warmer temperatures, and the five that have been held back the most – as a cumulative effect over 50 years. To put some context around a 25% disadvantage, “this is on par with the decline in economic output seen in the U.S. during the Great Depression,” says one of the researchers, Stanford’s Marshall Burke. “It’s a huge loss compared to where these countries would have been otherwise.”

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