Whom does the Climate Crisis Harm?
Several times a week I see allusions to groups characterized as “front-line communities of color who are bearing the brunt of climate…
Several times a week I see allusions to groups characterized as “front-line communities of color who are bearing the brunt of climate change.” This characterization is based on a number of assumptions that deserve looking into.
Global heating is a global problem that affects every human, and most plants and animals. Carbon pollution is different from conventional air pollution in that its effects are not localized around emissions sources. The classic environmental-justice scenario locates a polluting coal plant in the middle of a low-income community of color. The plant emits mercury, particulate matter, NOx, and particulate matter, which directly harm human health. These emissions raise the concentrations of these pollutants in the vicinity of the coal plant, so the resulting harms are felt most directly by those living near the coal plant who are, in many case, low-income people of color.
Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are different. That same coal plant emits large quantities of CO2, but the emissions don’t significantly raise the CO2 concentrations around the plant and CO2 isn’t toxic, anyway. The plant’s GHG emissions affect everyone on Earth, but they don’t affect those living near the plant any more than they affect folks living halfway around the globe.
Location is key for understanding how climate disruption will affect people, but it’s the location where the impacts will be felt, not the location of the emissions causing the impacts, that matters for this purpose. A small percentage of the population lives in a cool place that can accept a few degrees of average temperature increase, far enough from the shore that they won’t be affected by sea-level rise or more-intense hurricanes, in a place where wildfires don’t spread, and with a dependable water supply, so there’s no risk of drought. The climate crisis won’t have much direct effect on these people, but they constitute a small percentage of the global population. Most people will be directly affected.
Effects will be felt in the Arctic, where global heating has caused temperature increase twice the global average. Indigenous persons, whose livelihoods depend on hunting and fishing, will be affected the most, because the temperature increases are affecting wildlife habitats.
But billions of people living in other parts of the globe will be forced to move because temperatures where they’re living now will increase enough to make their current locations uninhabitable. Two degrees of global heating will not just raise the temperature everywhere by two degrees; the effects will be more sporadic and extreme, and will include more frequent heat waves where the temperatures are several degrees above the old normal.
Sea-level rise and storm surge will affect the billion people who live on land whose elevation is within 10 meters of sea level. Sea level is projected to rise between 40 and 80 cm (1.3 to 2.6 feet) this century. One to three feet of rise doesn’t sound like a lot, but it will subject land where hundreds of millions of people live to permanent inundation or annual flooding. Many of them will become refugees. The increased sea levels also exacerbate the effects of storms, which themselves will be intensified by all the extra energy global heating has put into the Earth’s climate system. When storms hit land, they can bring storm surges, pushing more water onto land, greatly increasing storm flooding. An increase in the sea level will also contaminate fresh water in aquifers near the shore, by forcing salt water into them.
Let’s consider a hypothetical situation: a rich woman owns a $5 million house on the coast, and a poor woman squats in a shack next door. Sea-level rise is encroaching, and eroding the coast, and the local regulators won’t allow the rich woman to build a sea wall. Without that sea wall, both houses will be undermined and become uninhabitable in ten years. On whom does the impact fall most strongly? Obviously the rich woman will lose her $5 million investment in her house. She can’t continue using it and won’t be able to sell it. The poor woman will bear the cost of moving, but that won’t be much. The economic costs in this case fall squarely on the rich. But the rich woman has many more resources to help her deal with the loss of her home. Money makes a big difference, both practically, and for reducing stress and emotional hardship in the situation.
Wildfires are another type of climate-increased disaster that deprives people of the homes they live in. They constitute a climate feedback in that burning a lot of wood emits CO2, which contributes substantially to global heating. And the fires pollute the air with particulate matter that’s harmful to breathe. They destroy homes and force the inhabitants to move. Just as with seal-level rise, the economic impact of destroying homes falls mostly on the rich, while the non-economic impacts such as stress and insecurity fall mostly on the poor.
A million people die of malaria every year; there are 300 million new infections annually. Malaria is spread by a mosquito that requires warm and wet conditions. The disease is confined mostly to the global south, and is very prevalent in equatorial Africa. Increased temperatures will allow the anopheles mosquito to expand its range into what are now more temperate regions. The ranges of other infectious diseases, such as dengue fever, will expand or move as well. Rich areas will be able to afford public-health measures to keep down the mosquito populations, so the burdens of an increased range for tropical diseases will fall mostly on the poor in the marginal areas into which the diseases will spread.
Agriculture and food security will be impaired. Temperature increases may boost productivity in some locations, but the global net effect will be a decrease in agricultural output, leading to food insecurity for many. For the rich, global heating will raise the price of food. But those who grow their own food, or depend on locally grown food, may face catastrophic food insecurity.
