The Climate Crisis: Impacts on Social Equity

January 2024

As international organizations and governments become increasingly concerned about the current climate crisis, a stark truth has emerged: our global predicament is no longer limited to environmental calamity, but has direct impacts on social equity and justice as well. As we grapple with the multidimensional consequences of a swiftly warming Earth, it becomes more and more evident that the burden of climate change falls disproportionately on marginalized communities throughout the world.

One of the main takeaways from the recent COP28 climate summit in Dubai is that the low-income countries (LICs) most adversely impacted by the climate crisis were left without concrete financial commitments from wealthier nations to the “Loss and Damage Fund,” which was established the previous year at COP27. This fund is intended to help LICs (particularly in Africa, South Asia, and parts of Oceania) recover from the economic damages wrought by climate change, transition away from fossil fuels, and improve climate resilience.

Given that solutions and change — particularly in the US, where little media or public attention has been given to the climate summit — must begin with education, it’s crucial to understand the ways in which the current climate crisis intersects with social equity, both in LICs and wealthier nations. Only then can we gather support for protecting the world’s most vulnerable populations and improving climate equity.

Cause, Effect, and Responsibility: International and Intercontinental Inequities

Climate change is a global problem, but the origins of the greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) that drive it are vastly unequal. The countries and national groups that have created the greatest number of GHGs are China, the US, India, the EU, and Russia respectively, all of which account for some of the world’s greatest concentrations of wealth (even if it is not necessarily justly distributed).

Conversely, the nations and regions most heavily impacted by the climate crisis are also some of the poorest. This imbalance is a global form of environmental racism. These countries were already experiencing widespread food insecurity, public health crises, violent political conflicts, and climate change-related environmental and economic losses well before the pandemic. In the wake of it, many LICs are even less equipped to address these problems, let alone the rapidly worsening climate crisis. 

Clearly, high-income countries like the US have a greater responsibility not only to take decisive action in addressing the climate crisis, but to support LICs in their own related adaptations and efforts.

Geographical Inequities

Within LICs as well as in wealthier nations and regions, some environments face vastly greater threats to the security of their homes, livelihoods, and health than others. These include:

  • Rural coastal communities and low-lying areas. Regardless of nationality, these geographical regions are prone to rising sea levels, flooding, erosion, and extreme storms. This can result in the loss of homes, property, jobs, basic necessities such as clean drinking water, and even lives, and can lead to mass migrations into other communities that may not be prepared for them.
  • Coastal megacities. 15 of the world’s 20 megacities (cities with populations of over 10 million people) are currently threatened by sea level rise and coastal storm surges. These metropolitan areas may face major gross domestic product (GDP) losses that can cripple entire national economies.
  • Dry regions. As polar ice caps and sea ice melt, they cause the ocean to become warmer, destabilizing major ocean currents responsible for weather patterns. In dry regions, this can mean more droughts that are more severe as well as overtaxed water sources.

Socioeconomic Inequities

In both LICs and wealthier nations, the consequences of the climate crisis disproportionately impact low-income communities and regions. Socioeconomically marginalized populations are more likely to live in areas prone to extreme weather events (such as floods and hurricanes). 

Both these communities as a whole and their individual residents often have severely constrained resources when it comes to surviving and recovering from natural disasters. Stagnant local economies often translate into or exacerbate low income levels for residents, who consequently lack the finances needed to protect their homes and families or become more climate resilient.

Natural Resources and Air Conditioning

For example, low-income communities often have fewer natural features and resources, including trees. In addition to the attractiveness and curb appeal of trees in any neighborhood, trees help to purify the air of pollutants. They also provide desperately needed shade during the increasingly hot summer months, and can reduce the need for air conditioning (as well as associated energy use and costs). In fact, trees can collectively lower the temperature of entire neighborhoods and city districts when they are adequately concentrated in a community. 

As such, lacking sufficient tree coverage means that low-income areas are those that face the most severe consequences of warming temperatures.

Low-income households are also less likely to be able to afford central air conditioning or AC units. Alternatively, they may live in rented homes in which units aren’t provided by landlords, aren’t working, or aren’t allowed. As summers get warmer, the ability to afford air conditioning has already proven a matter of life and death during heatwaves, with consequences felt disproportionately by communities of color.

