See What Climate Change Means for the World’s Poor

Changes to weather, agriculture, and health disproportionately affect poorer countries and further complicate the Paris climate talks.

Climate change has been linked to increased frequency and intensity of destructive weather events, such as floods and hurricanes. But the effects of a warming planet on crops may pose an even greater danger, especially for the world’s poor, according to the World Bank.

“Agriculture is one of the most important economic sectors in many poor countries,” says a report from the institution. “Unfortunately, it is also one of the most sensitive to climate change given its dependence on weather conditions, both directly and through climate-dependent stressors (pests, epidemics, and sea level rise).”

The report focuses on developing economies and doesn’t include North America, Australia, or a handful of other areas. It sets up two scenarios to project the effects of climate change. The “prosperity scenario” is optimistic: It predicts strong economic growth, fewer people living in poverty, and improvements in basic services. The “poverty scenario” isn’t as hopeful: It predicts the number of impoverished people will grow from the current 702 million to around 900 million by 2030 without factoring in climate change. When climate change is part of the equation, more than a billion people will be in poverty. Most of that additional 100 million, the report says, will become poor due to rising food prices.

Higher food prices can be devastating for the poor. Think about your own budget: How much do you spend on groceries relative to your entire paycheck, your rent or mortgage, or your phone bill? If you’re poor, you spend a higher percentage of your total income on food. In some regions, the poorest residents use more than 60 percent of their income to buy food while for the wealthiest, it’s less than 10 percent.

Food prices would increase the most in these regions.

To remedy this, the World Bank recommends preparing for climate change by “developing early warning systems and flood protection, and introducing heat-resistant crops.”

There are health risks beyond malnutrition. Disease rates are expected to rise. World leaders are now meeting in Paris to negotiate plans to curb CO2 emissions in an effort to limit the global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius. The World Bank report says a small rise in temperatures “could increase the number of people at risk for malaria by up to 5 percent, or more than 150 million more people affected. Diarrhea would be more prevalent, and increased water scarcity would have an effect on water quality and hygiene.”

Like rising food costs, these diseases would disproportionately affect people with lower incomes who pay more out of pocket for healthcare. Think of it this way: When you pay for medical treatment, how much do you pay in cash? Those in poorer countries pay more than half of their medical bills, while those in richer countries pay less than a quarter, with private insurance, government aid, and other forms of assistance paying for the rest.

These estimates are all based on the most pessimistic model for climate change. If action is taken immediately, some of the effects might be curbed, but the potential for climate change to cause financial ruin or push the world’s poor deeper into poverty remains. What’s more, the poorest countries are the least responsible for the carbon emissions that are warming the planet and putting their residents at risk.

In the chart below, the circles relate to overall emissions, the vertical axis represents pollution per capita, and the horizontal axis is gross domestic product.

The poorest countries not only emit the least CO2 per capita, they also contribute the least total emissions on a global scale. But that presents another problem as these countries try to lift their residents out of poverty, and it’s adding to the complexities of the Paris climate talks.

This report from the BBC outlines the issue using India as an example. India’s relatively low per capita pollution is partially the result of its widespread poverty. If poor residents are brought out of poverty, per capita emissions might increase, thereby raising India’s share of global emissions. So countries with sizeable poor populations need two things to come out of the Paris talks. First, they need support for environmentally-sustainable growth around the world. Second, they need wealthier countries to commit to larger cuts in emissions, so there can be room for growth elsewhere.

And that’s why the World Bank, in its report, argues that climate change and poverty reduction can’t be separated as issues, or treated locally. The world needs to resolve both.

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