Climate Change and Inequality: The Missing Link.

Not to be dramatic, but time is running out …

In the latest IPCC Special Report “Global Warming of 1.5oC”, scientists have concluded that climate change is happening faster than we thought. If humans hope to adapt, we must act now to curb global warming. Global temperature is likely to increase by 1.5oC (compared to pre-industrial levels) between 2030 and 2052, if it continues to increase at the current rate. For warming to stay around 1.5oC, global net COemissions must decline between 40-60% of 2010 levels by 2030, and reach zero by 2050. Let that sink in. Global emissions must be cut in half in just over 10 years, and we need to completely stop in 30 years.

Figure 1: “The Blue Marble” photograph of Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 mission.
Source: Wikipedia

And If We Don’t?

As our climate changes, so does our way of life. Our key issue becomes: how can we adapt to this changing world and our changing climate? Our planet and the resources that we rely upon will no longer be the same. Scientists predict that our ability to adapt to climate change will be easier if the temperature warms to at most 1.5oC, compared to 2oC or higher. If that mark is overshot, climate change’s potential as a ‘threat multiplier’ worsens, bringing about a host of environmental, social, and economic issues:

  1. Increased land and ocean temperatures including increased ocean acidity and decreased ocean oxygen levels, leads to loss of marine life and biodiversity (99% coral reef loss).
  2. More extreme weather events, such as extreme heat, precipitation, drought, flooding, wild fires, and more numerous and intense hurricanes, tornados and other storms. These extreme weather events put a stress on water security, agricultural production and food supply, and energy, impacting human livelihood.
  3. Increased melting of polar ice caps and sea level rise, resulting in mass human migration from small islands or low-lying coastal areas and deltas.
  4. Massive species loss and destruction of ecosystems and their services, which humans rely on.

Humans will need to adapt to all these consequences as our planet shifts. In the United States alone, we could see nearly $500 billion in lost annual economic output by the year 2100, and risk nearly $1 trillion of public infrastructure and coastal real estate.

… but the plot thickens …

Climate change … or Climate Justice?

Those who will struggle the most to adapt to climate change will be those already suffering from poverty and inequality. Why is that? Because climate change exacerbates a vicious cycle that only increases people’s vulnerability. Disadvantaged populations are likely already living in places most prone to the effects of climate change, are more susceptible to damages incurred from climate events, and lack the ability to recover and adapt.

Take Hurricane Florence, which wreaked havoc on eastern North Carolina in 2018. Disadvantaged people are likely to live in low-income communities that include rural farming towns prone to flooding. Furthermore, homes tend to be made of inexpensive materials and lack insurance to protect assets from potential damages. Lastly, rebuilding homes and restoring assets and livelihood may not be affordable, pushing these communities deeper into poverty and intensifying the cycle. But these examples are innumerable! Any increase to food, water, energy, housing, or healthcare, in the wake of climate change, delivers a devastating blow to the already disadvantaged.

Figure 2: Flooded farmland in Duplin County, North Carolina in the wake of Hurricane Florence (2018).
Source: Wikipedia

These disadvantaged people are referred to as “front-line communities” and include indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and the youth. Global front-line communities are developing nations or island nations that are all more susceptible to climate events but lack the resources possessed by the developed world.

What’s worse, these are the communities that have suffered the most from environmental degradation, systemic injustice, and inequality, which were all largely created in the wake of a fossil fuel economy and colonialism. The people of these nations did not play a significant role in creating climate change. Developed nations and corporations exploiting natural resources and economic systems for their own wealth and benefit did – and yet, these disadvantaged communities and developing countries are now on the ‘front-lines’ of the climate crisis.

…climate change exacerbates a vicious cycle that only increases people’s vulnerability.

This is why climate change and inequality are linked – because ‘solving climate change’ means finding ways to halt or mitigate these extreme climate events, which will hit front-line communities first and hardest. It will mean putting policies in place to keep global warming to 1.5oC while eradicating inequality and poverty, so that front-line communities have the same power and resources as everyone else, and can tackle the challenges headed their way.

Simple enough … right?

A Green New Deal.

A resolution was presented in the U.S. House of Representatives in February 2019 that possess the most comprehensive plan for tackling climate change and inequality. The Green New Deal (GND) is a throwback to Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, which used federal funds to create jobs for millions of Americans and boost America’s economy during the Great Depression. In this sequel, the GND calls for a 10-year national effort to transform America’s economy into a green economy in order to curb global warming. It also creates a more sustainable way of life (think sustainable jobs in energy, infrastructure, and agriculture based on renewable sources) for all Americans and our planet. Among its many goals, it would:

  1. Convert our fossil fuel economy into a renewable energy system by investing in wind and solar technology, and upgrading our energy system to a smart grid.
  2. Spur growth of environmentally-friendly manufacturing and industry to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
  3. Improve the resiliency of our front-line communities by investing in climate resistant infrastructure, such as stronger bridges and seawalls, or restoring wetlands to buffer hurricanes.
  4. Upgrade our food, water, and transportation infrastructure to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gases, and provide universal access to clean water, healthy food, and cleaner vehicle or public transit.
  5. Restore and protect threatened or fragile ecosystems that would help to increase biodiversity, reduce pollution, and provide climate resiliency.
Figure 3: Marsh Bride Brook and Coastal Salt Marsh, East Lyme, CT, USA.
Source: Wikipedia user:alex756

Most importantly, these environmental, social, and economic benefits created by the GND would be provided to all people of the United States, but the focus would be on front-line communities.  This provides a true vehicle for change by providing family-sustaining jobs and resources, raising the standard of living, and moving front-line communities out of social and economic inequality.

Some have criticized the GND, claiming it is financially and logistically unrealistic. But what other choice do we have? Our current way of life benefits some but leaves our planet and millions of others behind. Inaction is still a choice, and by continuing the status quo, we are choosing not to address the rapidly growing threat of climate change and the impact it will have on all of us, especially the disadvantaged.

And not to be dramatic, but time is running out …


Islam S.N. and J. Winkel. 2017. Climate Change and Social Inequality. Department of Economic & Social Affairs. DESA Working Paper No. 152.

“Summary for Policymakers.” Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5oC. IPCC. 2018.

United States Congress. Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal. H. Res. 109. 116thCongress. 1stSession. (2019-2020).

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Nick Iraola

Nick has a Master of Science in Marine Science from UNC Wilmington. His master's thesis research pertained to eutrophication and nutrient cycling within an urban blackwater lake in Wilmington, NC. Currently, Nick works for the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority testing drinking and waste water for safe consumption and discharge (respectively!!). Nick also works as a part-time research scientist at UNCW's Center for Marine Science in the Aquatic Ecology Laboratory and the Nutrient Analysis Core Facility. When he's not sciencing, Nick enjoys running, swimming, cooking, sailing, and catching up with friends and family. His favorite candy is Reese's pb cups, because what is there not to like!?

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