How Best to Tackle Inequality in the 21st Century? Start with Climate Change

By Lyndsay Walsh
DUBLIN, Jul 23 2019 (IPS)

Do you prefer to hear good news or bad news first? I will begin
by giving you the (unsurprisingly) bad news. Today’s world is an
unequal place. Standards of living vary massively both between and
within countries.

To narrow it down to its most blunt statistic, if you were born
in Hong Kong your life expectancy is nearly double that of someone
born in Swaziland, 84 and 49 years, respectively.

The good news is that in recent decades many global indicators
of living standards have improved. The Millennium Development
Goals, a group of targets aimed at reducing poverty and raising
living standards, were largely successful.

Those living in extreme poverty dropped from 1.9 billion in 1990
to 836 million in 2015, the proportion of undernourished people in
low-income countries fell from 23 percent in 1990 to 13 percent in
2014, and worldwide primary school enrollment has reached 90

These statistics offer hope for a trajectory toward an equal
world. There is more bad news, however, in that climate change
threatens to undo this progress and create further inequity.

Climate change will be the definitive challenge of the 21st
century, yet it is largely pushed aside in discussions of policies
to address inequality. If warming is not limited to 1.5 degrees
Celsius above preindustrial levels the results could nullify most,
if not all, the progress made in reducing inequality.

Climate change will further magnify existing inequality as low-
and middle-income countries will bear the brunt of its impact. As
rainfall patterns become more unpredictable, sea levels rise, and
storms become more intense, the expected impacts on low-income
countries are severe.

An integral problem of advocating for action is that people
perceive climate change as a distant threat, but its ramifications
are already being witnessed in many parts of the world. Cities such
as Dakar in Senegal are flooded annually.

The semi-arid Sahel region is encroaching on once fertile
farmland. California was subjected to the deadliest wildfires in
its history last year, with record amounts of land burnt to

Climate change is an exemplary illustration of inequality in the
21st century. The United States is responsible for 26 percent of
global cumulative greenhouse gases, and Europe is responsible for
an additional 22 percent. In contrast, the entire continent of
Africa contributes just 3.8 percent.

While high-income countries are responsible for the vast
majority of greenhouse gas emissions, it is the low-income
countries that will face the repercussions. Many low-income
countries are located in the tropics, which are far more vulnerable
to rising temperatures than high-income temperate countries such as
the United Kingdom.

Entire agricultural systems will be lost, famines will hit
numerous areas, and diseases such as malaria are predicted to
become more widespread. Already we are seeing pastoral farmers in
Chad struggling to survive due to a lengthening dry season. The
largest lake in the country, Lake Chad, has shrunk 90 percent in
the past 50 years.

Nevertheless, this division is not solely between high- and
low-income countries, it will also prevail within countries. Last
year Harvard researchers coined the term “climate
gentrification”: properties at higher elevations in inland Miami
were becoming more expensive due to flooding risks associated with
climate change. Again, it will be those who cannot afford to buy
their way to safety who are left in at-risk areas.

Along with creating new problems for low-income countries,
climate change will exacerbate existing inequalities. Low-income
countries do not have the fiscal capacity to deal with severe
disruptions to infrastructure. Increased flooding will lead to the
spread of waterborne diseases such as cholera and dysentery due to
damaged water provisioning services.

Cases of malnutrition are expected to rise dramatically as
droughts in tropical areas result in lower crop yields. In
countries such as Madagascar, where over 70 percent of the
population are rural farmers, this will be devastating.

Due to the complex and far-reaching nature of climate change,
the knock-on effects for low-income countries are multitudinous. It
will make receiving a quality education more difficult, intensify
existing gender inequalities, provoke conflict, destabilize
governments, and force people to leave their homelands. These
countries do not have the funds or support to deal with the scale
of the problems climate change will bring.

“Climate migrant” is a term we will hear frequently; the
World Bank predicts there may be up to 140 million such migrants by
2050. In Europe, the media often refer to refugees seeking security
as a “crisis,” yet 84 percent of refugees are currently within
low-income countries, and people in poorer countries are roughly
five times more likely to be displaced by weather events.

