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Rising Climate Inequality: How Low-Income Countries Lose More from Climate Change

Climate change is harming our planet and the people and economies that inhabit it. We’re already seeing weather events like floods and hurricanes becoming more frequent and more intense, for example. But while climate change affects us all, it doesn’t affect us all equally. Sadly, many of the world’s lowest-income areas are expected to bear the worst consequences of global climate change. 

“As we look to the coming decades, we’re facing unprecedented climate inequality. Many of those least responsible for the changing climate will bear the worst of the outcomes—if we don’t take action today.” – Dr. Douglas Fox, Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at Unity College

At Unity College, our passion for climate and environmental justice is at the heart of everything we do. Below, learn the basics about climate change and why it’s affecting many low-income countries most aggressively.

What Is Climate Change? 

Climate change is the most common term used today to describe the alterations to long-term global weather patterns that we see playing out over the course of several years. When you see the term “climate change,” most of the time it’s referring to human-caused climate change—not the natural ebb and flow that scientists believe has been happening for millennia.

For the last several hundred years, the earth has been warming up. We’ve had modern instruments to measure temperature reliably since around 1900, and scientists observed an increase of around 0.15 degrees Fahrenheit per decade from the 1900s through the 1970s. From 1979 until the present, the increase has accelerated to double or even more than double that rate, according to the EPA.

These increases are seen everywhere, though they aren’t seen in the same proportions in every region. They are also seen at every point throughout the atmosphere: Surface temperatures, atmospheric temperatures and ocean temperatures are all rising slightly.

Human-caused climate change may have numerous causes and factors. One of the most significant of these is the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Since the industrial revolution, this number has been climbing. And it’s never been higher than it is today, according to measurements and estimates from NASA.

In summary, climate change is a sustained increase in global average temperatures. Higher levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere seem to be the primary driver of that increase.

What About Global Warming? 

You may have heard the term global warming used in a similar sense. A few decades ago, this term gained popularity to describe these same concepts. Global warming as a term to describe climate change has fallen out of favor due to the confusion it can bring.

While human-caused climate change is currently having an overall warming effect on global temperatures, it doesn’t always translate to “it’s always hotter than it was last year.” Climate change can result in a more severe snow event or catastrophic winter flooding. These kinds of events can lead naysayers to scoff at the idea of a warming climate because, well, it’s cold out.

So, while the climate is generally warming, we won’t necessarily feel that difference every day. And the impacts of a warming climate don’t always look like sunshine and extra beach days: They can also look like more severe winter weather, thanks to warmer-than-usual atmospheric fronts interacting with the standard cold fronts. For reasons like these, most experts prefer the term climate change over the term global warming these days.

Causes of Climate Change

We live in the middle of a paradox. Global wealth and standards of living have never been higher, yet our climate is in peril. These two facts are more connected than you might assume. That’s because many of the activities that have otherwise led to human flourishing contribute to climate change.

Farming Practices

Our modern farming and animal husbandry techniques enable us to feed billions, but they come at a climate cost. Farming and raising animals at the scale being done today (using conventional commercial methods) releases far more greenhouse gases than the subsistence farming that was the norm hundreds of years ago. New Zealand released a 26-year study showing that their cows had higher methane emission levels than their entire transportation sector!

That’s a lot of gas, and it almost seems like a punchline to a joke. But it’s not: How to ethically feed billions without destroying the climate is a real human problem of our day.

Plastics

Our reliance on industrial processes and the emissions that come with them is another cause of climate change. Plastics save lives every day—just visit a hospital and look around. Yet, producing them tends to cause greenhouse emissions.

Fossil Fuels

Our reliance on fossil fuels to produce electricity and petroleum-based fuels (gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and so on) is another massive contributor to global climate change. For over a century, humans have burned coal to produce the electricity that powers our homes and businesses. Yet doing so releases significant amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. The same is true for burning gasoline and other fuels.

Some countries have greatly worked to reduce the quantity of emissions from these sources by reducing reliance on coal and improving automobile emissions standards. But what we’ve done so far isn’t enough to mitigate climate change.

Understanding the Greenhouse Effect

Why do the above activities contribute to climate change? Most of the change is due to the greenhouse effect. It’s important to understand how this effect works.

