Climate breakdown article illustration by Kate Prior

On a beach in Norfolk, UK, the sound of rolling waves and bickering seagulls has been replaced with the roar of heavy machinery. A slurry of sand and water belches from a huge pipe leading to a dredging ship offshore, while bulldozers crawl through the shallow water and push up drifts.

The machines are creating a sand dune, six kilometres long, seven metres high, some two million cubic metres in all. All this is to protect the Bacton Gas Terminal, source of one-third of the UK’s gas supply. Built 100 metres from the coast in the late 1960s, the sea now laps at its perimeter fences.

Meanwhile, just 25 kilometres down the coast at Hemsby, houses are falling into the sea. For years, the local community has been campaigning the government for sea defences to prevent the cliff face eroding, to no avail. “We’ve lost 100 homes in 20 years; it’s not insignificant,” says Lorna Bevan Thompson, founder and trustee of Save Hemsby Coastline. “We’ve lost 18 in the last five years, and 30 more are in direct trouble at the moment.”

The £20m landscaping project at Bacton is mostly funded by the operators of the gas terminal, although the Environment Agency has delivered £5m, and a further £500,000 is provided by North Norfolk District Council. Residents in Hemsby have been left to fend for themselves. The community raised funds for some concrete blocks and gabions, but those aren’t enough. “In 2013, we had a one in a 100-year storm,” says Bevan Thompson. “We’ve had two more since. We need much bigger resources to protect what we’ve got.”

Those resources are not forthcoming. A 2018 report commissioned by the local council recommends a “roll-back” — abandoning the remaining homes to the sea. “At the moment, it looks like not everyone will be protected from climate change,” says Alex Randall of Climate Outreach. “Some communities will not be offered the protection from changing climate that they would want. To me the key question is: who is it who gets to make those decisions?”

Just 25 corporate and state entities have been responsible for over 50% of global industrial emissions since human-induced climate change was officially recognised
Data visualisation showing companies most responsible for climate change

Climate change in itself is the greatest inequality. The people most impacted by it are those least responsible.

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.”

Even when world leaders sit down to discuss climate change, and propose efforts to counter it, the interests of these nations are often underrepresented. “Wealthy, developed countries will possibly send 100 delegates to cover every strand of negotiations and ensure the interests of the nation and its industries are represented,” says Randall. “The negotiating power of these countries is in no way equal.”

The numbers speak for themselves. Developed nations have pledged $10bn to the UN Green Climate Fund, a scheme to finance adaptation and mitigation projects in developing nations (although only $3.7bn of that has yet been contributed). Compare that with the $10bn spend announced by New York City mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this year, for flood defences that will protect just one part of Manhattan.

“It’s not just mitigation and adaptation, we also must recognise huge losses, of land, territory, homes, livelihoods: millions of people are losing that each year already, so we have to be thinking about what happens to that loss and damage,” says Rehman. “How do we compensate for that, for the world becoming uninhabitable?

Developed nations have pledged $10bn to the UN Green Climate Fund for developing nations. Compare that with the $10bn spend announced by New York City mayor Bill de Blasio for flood defences that will protect just one part of Manhattan.

As you zoom in from an international level to a national one, the patterns repeat themselves, fractal-like. Within any country, the wealthiest fraction of the population is responsible for a disproportionate amount of emissions generated. And once again, it’s the poor and marginalised that are worst hit by the effects of those emissions. Picture the devastation wrought on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, or New York City, where flooding from Hurricane Sandy displaced half of the city’s 40,000 public housing residents.

It is governments that have the unenviable task of deciding which communities will be saved, and which will be abandoned to the effects of climate change. “That raises a huge question for how we adapt to climate change,” says Randall. “It’s really about democracy itself in an era of climate change. Suddenly we’re in a position as a society, in the UK or globally, of some people making life and death decisions about other people.”

It helps to be close to the seats of power. While New York City embarks on high-tech engineering projects to safeguard residents, there is little help available to communities in Alaska whose buildings are collapsing as the permafrost melts. Adjusted for inflation, the UK spent around $2bn building the Thames Barrier in 1982, which protects 1.5 million people in the centre of the city from flooding. That single project cost four times what the government allocated for flood defences for the entire country — 66 million people — in 2015. Even spread over nearly 40 years of operation, the Thames Barrier alone represents a four-fold higher spend on flood defences for Londoners than the population as a whole.

Illustration showing a man with dollar signs for eyes smoking a large cigar by Kate Prior

If, then, you can’t rely on the government, there’s always the private sector. While low-income New Yorkers fled their saturated homes during Hurricane Sandy, the lights at Goldman Sachs’ 200 West Street headquarters still burned bright in an otherwise blacked-out downtown. Fuelled by generators in the basement, and protected by 25,000 privately sourced sandbags, the building was spared the fate of so many others in the flood zone. Whether that was a symbol of prudence, or inequality, depends on which side of the sandbags you were on.

Goldman Sachs is not the only company building for resilience in the face of climate change. Florida is the worst state in the US for power outages, which may explain why Walt Disney World Resort recently added a 50MW solar farm to its portfolio, augmenting the existing mouse-shaped 5MW array and a 55MW gas-fired plant to the north of the Magic Kingdom. Although the electricity enters the public grid before it is purchased by Disney, that local grid is overseen by the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a local council entirely controlled by Disney. Orlando citizens may swelter beside dead air conditioning units — 2019’s heatwave killed at least two — but on Splash Mountain, the fun never stops.

For a price, even private citizens can be excluded from the rigours of a warming planet. California suffered its deadliest and most destructive wildfire season in 2018, with over 20,000 structures destroyed. Not among them were the mansions of the Hidden Hills gated community north of Malibu, where residents such as Kim Kardashian could rely on a private firefighting service to protect their multimillion-dollar homes.

Climate breakdown increases the risk of draught, flood, high temperatures, tropical cyclones and earthquakes, quantified through the multi-hazard index.
Map of the world showing how poverty and climate related hazards will overlap in 2030

In response to criticism, Goldman Sachs senior chairman Lloyd Blankfein contested that helping themselves first allowed the privileged to help others second — in the aftermath of Sandy, the company loaned its water pumps to the port authority and distributed water and power to the community. In a similar act of charity, when wildfires broke out on Maui this year, Oprah Winfrey opened her private access road to the public to allow residents to evacuate. Yet many will be left wondering why it requires a deadly crisis for the ultra-wealthy to share what they have.

For the seriously wealthy, there are even more comprehensive insurance plans. A recent trend among Silicon Valley billionaires has been to buy land in New Zealand for private fortified bunkers, to provide shelter in the event of societal collapse. Buried two metres underground in secret locations, the “Aristocrat” series bunker sold by Rising S Company includes a bowling alley and gun range, and costs $8.3m, not including installation. It seems no surprise that the world’s richest men are financing their own private space programmes: the ultimate escape from a doomed planet.

There is no such dramatic escape on offer for the residents of Hemsby: no rockets, no underground bunkers. Banks are refusing mortgages even for houses half a mile from the coastline, meaning residents have little hope of selling their homes; they are stuck watching the sea creep closer. “You might find someone to buy it really cheap, a holiday home that will last a few years, if you’re lucky,” says Bevan Thompson, “but those people are very few and far between now.”

At Bacton, engineers building the sand dune say it will protect the facility until 2070. By then, residents in Norfolk may pause on the irony that, in the face of rising sea levels, the nation’s first major dune-building project was carried out to safeguard the delivery of fossil fuels. More likely, they’ll be too busy sandbagging their own homes to care.