Inequality is woven into the fabric of climate change. The poorest half of the world’s population is responsible for just 10% of carbon emissions, according to Oxfam figures, while the richest 10% are responsible for half of all emissions. Yet developing nations are predicted to pay 80% of the costs of a radically changing climate.
Part of this is geographic quirk: the global south lives in warmer climates, so that temperature increase moves it further from the optimum. Part of it is economic: poorer nations have more people dependent upon industries that are vulnerable to climate change, such as farming, and less capacity to deal with the effects of climate change, due to shortages in resources and infrastructure. And existing vulnerabilities felt by billions of the poorest people — water scarcity, crop failure, malnutrition, human and animal disease, fire, flooding and more — will be amplified by climate change.
“Climate change in itself is the greatest inequality. The people most impacted by it are those least responsible,” says Asad Rehman, executive director at campaign group War on Want. “Climate change compounds every other inequality that exists, fuelling conflict, forced migration, displacement. It’s rocket fuel for everything.” Those who bear the most responsibility for climate change, meanwhile, are not only spared its worst effects, but can draw on the wealth generated by a century of carbon-intensive development to protect themselves. In an excoriating report published earlier this year, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, warned that the ability of wealthy nations to escape the impacts of global warming amounted to “climate apartheid”.
“The reality is that if you’re in Europe, and you have a heatwave, the response is to crank up the AC, open up swimming pools, encourage people to work from home, to not go on public transport, etcetera,” says Rehman. “Pakistan had a recent heatwave of 53.5°C; these are people who don’t have the choice of putting the AC on, who are forced to work in the open, as not working means they have no income.”