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How are the poor impacted by climate change?

What the science says...

Those who contribute the least greenhouse gases will be most impacted by climate change.

Climate Myth...

CO2 limits will hurt the poor

"Legally mandated measures for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are likely to have significant adverse impacts on GDP growth of developing countries, including India." (Pradipto Ghosh, as quoted by Associated Press)

The central question of climate change is, How will it affect humanity? This question can be examined by estimating which regions are most vulnerable to future climate change (Samson et al 2011). The researchers then compared the global map of climate vulnerability to a global map of carbon dioxide emissions. The disturbing finding was that the countries that have contributed the least to carbon dioxide emissions are the same regions that will be most affected by the impacts of climate change.

To estimate the impact of climate change on people, James Samson and his co-authors developed a new metric called Climate Demography Vulnerability Index (CDVI). This takes into account how regional climate will change as well as how much local population is expected to grow. They incorporated this index into a global map and found highly vulnerable regions included central South America, the Middle East and both eastern and southern Africa. Less vulnerable regions were largely in the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere.

Figure 1: Global Climate Demography Vulnerability Index. Red corresponds to more vulnerable regions, blue to less vulnerable regions. White areas corresponds to regions with little or no population (Samson et al 2011).

Next, they created a map of national carbon dioxide emissions per capita. They found the countries most severely impacted by climate change contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions. It is quite striking that blue, less-polluting regions in the CO2 emissions map correspond to the red, highly vulnerable areas in the vulnerability map.

Figure 2: National average per capita CO2 emissions based on OECD/IEA 2006 national CO2 emissions (OECD/IEA, 2008)  and UNPD 2006 national population size (UNPD, 2007).

The study didn't delve into the question of which countries are least able to adapt to the impacts of climate change. But it doesn't take a great leap of the imagination to surmise that the poor, developing countries that emit the least pollution are also those with the least amount of infrastructure to deal with climate impacts. So we are left with a double irony - the countries that contribute least to global warming are both the most impacted and the least able to adapt.

This research put into perspective those who try to delay climate action, arguing that "CO2 limits will hurt the poor". This argument is usually code for "rich, developed countries should be able to pollute as much as they like". This presents us with a moral hazard. If those who are emitting the most greenhouse gas are the least affected by direct global warming impacts, how shall we motivate them to change?

Basic rebuttal written by John Cook

Update August 2015:

Here is a related lecture-video from Denial101x - Making Sense of Climate Science Denial


Last updated on 5 August 2015 by MichaelK. View Archives

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Comments 51 to 59 out of 59:

  1. Grizwald57 - what you are saying only applies to rich countries. The poor in rich countries may not be suffering but that doesnt apply in Third World - where there are real poor. A farmer in Bangladesh keeps investing in planting his crops because he doesnt have other choices. Well, yes, when starvation is imminant because land is lost, then you must leave, but the result is probably the same for most. The poor on the whole dont have choices. 

    All the actual studies show that mitigation is cheaper, but the costs are in future and/or inflicted on those who are not responsible. If you having to pay now the costs of climate change, then transition from FF would be happening rather quickly. 

  2. Grizwald wrote "I will not state my position."

    this is more or less an admission of trolling.  In a rational discussion intended to establish the truth it ought to be a given that the participants will be willing to state their position on request (indeed they ought to be keen to state it up front).  However in discussions on climate this tends not to be the case as people don't want to give hostages to fortune and be required to justify their position later.  Shame on you.

    As to the other issues, your main error is to concentrate on the number of people in poverty in a given country.  However the climate is utterly oblivious to national boundaries, and a countries ability to deal with climate change depends on the proportion of the population in poverty, not the number.  Those in poverty do not have the resources to reliably meet their immediate needs, so it is absurd to expect them to provide the resources required for adaption, the resources have to be provided for everybody in that nation by the part of the population that can actually afford it.  China has a lot of people earning under $2 (18.6%) but their GDP per capita is $11,868, which suggests there is a good deal of wealth in the 81.4% that are not in poverty who can look after those that are.  Nigeria on the other hand has a GDP per capita of less than half that and 82.2% living on less than $2 a day.  China has a much larger number of people in poverty than Nigeria, but the reason it has some resources to adapt is that it has an even larger number that are not in poverty.  The same is not true for Nigeria.

