Imagine you have a stream running through your property where your family regularly swims and fishes, but one day the fish and plants begin dying because of toxic waste dumping upstream.  Even if the power plant eventually pays reparation costs, the damage will have been done to the stream’s ecosystem, at least in the short-term, and your family and neighbors may be faced with serious health or financial consequences.  Many people could be affected in a situation like this one, even though none of them had contributed to the problem.

The effects of climate change follow an analogous pattern, although on a global rather than regional scale.  Similar to the hypothetical waste-dumping power plant, certain developed countries such as the United States and China contribute far more to climate change than poorer, less developed nations.  As in the example discussed above, the effects of climate change are not limited to those countries most responsible for it; in fact, the most negative effects may have a greater impact on developing countries that have contributed least to the problem – and are least equipped to fund the necessary efforts to confront it.

Consider the Pacific Islands: while they are not at the forefront of fossil fuel burning, they are at the fore of one of its immediate consequences, rising sea levels.  Currently, the sea is rising about one inch every nine years, mostly because warmer temperatures cause water to take up more space, but its rise will accelerate as glaciers begin to melt more quickly [1].  This rise will also directly impact low-lying countries such as Bangladesh and the Netherlands [2, 3].

An inch or so every decade might not sound like much to those of us living dozens of feet above sea level, but there are many places in the world that cannot afford to lose even a few inches.  The Pacific island nation of Kiribati, for example, has an average elevation of less than 6.5 feet – imagine how much land they will lose to encroaching seas alone in the coming decades.  While coastal land loss will also occur in the United States, one clear advantage in this country is that there will still be a considerable amount of land left after our coasts move inland.  The inhabitants of many countries will not have the option of moving to higher ground, raising the unsettling question of where those nations will go when their land is swallowed by the sea.

Oh well, you think: by the time that happens, we’ll all be long gone.  But the short-term consequences of climate change are already disproportionately affecting developing countries.  Rising sea levels may not have forced any nations off their land yet, but they have already contributed to increased flooding.  The intrusion of salt-water inland as a result of flooding has two major repercussions: it diminishes fresh water sources and destroys cropland.  Flooding has also been exacerbated by more frequent rainfall, which is another side effect of climate change [4].  It’s difficult to support a population with neither water nor food, but many developing nations increasingly find themselves facing these challenges.

The costs of climate change in developing nations aren’t limited to flooding; data trends indicate that many warm places will get warmer, meaning that arid environments may become even more water-deprived.  Persistent droughts, like the current one in California, will become more commonplace.  Droughts will make it difficult to obtain fresh water and will limit crop production, which means that those nations will have to shoulder increasing costs to import food and water from other countries. If they cannot obtain these supplies, governments will be faced with the inevitable social unrest that comes with food and water shortages.

Even in those countries fortunate enough to maintain sufficient freshwater for crop production, higher average temperatures could decrease global crop yields by as much as 2% in the next decade [5].  This phenomenon will be concurrent with an increasing world population, which will create an increased demand for food even as it becomes more difficult to fulfill that demand, thus driving up food prices.  Higher food prices will make it even harder for people in the poorest nations to better their living standards, as meeting basic nutritional needs becomes increasingly unaffordable.

Figure 1.  A snapshot of the effects climate change will have throughout the world, demonstrated with India and Bangladesh as an example.  Rising sea levels and increasing rainfall will contribute to increased flooding and loss of land; higher temperatures will decrease crop yields and make fresh water harder to come by in already arid areas.

Developing nations are also at an economic disadvantage when facing climate change.  They are poorly equipped to fund expensive flood-prevention measures such as dams, and are less capable of warning their citizens of danger or evacuating them safely.  After the damage has been done, the cost of rescue operations, healthcare administration, and ultimately rebuilding must also be taken into account.  With an increased likelihood of severe weather events because of climate change, impacted nations will have to cover rebuilding costs much more frequently, which will hit small economies much harder than large ones.

Let’s return to our hypothetical power plant and the ruined stream running through your yard.  In this case, it seems obvious that the power plant should not only be responsible for cleaning up the destruction they have caused, but also for paying reparations to your family for any health problems and other damages that may result from the contamination.  Unfortunately, the international consequences of climate change aren’t so easy to solve.

Many nations in the developing world that have been and will continue to be directly impacted by climate change have called for rich, industrialized countries to pay for some of the damage they have caused, with little tangible success to date [6, 7].  While some people in the United States, China, and Western Europe may feel a level of responsibility for the damage climate change will sow over the coming decades, there is not currently much political momentum for making substantial reparations for climate-change induced effects.

As the costs of climate change rise all over the globe, even wealthy nations may begin to feel the pinch, making it harder to promote payouts to other nations even as that aid becomes more and more necessary.  Developing nations will require financial and technical assistance to create safer and more effective preventive measures against flooding; to develop more-efficient farming techniques; to survive times of extended drought; and to respond to increasingly frequent weather disasters.  Climate change refugees will become a more common sight even as many developed nations move to block immigration.  Even though climate change has been caused more by some countries than others, its effects are being felt throughout the globe; any equitable response to the challenges posed by its increasing effects will certainly require cosmopolitan solutions in the coming decades.

Ilana Kelsey is a student in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. program at Harvard Medical School.

[1] Davenport, Coral.  “Rising Seas.”  New York Times 27 March 2014.

[2] Witze, Alexandra.  “Crucial West Antarctic glaciers are retreating unstoppably.”  Nature News 12 May 2014.

[3] Horton B.P. et. al.  “Expert assessment of sea-level rise by AD 2100 and AD 2300.”  Quaternary Science Reviews 84 (2014): 1-6.

[4] Durack P.J. et. al.  “Ocean Salinities Reveal Strong Global Water Cycle Intensification During 1950 to 2000.”  Science 336 (2012): 455-458.

[5] Gillis, Justin.  “Climate Change Seen Posing Risk to Food Supplies.”  New York Times 2 Nov. 2013.

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