When sunlight hits the earth, the planet’s atmosphere dissipates some of it. Much of it reaches the surface where some is reflected away and some is absorbed. The absorbed heat is why concrete gets so hot in the summer and why the first bit of snow melts on roads but not on grass. This is a normal, healthy process.

Certain gases in the earth’s atmosphere, called greenhouse gases, trap heat and then radiate it in all directions. This, too, is a normal process. But the more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the more heat those gases radiate. Less heat escapes back out after reflection, creating a sort of heating feedback loop.

This is the greenhouse effect: As the level of greenhouse gases goes up, the level of heat that gets trapped in the atmosphere does, too. Some of this heat then radiates back to earth, warming the planet.

Climate Change’s Impacts on Human Health

Climate change is primarily described in terms of weather effects, such as thinning sea ice, longer heatwaves, or more intense tropical storms and hurricanes. But it’s important to realize that these and other changes have a real human health impact, too.

When sea levels rise, we lose habitable space. More land becomes flood-prone (with an increased risk of mold and insect-borne disease).

As growing conditions change due to rising temperatures, what was once suitable farmland may no longer grow the same quality or type of crops. Other areas that were not suitable for farming may become so, but this gradual change could be intensely disruptive for the food supply.

In addition to the change in farmland conditions, droughts and famines will also increase globally. So will wildfires and hurricanes. Access to groundwater may also continue to create challenges. Every one of these changes threatens human health and prosperity.

Climate Change’s Increased Impacts in Low-Income Countries

Why is climate change an unequal threat to low-income countries? The answer is complex, but we’ll boil it down to two terms: geography and consumption.

First, geography. Most of the world’s low-income countries are located where it’s already hotter. Making a hot, dry place even hotter and drier isn’t going to be helpful. And with fewer economic resources, poorer countries are likely to struggle to mitigate these changes.

Many of the people living in these areas tend to congregate near rivers or coastland for the obvious agricultural and economic benefits. But with rising sea levels and increased flooding risk (and, in many cases, ineffective or nonexistent civil engineering and city planning), living near water creates significant risk.

Second, consumption. Historically, lower-income countries haven’t been responsible for a very big slice of the emissions pie. In a general sense, the climate crisis hasn’t been their doing. Yet they bear the biggest impacts because of geography and vulnerabilities in their infrastructure and urban planning.

Consumption is a little complicated, too: As nations industrialize, consumption and production increase, and so do emissions. The best thing for the planet is no more industrialization until it can be done without increasing emissions. But can (or should) the richer countries of the world really tell the poorer ones not to do something the richer countries have already done?

The ethics and the politics here are complex.

Short-Term Effects

The effects of climate change are already visible in small ways. Weather has been more extreme, with more flooding, more (and more intense) hurricanes, increase tornadic activity, and more wildfires and droughts. Each of these weather events has a ripple effect of other negative outcomes, from diseases to stress to displacement.

We’re also seeing increases in air pollution, at least in some places. Some of the worst cities for pollution have unique circumstances that exacerbate the problem. But in large, industrialized cities (especially in developing countries), air pollution is a growing concern.

Looking Ahead: Future Projections

Without taking steps to change, the future looks bleak. Sea levels are predicted to rise at least one foot—and maybe eight—by 2100. Islands and coastal cities—yes, including those in many low-income countries—will be threatened or displaced. More death from disease and asthma are predicted, as well.

The acidification of the oceans is another current threat with long-term consequences. If trends continue, the effects on marine life could be devastating.

It’s Not Too Late to Make a Difference

Though the evidence and predictions are quite dire, it’s not too late to make a difference. Much of the modeling is based on little or no change in global behavior. But it’s never too late to change, and change starts with expertise and leadership.

Could you be a part of the next generation of global climate leadership? Unity College offers numerous degree programs with an environmental or climate focus, including several hybrid learning programs. Earn your B.S. in Environmental Studies or Environmental Science as a foundation for service and leadership in climate science.

With our hybrid program, you can progress through your coursework in a way that makes sense for you: all online, all in person, or a mix of the two. And with eight terms per year, Unity gives you the flexibility you need to complete your degree your way.

If you are interested in learning more about the hybrid learning programs offered at Unity College, contact us today.