    "The people of Bangladesh would then have to address this constant flooding issue by either running from the tidal wave (the natural human reaction) or somehow economically prevent the flooding (perhaps by somesortof off-shore engineering).  To assume there will not be a market response in the face of an ecological disaster is just a weak position to hold. "

    This is just silly.  Bangladesh has the fifth highest population density of any country and the worlds eighth most populous.  There isn't anywhere for them to run to that is agriculturally viable.  The only place they could go would be mass migration to othe countries.  If you think that wouldn't cause huge political, social and economic problems, then you are on another planet.  The idea that some sort of offshore engineering is going to solve the problem is really daft and shows huge igorance of its geography.  Bangladesh is basically one big river delta, you have huge amounts of water arriving from inland as well and coming in from rising tides.  As for market response, 76.54% of the Bangladeshi population live below the poverty line ($2 a day).  They don't have the funds to spend in the market on anything other than their essential daily needs.  The GDP per capita of Bangladesh is ranked 144 out of 187 nations by the IMF, so expecting a market response is, to say the least, highly optimistic!

    My recommendation is DNFTT, Grizwald is clearly just trolling, as the reticence to state his position and ridiculous arguments clearly demonstrate.

  3. A troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community with the [i]deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion[/i].

    A person who is not good at expressing their views is not a troll. A person who gish gallops is not a troll. A person who dodges questions is not a troll. They might be irritating for you deal with, they might be ideologues, they might even be idiots, but I see DNFTT far too often on this site. It's a dismissive line. It's dismissive of people who don't necessarily agree with you or argue in a 'scientific' manner (that is, calmly making falsifiable statements with citations).

    Grizwald is attempting to discuss the subject. He just isn't doing so in the way people here prefer to discuss a topic. Climate communication, any communication, requires patience. Superciliousness is not going to further the conversation.

  4. Grizwald57 - Unfortunately, some government action will have to be employed due to fossil fuel externalities not being carried by the emitters, but rather paid in a diffuse and unattributed fashion by the population as a whole - the Tragedy of the Commons. It's less expensive to be a polluter if you can just dump the pollutants into a stream or a landfill, and we have long established regulations to prevent common waters from becoming sewers. The same needs to be applied to fossil fuels, accounting for external impacts such as health, agriculture, oh, and climate change. 

    If these costs are accounted for then renewables are the most economical source of energy right now. But that will take some regulations and very likely something like a carbon tax so that the actual costs of using fossil fuels are tied to their use, rather than being dumped on everyone else. 

    As to the poor, and your original comments: the poor, the Third World countries, will have disproportionate impacts from climate change, far out of balance from their contribution to it (as they use less fossil fuel per capita). Yes, anyone can adapt to some extent. But the costs to the disadvantaged will be much higher in both relative and absolute terms, and that is a harm. Which becomes not just an economic issue, but a social and moral one - is it right to profit from short term fossil fuel monies while the costs of those profits fall upon others? 

    Overcoming individual profit and yes greed requires social structures and strictures such as regulations. The unlimited free market just doesn't do those. 

  5. Tristran - I agree with you as to definition of troll, but I also think there are discussions that are not worth having on this site. Sks exists to explain what peer reviewed science has to say about global warming. There are plenty of other sites in which to have unscientific arguments.

    The primary problem is that there is no point having a discussion about the science with someone who chooses to be informed by an ideological position rather than data. The old saying that "you can't reason a person out of position that they werent reasoned into in the first place".

