Climate Justice: 5 Inequities of Climate Change, Explained

September 20, 2019
Written by Olivia Giovetti

“Climate justice” has become a familiar rallying cry in the last few years, but what does it actually mean? Here, we take a look at why developed countries must provide support for the developing countries most affected by climate change.

The concept of climate justice is fairly simple to understand, but much more difficult to act on: Those who have done least to cause climate change are the ones suffering most from its effects. Negotiators from developing countries are calling for a climate deal which not only protects the world from dangerous temperature rises, but addresses the historical injustice of climate change too. Here are 5 inequities of climate change, and how they need to be addressed, as part of a larger commitment to climate justice. 

Inequity #1: The degree of responsibility for climate change

“That is the greatest injustice of climate change,” says Mary Robinson, Adjunct Professor of Climate Justice at Trinity College Dublin, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and former President of Ireland. “That those who bear the least responsibility for climate change are the ones who will suffer the most.” 

In Chad, a country with very low carbon emissions, droughts and unpredictable rainfall threaten the livelihoods of millions of people. Food shortages happen frequently as farmers struggle to cope with the changing conditions. Bangladesh also has relatively little responsibility for the environmental crisis, but there, cyclones, storm surges, and flooding are more frequent and more impactful. 

Displaced households take shelter in northern Bangladesh.

Displaced households take shelter in northern Bangladesh. Photo: Concern Worldwide.

The shift of recognizing climate change as being driven by human lifestyles and consumption — and where and how the impacts of those lifestyles and consumption choices end up — is a necessary step. In order to avoid further catastrophic outcomes of climate change, we will need to reach a consensus as a global society as to the changes we’ll need to make (especially in developed countries). 

Inequity #2: The impact of climate change in the Global South

The World Bank has defined the “Global South” as countries located in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. These countries often have lower incomes compared to countries in the Global North. As noted above, many of these countries are hit hardest by climate change, and many of them also have had little responsibility for the current climate crisis. 

However, many of these countries are also developing, in an effort to become “emerging” economies. This means they’re working to modernize production, make better use of natural resources, and have a seat at the international trade table. Unfortunately, this comes at a cost. In order for the Global South to sustainably grow its economy and also develop further resilience against the current climate crisis, it will not only require support from the Global North, but also trust in that support. 

With so little historical data on areas we know are most affected by climate change, it may take another generation (at best) before we can begin to better understand the unique impact of this crisis on the countries that matter most. By then it may be too late. 

What’s more, the current effects of climate change in the Global South are understudied compared to effects in the Global North. In 2015, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) rated 40% of its climate change predictions in Africa, Asia, and South America as “low-confidence.” In Europe and Australia, it only graded 12% of its projections as “low-confidence.” Information on climate change in East Africa is so low that there isn’t enough to conclusively state that temperatures have shifted since the 1950s. With so little data on the areas we know to be most affected by climate change, it may take another generation (at best) before we can begin to better understand the unique impact of this crisis on the countries that matter most. 

Inequity #3: The ability and capacity to deal with the impacts of climate change

Since the early 1990s, the number of extreme weather-related disasters has doubled according to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This has reduced the yields of major crops and contributing to food price hikes and income losses. In addition to climate change having a disproportionately large effect on the most vulnerable countries, these countries are also some of the least-equipped to deal with these impacts — including hurricanes, cyclones, and drought. In addition to disaster management, there is also a need to develop resilience against future events (which are likely to occur). 

As Concern’s former senior policy officer Alexander Carnwath once put it, “Industrialized countries must give developing countries the financial and technological support they need to adapt to the effects of climate change.” 

“Industrialized countries must give developing countries the financial and technological support they need to adapt to the effects of climate change.”  — Alexander Carnwath, Concern Worldwide

This prospect has been discussed at previous United Nations Climate Change Conferences, but one of the main issues that has stuck for the last decade is the idea that potential support to the Global South (which could go as high as in the trillions) would be disbursed through a separate climate fund that would take management away from the UN and potentially put it into the control of an organization like the World Bank, which is predominantly run by the Global North. 

Concern incorporates disaster risk reduction techniques (DRR) into much of its programming. Afghanistan has warmed by 3˚F since 1950, meaning an increase in annual spring flooding caused by melting snow and glaciers in the north. Using watershed management techniques such as terracing, gabion walls, and tree planting, Concern engineers have helped agricultural communities in the highlands conserve the precious soil and deal more effectively with this existential threat.

Inequity #4: The intergenerational impacts of climate change

The last 150 years of economic growth — and resulting growth in greenhouse gas emissions — are only beginning to reveal their consequences. It’s clear that younger generations will suffer these consequences more greatly than their parents and grandparents. 

According to the World Bank, by the time teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and her generation are in their late 20s, climate change could force an additional 100 million people into extreme poverty. A report for the UNFCCC revealed that, even if all carbon dioxide emissions were stopped today, most of the current effects of climate change would persist for centuries. 

By 2050, the International Food Policy Research Institute estimates a 20% increase in malnourished children compared to what we would see without climate change. 

For children born in the 21st Century, these effects are already being felt. The consequences of droughts and floods have contributed to 149 million children around the world being stunted. (In Niger, children born in a drought year were 72% more likely to be stunted.) Children are also more vulnerable to the effects of climate disasters, including floods and high winds, as well as the day-to-day effects of climate change on air quality, airborne disease, and unclean water. 

One study in Peru showed that cases of (potentially life-threatening) diarrhea among children rose by 8% with each degree Celsius increase in temperature. By 2050, the International Food Policy Research Institute estimates a 20% increase in malnourished children compared to what we would see without climate change. 

Mary Robinson has praised Thunberg’s movement of marches, strikes, and protests among schoolchildren as a way of putting faces to the intergenerational injustice of climate change. But she also warns that the next generation “also includes those children whose health and well-being are being shaped by undernutrition, whose futures will be determined by our climate action — or our inaction.”

A young girl drinks water in Somaliland

A young girl drinks water trucked into Somaliland by Concern Worldwide. Photo: Kieran McConville

Inequity #5: The gender disparity of climate change

Simply put, climate change, like poverty, is sexist. In many countries, women serve as both providers and caretakers for their families. They’re not only responsible for producing food, water, and childcare, but also for managing these elements within their larger communities. According to a UNICEF study, women and girls spend 200 million hours fetching water every day. UNICEF dubbed this figure “a colossal waste of time.”

A community’s ability to mitigate climate-related disasters is heavily reliant on its women. However, in these communities, women often have fewer rights or resources available to them. Women are often the last to eat if climate change threatens food security. They may be left alone to care for multiple children while their spouse goes to another area to find work or food. 

Even in natural disasters, women may not be allowed to leave the house on their own or are subject to other cultural gender norms. In the aftermath of such disasters, especially those that force displacement, women are more vulnerable to domestic abuse or sexual violence

“There is a need for women’s leadership on climate justice,” says Robinson. While women are at the forefront of new agriculture practices, emergency response, and making decisions at home, they’re also left out of the conversations and decisions that will have the greatest impact on their future. Which means their perspectives and needs are ignored. In order to create climate justice, gender equality must also be brought into the conversation. 

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