This is yet another burden low-income countries are left to deal
with. Even high-income countries threatened by climate change are
far more able to deal with its consequences. Shanghai, one of the
cities most vulnerable to flooding, has been building flood-defense
infrastructure since 2012; one such project is expected to cost £5
billion. Low-income countries do not have such capital to

This brings us to the main question: what can be done to tackle
the problem? Many things, actually. The two main aspects of dealing
with climate change are mitigation and adaptation. As high-income
countries produce the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, the
onus is on us to minimize them.

It seems that climate scientists are finally winning the battle
of awareness, as a recent poll found that 73 percent of Americans
now believe that climate change is occurring, a record high.
Furthermore, 72 percent said it was personally important to

This is significant because it puts the onus on governments and
companies to act in citizens’ interests. Mobilizing the public to
put pressure on these groups will be the true turning point, and
there are already signs of this happening.

Over 70,000 people marched in Brussels in January demanding
better climate action from the government, and citizen groups all
over the world—including in Ireland, where I am writing
this—are taking their governments to court over lack of action on
climate change.

The key point is that minimizing emissions sooner rather than
later is an imperative as it is ultimately the cheaper and easier
option. While there has been a focus on individual actions in
reducing emissions, such as choosing low-emission transportation
and buying seasonal produce, it is about time that governments and
the private sector stepped up to the plate.

The 2017
Carbon Majors Report
found that just 100 companies have
produced over 70 percent of global industrial greenhouse gas
emissions since 1988. This statistic gives us an opening to create
proper, systemic change through demanding better practice from
these corporations.

The private sector has a great ability to bring about lasting
change not only by mitigating climate change but also by bringing
people out of poverty through employment. As many countries turn
toward nationalism, the private sector is one of only a few
candidates in the search for a climate leader.

That said, climate change will not be mitigated without
governmental cooperation through environmental policies such as
carbon taxes, national adaptation plans, and participation in
multilateral treaties.

Economic activity in the 20th century was largely based on
fossil fuels, and carbon taxation will speed up development and
adoption of alternative fuel sources. Climate change is a
transboundary issue and requires global collaboration to both
mitigate its effects and assist lower-income countries with

Mitigation and adaptation are not a silver bullet for tackling
existing inequalities across the world. This will be achieved
through policymaking and reform of tax systems in conjunction with
tackling climate change.

However, I chose to write about climate change as I found it was
largely sidelined in discussions surrounding inequality. Until
climate change is mitigated and vulnerable countries are helped to
adapt to its impacts, no true progress can be made in the quest to
tackle inequality.

If inequality is truly an issue that high-income countries care
about, as they claim to, then they will not let climate change
continue on its current pathway to devastating low-income

At present we are certainly not on track to limit atmospheric
warming to 1.5 degrees by the end of this century. We are not even
on track to limit it to 3 degrees. According to current estimates
we will reach 4 degrees warming by 2100, a year that babies born
today in places like Hong Kong (but not Swaziland) will live to

With young activists like Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old who
gave an impassioned climate advocacy speech at Davos, I have hope
that future leaders will act on this issue, but we cannot afford to
wait for them. We need climate leaders now.

*Following a global essay competition for graduate students on
how best to tackle inequality, Lyndsay Walsh’s submission was
selected as the winner. Her essay will also appear in the December
print issue of Finance & Development (F&D), which will
focus on climate change. F&D is a publication of the
International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The post
How Best to Tackle Inequality in the 21st Century? Start with
Climate Change
appeared first on Inter Press Service.


Lyndsay Walsh of Trinity College Dublin,
Ireland, is currently studying for a Master’s in development
practice, and received her Bachelor’s degree in natural sciences
with a focus on zoology*

The post
How Best to Tackle Inequality in the 21st Century? Start with
Climate Change
appeared first on Inter Press Service.

Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
How Best to Tackle Inequality in the 21st Century? Start with Climate Change