Does Climate Change Reinforce Economic Inequality?

As the world continues its decades-long debate over climate change’s impact on the environment, a little-noticed 2019 Stanford University study revealed a consequence few of us think about: the relationship between climate change and economic inequality. According to the research, the financial gap between the world’s richest and poorest countries is a stark 25% larger today than it would have been without the effects of global warming.

Since the 1960s, Scandanavian countries like Norway and Sweden — which have cooler climates — became enriched, while countries with warmer temperatures — like India and Nigeria — saw economic growth decline.

At a time when the world’s most prosperous nations debate the esoteric minutiae of combating global warming, many countries are already paying the price.

However, climate change does not rank its devastation by GDP, meaning developed nations are likely to feel its effects on an economic level eventually. A 2018 report released from the IPCC, the UN’s climate science body, showed that if global temperatures rise more than 1.5°C by the end of the century, developing countries will likely face critical challenges, including the destruction of entire communities and millions of premature deaths.

As poorer countries face the prospect of average incomes declining by up to 75% before the century is out, what are ways we can mitigate the crisis that — eventually — will land on all of our doorsteps?

Here in the U.S., a new White House that has made mitigating climate change a long-term priority means taking immediate action. For his part, President Biden signed a wave of executive orders in January directing the federal government to address climate change, including a measure that would direct 40% of benefits from clean energy investments to disadvantaged communities.

Nevertheless, environmental activists and progressive lawmakers said at the time, the administration was far from where it needed to be on tangible action. In response, President Biden pledged to other world leaders during a summit about the Paris climate agreement that America would cut its emissions in half by the end of the decade.

Whether that lofty goal is realistic and whether it will galvanize some or all of the summit’s other 40 participant nations also to take aggressive steps remains to be seen. But Biden made his ambitious declaration clear.

“This is a moral imperative, an economic imperative,” Mr. Biden said. “A moment of peril, but also a moment of extraordinary possibilities.”

What happens in the interim as developed nations weigh their options? Nearly nine in 10 leading global climate economists think climate change will deepen income inequality between rich and developing countries. According to a March survey from New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity, most are also calling for urgent action to cut planet-warming emissions.

Some cities around the world are taking the initiative, addressing climate change and inequality simultaneously. Last December, the World Resources Institute announced its five finalists for the 2020–2021 WRI Ross Center Prize for Cities:

  1. Community-managed public spaces in Nairobi, Kenya, where manmade and natural infrastructure help protect residents from floods and reduce the city’s pollution.
  2. The world’s largest “clean air zone” in London where (across eight square miles of Central London) all drivers must obey strict emissions standards or pay a fee. That fee is then reinvested into the city’s public transportation system.
  3. Rosario, Argentina’s urban agricultural program, provides low-income residents ownership of over 185 acres of unused public land to cultivate and harvest food.
  4. Monterrey, Mexico’s compact and connected urban planning and design, developed denser inner-city neighborhoods to shield communities from violent crime amid Mexico’s ongoing drug wars.
  5. Women-led climate resilience in Ahmedabad, India that stemmed from a deadly heatwave in 2010. Local women leaders (known as Vikasinis) were trained to conduct climate vulnerability assessments in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Climate change is and remains a critical factor that drives economic inequality in many cities worldwide. These five examples show that meaningful measures can be executed successfully at the local level. With well-designed, inclusive plans, change is possible, allowing undeveloped or underdeveloped communities to thrive and become more equitable for all, not for some.