The greatest burden of climate change will fall on those in poverty. Cost of Living

The greatest burden of climate change will fall on those in poverty.

By UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston.

There is no shortage of alarm bells ringing over climate change, but they seem to have remained largely unheard so far.

In accepting the 2018 Nobel Prize for Economics, William Nordhaus described climate change as a ‘Colossus that threatens our world’ and the ‘ultimate challenge for economics’

The 2001 winner of the same prize, Joseph Stiglitz, referred to it more recently as World War III.  Pope Francis has declared a global ‘climate emergency,’ and warned that failure to take urgent action would be “a brutal act of injustice toward the poor and future generations.”

Climate change threatens truly catastrophic consequences across much of the globe and the human rights of vast numbers of people will be among the casualties.

By far the greatest burden will fall on those in poverty, but they will by no means be the only victims.

The last five years have been the hottest in the modern record and global carbon dioxide emissions began rising again in 2017 after three years of levelling off.

World energy consumption is projected to grow 28 percent between 2015 and 2040. The consequences today are attested to by record temperatures, rapidly melting icecaps, unprecedented wildfires, frequent so-called “thousand year” floods, as well as devastating, more frequent hurricanes.

Millions face malnutrition due to devastating drought, and many more will have to choose between starvation and migration. Rising ocean temperatures are killing marine ecosystems that support food systems for hundreds of millions of people. And climate change is threatening food production and posing dire economic and social threats.

The most widespread scientific benchmark for measuring global warming is the rise in temperature relative to pre-industrial levels, already 1°C.  The 2015 Paris Agreement aims to ensure no higher than a 2°C rise by 2100 and endeavours to limit it to 1.5°C.

But even those increases would be catastrophic for many people.

A rise of only 1.5°C rather than 2°C could mean reducing the number of people vulnerable to climate-related risks by up to 457 million; 10 million fewer people exposed to the risk of sea level rise; reducing exposure to floods, droughts, and forest fires; limiting damage to ecosystems and reductions in food and livestock; cutting the number of people exposed to water scarcity by half; and up to 190 million fewer premature deaths over the century.

However, the scale of change required to limit warming to 1.5°C is historically unprecedented and could only be achieved through “societal transformation” and ambitious emissions reduction measures. And even 1.5°C of warming – an unrealistic, best-case scenario – will lead to extreme temperatures in many regions and leave disadvantaged populations with food insecurity, lost incomes and livelihoods, and worse health.

In all of these scenarios, the worst affected are the least well-off members of society.

Climate change threatens the full enjoyment of a wide range of rights. Rapid action and adaptation can mitigate much of this, but only if done in a way that protects people in poverty from the worst effects.

According to the World Bank, at 2 °C degrees of warming, 100-400 million more people could be at risk of hunger and 1-2 billion more people may no longer have adequate water.

Climate change could result in global crop yield losses of 30 percent by 2080, even with adaptation measures. Between 2030 and 2050, it is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress.

With people in poverty largely uninsured, climate change will exacerbate health shocks that already push 100 million into poverty every year.

People in poverty face a very real threat of losing their homes. By 2050, climate change could displace 140 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America alone. Flooding and landslides can weaken already degraded infrastructure and housing—especially for people living in unplanned or unserviced settlements.

2017 saw 18.8 million people displaced due to disasters in 135 countries—almost twice the number displaced by conflict.

Since 2000, people in poor countries have died from disasters at rates seven times higher than in wealthy countries. In addition, authorities have a history of prioritizing wealthier areas for protection, further endangering people in poverty.

Climate change is, among other things, an unconscionable assault on the poor.

Climate change will exacerbate existing poverty and inequality. It will have the most severe impact in poor countries and regions, and the places poor people live and work. Developing countries will bear an estimated 75-80 percent of the costs of climate change.

People in poverty tend to live in areas more susceptible to climate change and in housing that is less resistant; lose relatively more when affected; have fewer resources to mitigate the effects; and get less support from social safety nets or the financial system to prevent or recover from the impact. Their livelihoods and assets are more exposed and they are more vulnerable to natural disasters that bring disease, crop failure, spikes in food prices, and death or disability.

Climate change threatens to undo the last fifty years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction. Middle-class families, including in developed countries, are also being rendered poor. The World Bank estimates that without immediate action, climate change could push 120 million more people into poverty by 2030—likely an underestimate, and rising in subsequent years. Eight hundred million in South Asia alone live in climate hotspots and will see their living conditions decline sharply by 2050.

Perversely, the richest, who have the greatest capacity to adapt and are responsible for and have benefitted from the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions, will be the best placed to cope with climate change, while the poorest, who have contributed the least to emissions and have the least capacity to react, will be the most harmed.

The poorest half of the world’s population—3.5 billion people—is responsible for just 10 percent of carbon emissions, while the richest 10 percent are responsible for a full half. A person in the wealthiest 1 percent uses 175 times more carbon than one in the bottom 10 percent.

The human rights community, with a few notable exceptions, has been every bit as complacent as most governments in the face of the ultimate challenge to mankind represented by climate change.

The steps taken by most United Nations human rights bodies have been patently inadequate and premised on forms of incremental managerialism and proceduralism which are entirely disproportionate to the urgency and magnitude of the threat.

Ticking boxes will not save humanity or the planet from impending disaster.


In June 2019 the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, released his report Climate change and poverty.

This is an edited extract of that report.