written by
Sander Graumans

Climate Change Is An Equality Issue

Climate Action 6 min read , March 9, 2021
  • Climate change will impact the very social fabric of our societies - potentially undoing the progress we have made in making the world a more equal place.
  • In this article, we discuss different types of inequality, how they link to climate change and what we can do to solve both issues.
Climate Change Is An Equality Issue

With the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) in 2015, the United Nations committed to 17 goals to change our world for the better. The SDG’s are heavily interlinked and the achievement of specific goals will largely be dependent on meeting other goals.

Climate action is listed as SDG 13 and will have a huge influence on our ability to achieve the other goals. A common perspective is that climate change will exacerbate issues such as hunger – droughts and flooding will become more frequent impacting agriculture which will ultimately lead to reduced crop yields and instances of famine. The impact of climate change on the issue of inequality is a less discussed topic but one that is increasingly gaining attention.

Breaking down Inequality

To understand how climate change could lead to increased inequality, we need to break it down further. Inequality is a broad term that has numerous components. There are many sub-divisions of inequality but for the purposes of this article – we look at six main types of inequality that are interlinked with climate change action.

1. Income Inequality

We have made progress in terms of income inequality between countries in recent years. Between 2008 and 2013, global inequality fell for the first time since the industrial revolution. This is much welcomed – but what is concerning is that studies are starting to show that climate change is already having an impact on the economic development of some countries.

A study from the University of Stanford indicates that there is a ‘goldilocks zone’ in terms of temperature for a country's economic output. Colder and wealthier countries in the northern hemisphere – such as Canada and Norway - are moving closer to this ideal temperature whereas lower-income countries at the equator and tropics are moving further from the zone.

Source: Global warming has increased global economic inequality

The worse climate change gets, the further low-income countries will be driven from the ideal economic output temperature - giving rise to increased inequalities between countries. The Stanford study estimates that the top five countries that will be impacted the most will be India, Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Brazil – with a total population of over 2 billion.

2. Gender Inequality

Women are more vulnerable to climate change. Women historically have had lesser access to education, limited options to work, and lower pay for the same work across all countries. But looking at developing countries specifically, women have even less access to equal opportunities like work opportunities, health, and money.

Global climate change is predicted to intensify these pre-existing disadvantages to women (even more so in poorer places). As an example, in developing countries, more frequent droughts and floods could wipe out crops. As a consequence, the breadwinners, often male, are more likely to have to move away from the family for months at a time to earn an income. Women will be left to care for children and earn what they can to survive. With more drought, flooding and extreme weather as a result of climate change, women will suffer more as poverty is compounded – leading to greater levels of gender inequality.

Global extreme poverty rates by gender and age.

Source: World Bank Blogs

3. Tax Inequality

In many countries, high-wealth individuals are not paying their fair share of taxes. Tax breaks and credits can benefit high-income individuals disproportionately and the ability to make use of tax havens only further serves to promote inequality.

Our response to climate change could serve to increase tax inequality if policies are not implemented correctly. For example, carbon taxes have been introduced in many European countries to incentivize citizens to switch to cleaner forms of energy.

However, lower-income individuals are more reliant on fossil fuels for heating and transport and are hit harder by any increases in carbon tax. Studies have shown that carbon tax policies can serve to reduce inequality if they include ring-fencing tax revenues that are directed to projects such as energy retrofitting in low-income households.

4. Health Inequality

Large inequalities of health exist both across countries and within countries. Health inequalities are a result of many different factors including differences in living and working conditions and access to quality healthcare. The inequalities of health are a significant factor in the differences in life expectancies across countries.

Differences in life expectancy across the world

Source: ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy

Climate change could increase health inequality in a number of ways. For example, developing countries in Africa and Asia already have lower life expectancies than Western nations. With rising global temperatures, these countries will have to deal with more difficult living and working environments – potentially impacting health. Lower economic growth will also lead to lower quality healthcare services.

5. Education Inequality

If developing countries are to achieve high levels of economic growth and reduce inequalities compared to developed countries, education will be key to realizing this outcome. However, climate change could lead to greater education inequalities across countries and continents.

In a 2019 study, researchers tried to quantify a link between climate change and educational attainment in the global tropics. One of the report’s conclusions identified that “exposure to higher-than-average temperatures during the prenatal and early-life period is correlated with fewer years of schooling in Southeast Asia”. As global temperatures rise further, this issue will continue to get worse creating disparities in the education levels of citizens across countries.

Education will be key to achieve economic growth and reduce inequality.

6. Racial Inequality

We’ve seen more media coverage on racial tensions, particularly in the US, over the past years. The effects of climate change could serve to increase racial inequalities globally.

In the US, the neighbourhoods which are least adapted to climate change consist of primarily black residents. These neighbourhoods have lower quality housing, less shading, and fewer trees compared to predominantly white areas.

For example, according to the New York Times, “in the 1930s, federal officials redlined neighbourhoods in Richmond, VA., marking them as risky investments because residents were Black.” This led to decades of underinvestment in these areas, which resulted in poorly shaded neighbourhoods and much warmer conditions for residents in these areas today.

How Decades of Racist Housing Policy Left Neighborhoods Sweltering

Source: NYT - How Decades of Racist Housing Policy Left Neighborhoods Sweltering

As climate change worsens, the people in these neighbourhoods will suffer more due to the fact that their homes and public spaces will be less able to cope with rising temperatures—perpetuating racial inequalities that have existed for generations.

A unique chance to shape the future

Climate change shouldn’t be viewed as a standalone issue – it’s a multi-variable problem that interlinks with many other issues that we face as a civilization. Acknowledging that fact is key to unlocking the co-benefits that climate change action can bring.

With the right policies, climate action will bring people out of poverty, empower women and help to heal racial divides that have become embedded in our societies. Those who suffer the greatest from inequalities should be the first to benefit from a green recovery.

By focusing investment on areas such as retrofitting low-income housing and climate adaptation for neighbourhoods that suffered past injustices, we can turn the tide on climate change and make our societies more equitable in the process. As part of COVID-19 vaccine rollouts – the most vulnerable to the virus will be the first to receive the vaccine. Climate change action should be no different.

Sander is Futureproofed's resident marketing wizard. His goal is to get the word out about our expertise in helping cities and companies become future-proofed. When he's not deep-diving in data and strategy you can usually find him on his bike, in the kitchen, or playing video games.

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