People Who’ve Contributed Least to Climate Change Are Most Affected By It

But equitable and inclusive adaptation and mitigation policies can level the field

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People Who’ve Contributed Least to Climate Change Are Most Affected By It
A man in a khaki shirt, sun hat, and long pants is in the upper reaches of a palm tree, picking bright orange fruit, which he accumulates in a see-through mesh bag. He is suspended in the tree by a rudimentary belt-and-harness system. The surrounding landscape is mountainous and tropical, with luminous green vegetation stretching to the horizon.
A fruit picker gathers chontaduro (a type of palm fruit) from a tree in El Tambo, Colombia. The nation is among many developing countries where some residents are experiencing disproportionately harsh effects from climate change.
Jan Sochor Getty Images

In March, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report on human-induced climate change, which painted a dire picture, including longer heat waves, larger and more intense wildfires, heavier rainfall, and the collapse of ecosystems.

Additionally, the IPCC found that while wealthy communities contribute disproportionately to climate-warming emissions, the effects of climate change disproportionately harm resource-poor communities around the globe.

For example, approximately 3.6 billion people live in low and lower-middle income countries that are highly vulnerable to climate change’s worst effects, such as natural hazards and extreme weather events, the IPCC wrote. From the nearly 2 billion water-insecure people in China and India to the chronically food-insecure people of sub-Saharan Africa, climate change is hitting hardest for people already struggling to overcome poverty and development constraints. The IPCC was unequivocal in making this point, stating, "Vulnerable communities who have historically contributed the least to current climate change are disproportionately affected [by it]."

Taking the right actions on climate change now, through equitable and just climate policies, could result in transformational change. Such policies could improve access to modern, low-emission transportation and electrical systems in low-income countries and build more resilient ecosystems, which would reduce historical disparities, enhance air and water quality, increase energy security, and reduce climate impacts for people everywhere.

Mitigation (reducing or preventing emissions of greenhouse gases) and adaptation (shifting how people live and work because of climate change) are critical strategies for communities and societies hoping to stave off the worst outcomes from climate change.

Equity and inclusion in climate policy

How these strategies are designed and implemented matters. According to the IPCC, “adaptation and mitigation actions that prioritise equity, social justice, climate justice, rights-based approaches, and inclusivity lead to more sustainable outcomes, reduce trade-offs, support transformative change, and advance climate-resilient development.”

To ensure equity, all communities must have access to the resources they need to reduce their emissions and to achieve an equal level of adaptation to climate change impacts. Given the limited resources of many communities and the expense of adaptation and mitigation, it is up to leaders at all levels of government to ensure fair distribution of funding and other resources so that lower-income communities are not left behind in adaptation efforts, as they have been historically. Without such fair distribution, the historical adaptation gap will only widen.

All communities must also be included in the formation, communication, and implementation of policies. While capacity building and financing are critical components of international support, leaders must also engage local people in the development and implementation of climate solutions—not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because mitigation and adaptation are more likely to succeed when co-developed with affected communities.

History supports this. For example, farmers in drought-stricken areas have adopted water storage and agroforestry techniques, and coastal communities have reduced flood risk by restoring wetlands and improving upstream forests.

Further, such inclusion will help ensure that many of those hardest-hit groups—including low-income households, Indigenous peoples, and those with climate-sensitive livelihoods such as farming and fishing—can adapt to the specific climate threats that each group faces. And because climate solutions are typically costly to implement and require trade-offs, the communities most affected should be meaningfully involved in determining which solutions are acceptable.

Equitable climate financing

Unfortunately, there’s a big gap between the financing available to address climate change and what’s needed. This is especially true in developing countries, where that gap is growing as adaptation becomes more expensive and climate impacts increase. As the IPCC notes, communities need more funding and easier access to it to meet their needs.

To help reduce the gap, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement set an annual goal of $100 billion that developed countries would provide to developing countries for climate mitigation and adaptation. Developed nations are on track to meet that goal for the first time in 2023—a promising trend given that in 2020, finance flows from wealthy to lower-income countries accounted for only about 10% of global climate spending. And even with the recent acceleration in funding, that $100 billion annual goal is likely to fall drastically short of the need, due to the increasingly costly impacts of climate change: According to one report, by 2030, emerging markets and developing countries will need $1 trillion per year in climate financing.

There is still time to soften the future impacts of climate change and ensure that poorer and marginalized communities no longer bear a disproportionate brunt of those effects. By involving all stakeholders and rights holders in the formation and implementation of adaptation and mitigation policies, and prioritizing equity in those policies, governments can help protect the natural world, support transformative positive change for all people, and advance climate-resilient development.

Kira Sullivan-Wiley is a senior officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conservation science project and Megan Jungwiwattanaporn is an officer working on cross-campaign efforts within Pew’s conservation work.

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