Crops and Food Prices

As droughts and floods increase, crops in many areas may have smaller yields, which ultimately drives up food prices. While middle- and high-income households may be able to absorb these price increases, low-income families (among which families of color are disproportionately represented) cannot. These households may then forgo healthier whole foods and produce in favor of cheaper but over-processed foods containing excess amounts of fat, salt, and sugar.

Job Opportunities

In addition, the slow but marked transition to clean energy in nations like the US can lead to job displacement in carbon-intensive industries. Without equitable education and training programs, workers in these sectors — particularly those with lower education levels and fewer related opportunities — are at risk of being left behind by the “green” economy. 

Resulting Political Backlash Against Other Forms of Social Justice

In the US, this phenomenon also contributes to increased political support for continued reliance on fossil fuels rather than for equitable clean energy policies, particularly among fossil fuel workers and communities whose economies depend heavily on fossil fuels. The politicians who run like-minded campaigns, if voted into office, are highly likely to support inequitable policies in many areas unrelated to climate change.

Harms to Society Indirectly Caused by the Backlash

In fact, the majority of the 2023 GOP presidential candidates plan to do little or nothing to curb the GHGs caused by fossil fuels if elected. Despite their unprecedented racial diversity and lived experience of racism, many of these same candidates reject the idea, for example, that systemic racism poses real harms in society

As another example, conservative pro-fossil fuel candidates also frequently support tax breaks for large corporations while rejecting funding for education or healthcare sectors. In doing so, they also betray the very low- and middle-income voters who support them, given that education is essential for many higher-income jobs, and given that low-income workers often don’t have adequate employer-provided benefits and can’t afford out-of-pocket healthcare costs. 

In short, and especially in an era of deep US political division, allowing clean energy inequities to persist will ultimately worsen other forms of social inequality.

Social and Cultural Inequities

Indigenous communities in North America and elsewhere are also disproportionately affected by climate change. Rising sea levels, wildfires, and changing ecosystems threaten their relationship with ancestral lands and foods, and therefore, their cultural heritage. 

In the US, Native Americans have long been forced into reservations in undesirable and socioeconomically disadvantaged parts of the US, many of which are the regions first and most severely affected by climate change. Many are losing their homes due to erosion, storms, droughts, and floods — including, for example, the Houma people of Louisiana who are already losing their land to rising sea levels. This exemplifies the intersection between geographical, socioeconomic, and cultural forms of climate inequity. 

These cultural communities often lack recognition and support in addressing their unique challenges in the face of climate change, especially given that the federal government is less likely to provide aid to Native American communities when natural disasters strike or to assist these groups in adapting to the climate crisis.

Health Disparities

The effects of climate change exacerbate pre-existing health disparities for people in marginalized communities of all kinds in all nations. 

Physical Health

Needless to say, the dangers to physical health caused by accelerated global warming are many. They include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Heat-related illnesses, such as heat stroke, and severe dehydration, especially for people without access to air conditioning or adequate cooling resources
  • Smoke inhalation and the effects of poor air quality from heat waves, heat “domes,” and wildfires
  • Water-borne illnesses (such as bacterial and parasitic infections) caused by exposure to untreated water and sewage that can result from hurricanes and flooding
  • Injuries incurred during natural disasters due to property damage, unsafe evacuations, and rescue efforts

Mental Health

As you might imagine, climate change-induced disasters can lead to severe stress and trauma for impacted individuals and communities. Those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged are even more susceptible to mental health crises, given the finance- and health-related stressors they are likely to have experienced even before a natural disaster takes place.

Under-resourced communities also often suffer from greater social stigmas around mental health and greater barriers to adequate mental health services, complicating and exacerbating challenges to their well-being.

The climate crisis is inseparable from issues of social equity and social justice. The world’s wealthiest nations are the greatest contributors to the climate crisis, while vulnerable communities face unequal impacts, economic disparities, mental health challenges, and cultural disruption due to climate change. Recognizing these interconnected issues is crucial for creating a more equitable and just future.

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