There’s little doubt that extreme weather resulting from the climate crisis is already having a greater impact on those with lower income. Whether it’s in Houston, the Midwest, or Puerto Rico, the people who suffer the most and longest from the impact of severe weather events are those with the least ability to recover financially. And when government acts most to preserve the property of corporations and the wealthy, that effect is just exacerbated. Those differences in outcomes—money provided to homeowners, but not renters; emergency funding that goes to corporate farms instead of family operations; or homeowners who are simply out of luck because insurance was either unavailable or hugely expensive in their area—are one way the climate crisis is only worsening the gaps between rich and poor within countries. Those effects are growing greater as these events become more frequent and more extreme.
But global warming is doing more than just causing differences in the outcome of disasters within a country. It’s also increasing the gaps between countries. And in the process, it’s setting the stage for refugees, economic disruption, and war.
In the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Stanford researchers Noah Diffenbaugh and Marshall Burke show that the impact of the climate crisis is already widening the gap between countries that are hot and poor, and those that are cool and affluent. The effects of global warming have driven a 25% percent increase in the difference between economic growth in these countries.
Poor countries use far less energy. In fact, the wealth of a country might be most accurately measured in terms of the energy use per capita. But the countries that have been using all that energy are driving climate change—while the countries who are not, are suffering disproportionately from the consequences.
The countries that are burning more oil, gas, and coal are saddling the remainder of the world with an altered environment and the health effects of their actions. And those effects are being most keenly felt have no way to fight back. If the use of fossil fuels to economically attack whole swaths of the planet isn’t an intentional act of war … it’s a pretty good substitute.
To understand how global warming is affecting the welfare of people and nations, the Stanford researchers combined recent economic values and tested them against a set of global climate models containing intentionally false data, as well as the dataset that maps to reality. The result was a high probability that the gap in GDP between the top countries and the poorest 40% of nations has increased by 25% thanks to the climate crisis. And within those countries, global warming has also acted to harm attempts to address internal inequality.
Our results show that, in addition to not sharing equally in the direct benefits of fossil fuel use, many poor countries have been significantly harmed by the warming arising from wealthy countries’ energy consumption.
When the United States refuses to act to reduce carbon emissions, that isn’t just a fat bonus for oil companies and coal barons. It’s a direct assault on the poorest people in the poorest nations. It directly contributes to the instability that brings some of those people to America’s borders.
And while America has the resources to consider the effects of the climate crisis into infrastructure projects and planning—when such consideration isn’t actively blocked by policies instituted by climate crisis deniers—the nations most affected are also those least capable of responding to the rapidly changing environment that is not their fault. In a very real way, every dollar that is spent on fossil fuels is robbed from the pocket of those who need it the most.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Our results suggest that low-carbon energy sources have the potential to provide a substantial secondary development benefit, in addition to the primary benefits of increased energy access.