    It is the nature of the human condition to try and warp reality to fit our cherished preconceptions and noone is immune. What science training should do is imbue the discipline of letting data change our mind. And that t'aint easy. A scientific discussion necessarily is informed by data and citation is a tool for referencing both data and evaluating it. That is why it is preferred here.

    The commonest kind of "pseudo-skeptic" we get here is someone who for ideological or group identity reasons is repelled by suggested solutions to AGW.  Instead of suggesting alternative solutions that are compatible with their world view, they instead pursue one or all the canon "It's not happening; It's not us; It's not bad". Understandable but illogical. If no data will cause them to change their mind, then a discussion is not worth happening.

    For better or worse, Grizwald57 comes across as someone wedded to an extreme form of free market ideology who I suspect would might even take issue with Milton Friedman on market failures and externalities. I'm also inclined to agree with Dikran that his responses are laughable but whether that is delibrate provation (which would be trolling) or ideological blindness is less clear.

  6. Grizwald @47:

    1)  In the case of the Irish Potato Famine, while corn laws were a government intervention that did not help, the fact is that Irish rents were sufficiently high that those suffering in the famine would have been unable to pay for grain at any price.  The rents were set by private market mechanisms and hence the Irish Potato Famine constitutes a market failure.  A similar point can be made in Ethiopia in which the government intervention determined that the starvation would occur in the country rather than the cities, but no whether or not starvation would occur.


    "The best interest is in fact a "percieved" best interest. However this is still in the best interest of the individual no matter how much they don't know. What they don't know is irrelevent since they don't know it, and thus they will not be able to adjust their decision."

    I need to frame that in all its absurdity as an example of just how silly market fundamentalism is.

    With similar illogic we can argue that all car accidents are in the "best interests" of their victims who do not percieve themselves as driving too fast, or too tired, or too drunk - else they would not choose to drive.  We could likewise argue that there is no such thing as economic fraud, for anybody buying the Brooklyn Bridge (to use the classic example) is acting in their best percieved interest at the time, and hence, by your argument, in their best interest.  And if they act in their best interest, they cannot have been harmed.

    The fact is, people can act in their own worst interests.  They can do so both from not recognizing where their own best interest lies (ie, doing something that they achieve and then regret that they achieved it), or by not recognizing the costs of their acts (ie, doing something and achieving their end, but regret the circumstances in which it is achieved), or by doing something and failing to achieve that which made it worth doing.

    3) Why do I think economic growth could reverse with sufficient warming?  Well, first, given 10 to 15 C warming, the Earth becomes literally uninhabitable for large mammals (including humans) except at the extreme poles.  That is not consistent with economic growth.  Ergo, for sufficient warming economic growth must reverse.  The question is only how much warming is necessary for that.  High end temperature projections for the end of this century approach +7 C so they are in the range of potential, but not certain, reversal of economic growth.

    Your claim of uninterupted economic growth is certainly untrue of civilization wide measures.  A variety of civilizations have had sustained periods of negative economic growth, in some cases ending the existence of the civilizations.  With a truly global civilization developed for the first time in the twentieth century, we now have the possibility of a global reversal in economic growth (if we accept you unsupported claim that it has never occurred before).


    "To assume there will not be a market response in the face of an ecological disaster is just a weak position to hold."

    On the contrary, I assume that there will be a market response to impacts of global warming.  That market response will be, as you yourself say, to leave the poor to their tragedy; to assume that the poor can just migrate to solve the problem while all nations of the world have enacted legislation to prevent that migration (including, most importantly for Bangladesh, India, its only land neighbour), and to assume that, due to market fundamentalism, the poor will not be worse of because they can choose the best option in their worsening condition (as if a person with gangrene in the leg will not be worse of because they can always choose an amputation).


    "When I stated that "they offer the wrong solutions" at the end I was referring to interfeering with the natural market."

