People: Why Climate Change will Increase Inequality

9 minute read

Updated on: 12 Aug 2020

You may call it self-centred, but we care a lot about how climate change will affect people! In this chapter, we’ll look at what climate change means for people’s lives - for our water, food and health. We’ll also find out who will be the worst affected - and why this is completely unfair.

Too much water - or not enough?

Water is everywhere! It’s in your blood and inside your cells, and makes up about 60% of your body weight. Yet, 2.2 billion people don’t have access to safe drinking water!

Not having enough water is seriously bad - but so is having too much! Flooding has affected more people than any other weather-related disaster in the past 20 years. As well as direct deaths, floods can destroy buildings, cause landslides and worsen the effects of diseases which spread through water.

Problems from having too much or too little water will worsen as climate change makes dry places dryer and wet places wetter (more on this in the ‘Climate Predictions’ course)!.

Image of Number of people affected by weather-related disasters (excluding deaths) from 1995-2015

Image: Number of people affected by weather-related disasters (excluding deaths) from 1995-2015

Floods can destroy drinking water supply points, as well as sewage tanks and pipes. They can also mix clean water with dirty water or seawater, making it unsafe to drink. Rising sea-levels make this problem even worse.

Droughts are also set to get worse with climate change. This will threaten access to drinking water further, even in many areas which are not normally dry.

This is more than half of the world’s current population!

Struggling to access water has direct effects for drinking water, and also makes it harder for farmers to water their crops. Droughts and heatwaves have reduced cereal crop yields by 9-10% on average in the past few decades.

Image of Droughts and Food Insecurity

Image: Droughts and Food Insecurity

Will we have enough food?

Climate change will affect crop growth in very different ways around the world, based on the local climate and types of crop grown there.

The growth of seven main crop types in Europe is actually predicted to increase by 8% on average by 2050 due to climate change. Wheat and sugar beet will see particularly big increases in growth - good news for some breakfast cereals!

But this is just for Europe. Take a look at the map below, which shows how crop yields are expected to change by 2080:

Image of Change in farming yields around the world by 2080

Image: Change in farming yields around the world by 2080

Countries already suffering from high levels of hunger will suffer the greatest food losses - another example of the unequal and unfair effects of climate change. If we don’t stop climate change, millions more people will be at risk of hunger by 2050.

Global growth of wheat, rice, maize, and soybean is expected to decrease. These crops make up 66% of the calories that everyone eats around the world.

Image of Main sources of calories

Image: Main sources of calories

Insects and diseases are another problem: they currently destroy 20% of all wheat, rice, maize, and soy. Climate change is likely to make this even worse as insects and diseases spread towards the poles. This could reduce the yield increases that have been predicted for cooler climates like Europe.

The result for many crops is that climate change will decrease quality and increase prices. Read more on these challenges and how we might solve them in the Food and Farming course!

Will our health be affected?

Yes!

Heatwaves can cause loads of problems for our health.

More heatwaves are expected due to climate change, and it’s estimated that this will cause 38,000 extra deaths per year between 2030 and 2050. Cities will be even warmer than surrounding areas during heatwaves because their dark surfaces absorb more heat.

The majority of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, and, therefore, be particularly at risk during heatwaves.

Without clean water to drink, people may also get dehydrated, which can cause headaches, dizziness, tiredness and damage to the body. Drinking unclean water leads to health problems like diarrhoea, which causes 4% of all deaths worldwide.

Some insects that spread disease survive better in warmer climates. For example, malaria is a disease carried by mosquitos that causes over 400,000 deaths every year. Today, most malaria infections occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Mosquitoes prefer warm, moist environments, so they may move towards new places as they get hotter. This will put different groups of people at risk of the deadly disease.

As well as insects, many bacteria cause diseases in humans. Bacteria grow faster if they are warmer. In fact, temperatures also affect their ability to exchange DNA. In a warmer climate, bacteria exchange DNA faster, including DNA that allows them to become resistant to antibiotics. More antibiotic resistance would make it impossible to treat many infections.

Another thing that can affect our physical health is air pollution. Air pollution can worsen breathing conditions such as asthma, as well as increasing lung cancer, strokes and heart disease. There’s also evidence that air pollution can make infection by air-borne viruses worse. Global warming affects air pollution because of things like increased wildfires and the changes to gas concentrations at ground level which occur in hotter temperatures.

If no changes are made to stop this, air pollution could cause 1,000-4,300 more deaths per year in the USA alone by 2050.

Image of Short-term vs long-term effects of air pollution on people’s health

Image: Short-term vs long-term effects of air pollution on people’s health

Injustice

You might have noticed that the impacts of climate change are going to affect some people and places more than others. We already live in an unequal world, and climate change is set to make it even less equal.

Imagine if someone else broke a bunch of glasses, but left the sharp pieces of glass all over your floor. Even worse, while they can wear shoes to protect their feet, you don’t have any!

Well, it’s like this with climate change: the worst damage is predicted to hit people who are least responsible for causing it! In other words, the countries that produce lower greenhouse gas emissions will be the most affected. On top of that, these places often have fewer resources to help protect themselves from these impacts.

Image of

Without urgent action, climate change impacts could push an additional 100 million people into poverty by 2030. Over 99 percent of deaths already thought to have happened because of climate change occur in developing countries – and children make up over 80 percent of those deaths.

It is predicted that by 2050, 1 in every 45 people in the world will have had to leave their homes due to climate change! People may migrate in this way to escape drought, flooding and other extreme weather events. Sea level rise is already forcing people to move and if temperatures rise by 3°C, coastal cities like Miami and Shanghai may go completely underwater!

All these consequences are likely to cause more war and fighting between different communities and countries. Poverty, lack of resources and migration can all lead to conflict, and each of these is expected to worsen with climate change.

Conclusion

Climate change will affect how people live and die. From extreme weather disasters to our water and food supply, these consequences need to be taken seriously.

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