It is impossible to separate climate change from social and economic inequality. Besides the fact that capitalism is driven by mass fossil fuel consumption, the global economic inequality created by capitalist practices has left impoverished countries at a disadvantage. Economic output in warm countries, like India and Nigeria, has decreased as temperatures rise because of crop failures or extreme weather events that destroy crops and resources. At the same time, the economic output of wealthier countries that are in cooler climates, like Norway and the United Kingdom, has actually increased with rising overall temperatures. Evidently, this has widened the global economic gap between rich and poor nations.
Poorer countries also have more difficulty recovering from extreme weather events brought on by climate change without the resources wealthy countries have. Because many developing countries are located in climate risk zones, people in low- and lower-middle-income countries are five times more likely to be displaced by extreme weather events than people in high-income countries. Even on a smaller scale, marginalized communities are most affected by the warming climate because of inequalities in race, gender and class, a fact often overlooked by climate policy.
As climate conditions worsen, divisions between and within countries are exacerbated and divisions are drawn along these lines, as those most affected by climate disasters are least likely to have the resources to adapt afterward — further pushing them into marginalized roles. As the climate worsens, access to resources like clean water, food and adequate housing is reduced, which creates further insecurity where a lack of these resources already exists. Effective climate change policy within nations and beyond borders must address systemic social and economic inequalities to ensure the most vulnerable populations are not left behind in climate decisions that affect them the most. Progressive reform that guarantees workers’ rights and invests in public services like health care and education is necessary to ensure climate change and the damage it causes are reduced. These reforms will tackle unsustainable working and living conditions.
While climate change worsens inequality, inequality simultaneously fuels climate change. As wealthy countries outsource industries to developing nations, emissions are driven up as these nations have not had their industries regulated through global climate policies or modernized to become more sustainable practices. In fact, 10 percent of the richest nations are responsible for between 36 and 49 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Global policy must be implemented that ensures the industry in developing countries meets climate standards, and wealthy nations should be responsible for investing in sustainable outsourced industries to reduce their emissions.
Additionally, poverty in developing nations often forces communities to put more pressure on the environment, which often leads to unsustainable agricultural practices, deforestation and overexploitation of natural resources. This can also be connected to substandard education regarding sustainable practices in developing countries. These environmental stresses contribute to reductions in natural carbon absorbance from trees and usable land for agriculture, forcing further deforestation. Poorer nations rely the most on the environment being safely protected, while unsustainable practices within their own populations and those brought in by wealthy nations create a cycle of vulnerability to climate change and environmental damage.
Wealthy nations are making most of the global climate decisions, but they have often failed to realize that their decisions need to reach beyond their own borders and beyond the climate itself. Environmental change disproportionately affects poor nations and marginalized communities within wealthy ones, so policies addressing climate change will not be effective unless they address these inequalities. Wealthy and poor nations must work together to draft policies that will provide aid to poor countries disproportionately affected by climate change and ensure wealthy countries are held accountable for their decisions that exacerbate climate change.
Sustainability has become a privilege under capitalism, which survives on cheap labor and exploitation. If we cannot provide the means for poorer nations to become more sustainable and ensure that wealthy countries invest only in sustainable, non-exploitative industries, climate change will continue to divide nations and worsen the conditions of the most vulnerable populations. Climate policy must seek to reduce emissions while mitigating the social and economic inequalities that exist on national and global levels.
Antonia Kladias is a freshman majoring in biochemistry.