Disparate Effects of Climate Change on Low-Income Nations and Susceptible Populations

By: Jeff Sifford

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect views of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.

Climate change is an existential threat to everyone on Earth. That said, the Earth’s changing climate, driven in large part by human use of fossil fuels, is currently, and will continue to, disproportionately affect our planet’s poorer nations. Increased temperature, more frequent extreme weather events, drastic changes in precipitation, and elevated sea levels are some of the most dire consequences of climate change on our environment. Environmental changes will continue to drive people to become climate change refugees or suffer from harmful diseases and health problems.

The most obvious and extreme examples of climate change involve island nations whose land is altered or even submerged by rising sea levels. A significant portion of the Earth’s water is frozen in the forms of glaciers, ice sheets (such as those covering Antarctica and Greenland), ice caps, and ice fields. These forms are stored on land, effectively removed from the global ocean system. However, global temperature increase has begun to cause a portion of this ice to melt. Ultimately, the melted water finds its way into the ocean system, increasing the total volume of water and effectively causing the ocean water level to rise. Because island nations’ elevations are typically at or only slightly above sea level, any increase in sea level can alter their lands through flooding or complete submergence. This is not only a problem of the future—recent rising sea levels have completely submerged eight Pacific Islands, and some models predict forty-eight (48) Pacific Islands will be underwater due to climate change by 2100.

However, island nations are by no means the only sovereignties that are, and will continue to be, deleteriously affected by further change in the Earth’s climate. Generally, low-income countries are most affected by climate change, yet contribute relatively little to greenhouse gas emissions per capita, compared to the world’s wealthier nations. Additionally, low-income nations will be more affected economically by climate change. They generally have economies relatively more reliant on agriculture and other industries that are prone to disruption by extreme weather, lack risk-management infrastructure such as insurance and air conditioning, and reside in regions that experience extremely high temperatures.

Climate change also more severely affects certain vulnerable population groups. For instance, women in low-income nations oftentimes gather food, water, and fuel (such as wood or animal dung) for their households, all roles which will are exacerbated by climate change and extreme heat waves. More to the point, women, and more so pregnant women, already exhibit far increased susceptibility to disease and death associated with extreme weather events, including storms and hurricanes.  Indigenous people are tied closely to their environment and naturally more readily experience its changes. However, children are the group most likely to be harmed by climate change through malnutrition, vector-borne diseases, waterborne diseases, and heat stroke and other heat-related diseases.

Human society as a whole must commit to slowing and eventually reversing climate change and mitigating its deleterious effects. Mitigation will not be a singular step, but instead a combination policies and practices that cumulatively reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and assist the low-income nations in adapting to the changing world. Shifting infrastructure from fossil fuels to renewable energy technologies has been a slow process but is an area that could have a dramatic impact on mitigating climate change. Incentivizing and promoting renewable energy use and development is an area that can readily be addressed by lawmakers. Agriculture is another industry that creates a large amount of greenhouse gases, for the most part through land use and emissions of cattle. Programs that facilitate awareness of the disproportionate carbon footprint of beef compared to other meat or vegetable-based alternatives could potentially shift public perception of the consequences of our society’s immense beef consumption. Although carbon sinks, which effectively pull carbon-bearing molecules from the atmosphere into the land or sea are still not sophisticated or widely used, they have tremendous potential as a means of rolling back the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. Ultimately, lawmakers bear the final power to adopt or decline policies that combat climate change.


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