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An Indian woman wades through waist-high flood water.

Climate change: IPCC report reveals how inequality makes impacts worse – and what to do about it

Nearly half of the global population – between 3.3 and 3.6 billion people – lives in areas highly vulnerable to climate change. The brief window in which to limit how intense and frequent climate impacts such as stronger storms, droughts, flooding and sea-level rise become and to secure “a liveable and sustainable future for all” is rapidly narrowing.

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So says a new report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which confirms what social movements have been saying for decades. How vulnerable you are to the impacts of climate change depends on how poor you are, your status in society and the legacies of colonialism.

The report, which reviewed 34,000 studies, recognised that heatwaves and storms have made access to nutritious food and clean water less secure. This disproportionately the case in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, small islands and the Arctic.

Indigenous people, small-scale food producers and low-income households face malnourishment as a result, with children, elderly people and pregnant women hit particularly hard. Women are travelling further in drought-prone regions to obtain clean water, increasing their risks of encountering gender-based violence.

One in three people are already exposed to potentially deadly heat stress, and this number is projected to increase to as much as three in four by the end of the century. Meanwhile, a billion living on coasts will be exposed to serious flooding every year by 2050.

Rising temperatures and humidity will allow mosquitoes and other vectors of disease to conquer new territory, spreading diseases in people (for example dengue fever) and in crops, livestock and wildlife. This will mean more death and suffering in poorer countries which lack health infrastructure, data collection, early warning systems and vaccines.

Read more: Mass starvation, extinctions, disasters: the new IPCC report’s grim predictions, and why adaptation efforts are falling behind

Sea-level rise poses an “existential threat” for some small islands according to the IPCC. Already, people living in these places face longer droughts, deeper floods, fish spoiled by ocean heating and fresh water contaminated by encroaching seas. Storms increasingly flatten homes, schools, hospitals, shops and crops.

When floods or storms hit, people living with disabilities, older and younger people and the poor often lack the means necessary to safely evacuate. Marginalised groups – including people who identify as LGBTQI – are more likely to live in insecure homes which are more vulnerable to strong winds, for example.

Whether a country was once ruled by a colonial power remains a reliable indicator of the average levels of poverty experienced by each person in that country today. More recent trade policies, designed to shelter foreign companies operating in these countries from paying taxes, leave them with less money to invest in adapting to climate change.

Take the west African country of Senegal. Persistent droughts have left hundreds of thousands of people here with no reliable food supply. But the government spends over a quarter of its GDP servicing external debt, neglecting vital investment in food production and public services.

Young people raise plastic containers filled with water from a well.
Senegal will struggle to afford the infrastructure necessary to weather longer and drier droughts. Boulenger Xavier/Shutterstock

How will the world tackle climate change?

The scale of climate impacts are far worse – and arriving sooner – than previously predicted. The report makes clear that many of them are now unavoidable, such as increasingly severe heatwaves, wildfires, storms, diseases and sea-level rise. Crucially, the magnitude of impacts can and, to preserve a liveable future for the majority of life on Earth, must be limited.

At 2°C of global warming compared to 1.5°C, nearly two billion more people will be exposed to severe heat and food and water stress. Many more islands, atolls, delta regions and coastal towns will be lost to rising seas.

Though the report cites the importance of justice and equity in proposing some solutions, it does not go so far as allocating responsibility. For many activists, those countries most responsible for historic emissions – like the US and UK – must lead the way in decarbonising their economies.

The report authors also acknowledged the significant gap in funding to help poorer countries adapt to the impacts that are already unavoidable. Despite committing to raise US$100 billion a year by 2020, wealthier countries have failed to meet their commitments by a margin of around 87%, if loans and other non-grant forms of finance are excluded. What funding has arrived in the poorest parts of the world has prioritised mitigating greenhouse gas emissions over adapting to climate change.

Scaling up adaptation finance is essential to help communities build homes and infrastructure that can withstand stronger storms, for instance, and enable safe and dignified migration routes with the active participation of those being displaced, plant trees that can cool cities and head off lethal heatwaves, and help countries extend access to healthcare, social protection, nourishing and sustainably produced food, clean water, transport, education and renewable energy.

The report warned that the losses and damages caused by climate change which cannot be adapted to are “strongly concentrated among the poorest vulnerable populations” who have done the least to cause the problem. Research published in the Lancet medical journal found that, as of 2015, the US, EU, UK, Russia, Japan and Canada were together responsible for 85% of total emissions.

Low-income nations demanded financial contributions from richer nations for climate-related loss and damage at the COP26 climate conference in autumn 2021. Negotiations at the next UN climate summit in Egypt in November 2022 are likely to hinge on this point.

The IPCC report makes clear that rich countries can no longer postpone an answer to these calls with promises of further discussion. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres put it: “delay means death”.

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