The climate crisis threatens freshwater supplies in many places. Droughts are likely to increase in hot places, and water quality will decline.
Direct impacts of the climate crisis depend mostly on geographic location. There are many types of impacts, and they have different patterns, e.g. temperature increases are highest in the Arctic, and seal-level rise will affect mostly low-lying coastal regions and river deltas. The rich will lose more assets and will accrue higher money damages, but the poor have fewer resources for adaptation, so the emotional and physical costs to them will be higher.
In addition to the direct impacts of climate change on individuals and corporations, there will be indirect impacts. The degree of a direct effect’s impact depends mostly on the geographic location of the impacted person. This is much less true for indirect impacts. The two most significant indirect impacts are species loss and economic impacts.
Biodiversity is declining on our planet, and the decline is accelerating due to the climate crisis and other stressors, such as toxic pollution. The background extinction rate for mammals and amphibians is on the order of one species of mammal going extinct every 700 years. Our current extinction rate is thousands of times higher than this; we’re losing species quickly. Climate change changes ecosystems, making the places where plants and animals live uninhabitable by them. They need to move to survive, but plants move very slowly, and animals need a compatible ecosystem into which to move, which may be unavailable.
Who is affected by species loss? Everyone, now and in the future. It takes several million years for evolutionary processes to generate a new species, so the species we lose today will be lost for all foreseeable generations of humans on Earth. There may be some practical consequences, such as the loss of potential new drugs that could come from plants that go extinct. But the main consequences will not be practical or economic, but spiritual. Biodiversity is an important of the world we live in. The plants and animals that are our companions on this planet enrich our lives in countless ways.
Indirect Economic Impacts
I discussed above some of global heating’s direct impacts, and they may have economic impacts, such as the cost to replace a house built on land that’s flooded due to sea-level rise. But there are a lot of costs that will be paid by governments, and those costs will be passed along to individuals. How they affect individuals will be determined not by the physics of climate change, but by the politics and economics governing how governments and large corporations recover these costs.
We need to phase out oil and gas production by 2050, and to build a renewable-energy infrastructure to replace our current fossil fuel-based systems. Even when a wind farm produces electricity at a lower cost than the gas-fired power plant it replaces, decommissioning the gas plant before the end of its life costs a lot. Somebody will have to pay this cost, and who pays will be determined by politics and economics. Replacing all the gasoline-powered cars and trucks with electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles will cost a lot. Most of the cost is in abandoning gas-powered vehicles before the end of their useful lives.
Few environmentalists acknowledge that it will cost anything, economically, to deal with climate change. They point out that the marginal cost of new renewable energy sources of electricity is lower than the cost of new natural gas plants, that building out a green infrastructure will generate millions of jobs, and allow businesses to profit from the work.
But the major studies of the economics of climate change show that there will be very significant costs. I will write a column on this subject soon, but the quick version is that mitigation (reducing GHG emissions and agricultural and forestry emissions) will cost more if we do it soon, as we should, and that adaptation (adjusting to the new warmer planet) and damages from global heating will cost more if we delay the mitigation. There is an optimal point from an economic perspective, which minimizes the sum total of mitigation and adaptation costs.
According to the graphs on pages 140 and 177 of William Nordhaus’ The Climate Casino, limiting global heating to 2˚C would cost about 1% of global income, and 2˚C of heating would result in damages amounting to 1% of global output, for a total cost of 2%. With heating of 4˚C, mitigation would cost only 0.25%, but the damages would be much higher: around 4%, for a total cost of 4.25%. These are large amounts of money. Global GDP was about USD $81 trillion in 2017, so 4.25% is $3.4 trillion, or about $453 per person per year, globally. The rich in developed countries will pay much more than this average, and the poor will pay less.
The economic burdens of the climate crisis will fall mostly on the rich, because they own the assets that will need to be replaced or repaired. For a just transition, we need to ensure that the rich pay most of the mitigation and adaptation costs. They have received the economic benefits of ignoring the climate crisis so far, and they can afford to pay.
But it is unfair to see the climate crisis in only economic terms. When a family in Bangladesh is forced out of its home due to flooding related to sea-level rise, the impact may be small when expressed in dollars, but the hardship on that family is huge. And all future generations of humans and other animals will be affected by how we deal with the climate crisis this century.
One of the biggest challenges is developing a framework for making the required tradeoffs, based on shared ethical values. Economics must fit into this framework, but economics cannot provide the overall framework, because extra-economic factors like species loss and non-economic hardship are important.
Bottom line: who is affected by the climate crisis? Everyone. The direct effects depend on geographical location, and the indirect effects depend on how we decide to distribute the burdens, through political and economic processes.