    There are no natural markets.  Never have been, and never will be.  Currently national markets are (universally SKAIK) distorted by laws permiting limited liability, preferred creditors, the existence of non-natural entities able to own property (corporations), and a legislated annual devaluation of wages and savings (mandatory inflation regulated by central banks).  These all work in favour of the rich at the expense of the poor and are government interferences with the market.  We also have government provided roads using mandatory acquisition of land to do so, along with various other mandatory "rights" of providers of communication services that allow the providors of those services to gain the necessary right of ways at below market value.  We further have courts to enforce legal rights where the prospect of success is a direct function of fees paid to lawyers (which establishes them to be systematically unjust, and unjust in a way that favours the wealthy).

    International markets are further distorted by laws that place no limit on the movement of capital, but strictly constrain the movement of people (thereby giving the possessors of capital far more flexibility than those who make a living by selling their labour, to the benefit of the former).

    Finally, the fundamental notion of markets (property rights) are socially defined constructs, and in most of the world, socially defined constructs that freeze as legitimate prior acquisitions by naked force (as, for example, all land held other than by indigenous people in North America, or Australia).

    I am disinclined to take market fundamentalists seriously until the spend as much time attacking the above listed distortions of the market as they do attacking any that serve to ensure the net gains of the economy are fairly distributed.  Until they do, they merely demonstrate that their "market fundamentalism" is an inconsistently applied, and self serving ideology.  It is a gambit to improve their position, not a serious belief.

  7. I agree with's comment ( that the article itself does not answer the argument of how the poor would be affect by CO2 limit. The article does not address how the laws which limit the usage of CO2 will affect the poor; it only tells us about the effect that climate change would cause to the specific parts of the world.

  8. I skimmed Samson et al 2011 and found it bizzarely obsessed with population density. Perhaps I am not understanding the paper, but it seems to be saying "high population density is good, rural living is bad, and climate change is projected to increase conditions correlated with rural living, especially in poor countries, so that's bad." Surely this is an overly narrow and simplistic perspective. Have I misunderstood? In the "Notes" below these comments there are more sources; Patt et al. (2010)'s focus on extreme weather made more sense.

    I learned the most by reading the IPCC report (AR5 WG2 Chapter 11 pages 721-732):

    • Most of the poor people in the world live near the equator where the weather is hot. Global warming means higher average temperature, and worse heat waves. Heat waves kill many people every year. High body temperature can decrease physical abilities and mental function, and is uncomfortable. Example: in Australia, the number of “dangerously hot” days (when core body temperatures may increase by ≥2°C and outdoor activity is hazardous) is projected to rise from 4-6 days per year to 33-45 days per year by 2070.
    • During extreme heat, danger to health is higher for manual laborers, including farmers. Poor people usually do not have enough money for air conditioning.
    • Climate change is a threat to crop productivity in areas that are already food-insecure. Climate change will reduce food availability, and will cause undernutrition in children.
    • Floods are the most common natural disaster. It is expected that more people will be exposed to floods in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America. Increases in intense tropical cyclones are likely in the late 21st century.
    • Climate change is likely to increase the risk of malaria, and perhaps Dengue fever.
    • Higher temperatures are associated with more diarrhea. Bacterial pathogens are more likely to grow on produce crops (e.g., lettuce) in simulations of warmer conditions. This hurts poor people, who have less access to health care, more.
    • Human conflict is increased by soil degradation, freshwater scarcity, and other forces related to climate. So climate change can make armed conflicts worse.

    Also, fossil fuels cause air pollution. Usually, poor countries have lower standards against pollution, so poor people breathe much more air pollution for each unit of "unclean" energy produced nearby.

  9. I want to point out one obvious thing.  No 3rd world govts or organizations, have joined this discussion at all, saying "please don't do anything about global warming because it would kill our people". 

    Only entities other than those representing the worlds poor, have definitely become aware of this discussion and have commented.  I could only speculate why. 

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