Climate change is real and it already is happening. So much so that the popular English newspaper The Guardian adopted an updated set of terms to better reflect the gravity and the urgency of the situation. Indeed, they are suggesting to refer to it not as ‘climate change’ but instead ‘climate crisis’ or ’emergency’. Emphasizing the myriad of evidence proving it, they are calling those who are opposing the human role in the process ‘climate deniers’ and not ‘skeptics’. Still, with an abundance of information about climate change’s economic and ecological effects, there is somehow an overlooked aspect of the current climate emergency: its social impact and the fact that it most affects already disadvantaged segments of the society.
Many experts agree that those especially vulnerable to climate change are the people who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally, or otherwise marginalized. In other words, those same people who have least contributed to climate change in the first place. Numbers can help put things into perspective: according to Maplecroft’s Climate Change Vulnerability Index, 33 countries are labeled under the extreme risk category. 27 out of these 33 countries are located on the African continent. When we compare the risk levels on a regional scale the picture gets even clearer. Europe and North America are getting the lowest risk scores, 8.13 and 7.81 consecutively (10 being the lowest risk and 0 being the highest), while Africa (2.89) leads the high-risk-region league with a significant margin to its closest successor Central America(4.05), followed by the Caribbean and Oceania, consequently.
The contrast is stark considering that North America is home to only 5% of the world population but emits nearly 18% of CO2 while Africa, for instance, has 16% of the population but emits just 4% of CO2. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the citizens of the developed countries will be safe from harm or won’t be affected by the negative effects of climate change. Studies suggest that even in industrialized and wealthy countries climate change will reinforce inequalities within the society. If anything, this index proves that the burden and the responsibility to stop this crisis and find solutions to mitigate its effects rely mainly on the shoulders of the high- and upper-middle-income countries.
Returning to our main subject, the social impacts of climate change can be better understood by analyzing various topics individually. The following paragraphs will cover the risks and challenges the climate change poses on: health systems, food security, employment, gender equality, and education.
Health and Nutrition
Besides the direct hazardous effects of climate change such as heatwaves, floods, and storms, it is also expected that it will inevitably affect, via more complex pathways, the basic requirements for maintaining good health: access to clean air and water, the procurement of sufficient food and adequate shelter and freedom from disease. It is indeed suggested by the World Health Organization(WHO), that in the long run, the greatest health impacts may not be from acute shocks of natural disasters or epidemics, but from the gradual build-up of pressure on the natural, economic and social systems that sustain health, and which are already under stress in much of the developing world.
“To understand the kind of damage that climate change will inflict, look at COVID-19 and spread the pain out over a much longer period.” – Bill Gates
Just like the COVID-19 pandemic we’re experiencing nowadays, the health effects of climate change are expected to be more severe for elderly people and people with pre-existing medical conditions. Children and women living in poor countries are also in the high-risk category. To draw attention to the ruinous effects of climate change and its repercussions on health, Bill Gates makes a striking comparison in his personal blog Gates Notes, between COVID-19 and climate change, and claims that it will hurt the poorest people in the world the most. He even suggests that “[t]he loss of life and economic misery caused by this pandemic are on par with what will happen regularly if we do not eliminate the world’s carbon emissions.
Strongly connected with the subject of health and not less important is the topic of nutrition. According to OXFAM, a confederation of 20 independent charitable organizations focusing on poverty eradication, already 60 million people around the globe are facing a food crisis. Currently not getting the public attention it deserves, this problem is only destined to worsen in the following decades unless drastic measures are taken no later than today. For instance, droughts, as a result of extended periods of decreased precipitation, combined with other extreme weather events, are causing the loss of livelihoods and devastation of harvests, leaving local residents with a dilemma: leaving in search of other livelihood opportunities or staying and facing hunger. Another direct consequence of these events is food price spikes which are evident to have dramatic effects on low-income families and individuals on a global scale. Prices of some of the most essential crops such as rice, wheat, and maize are estimated to increase by up to %150 by 2060.
The negative impact of climate change on employment is expected to be on various levels. Once again, these effects will be particularly harsh for some regions and economic sectors as well as for some portions of the society.
Both in urban and rural labor markets, extreme weather events are likely to cause job losses. As a result of this and assuming a global temperature rise of 1.5°C by the end of the twenty-first century, the International Labor Organization(ILO) estimates a global productivity loss equivalent to the loss of an astonishing 80 million full-time jobs as early as 2030. In terms of financial loss, this equals US$2,400 billion, an almost ninefold increase from the previous projection of US$280 billion made in 1995. ILO experts also underline the fact that this is rather a conservative estimate as some climate scientists even predict temperature rises by as much as 3 degrees Celsius for the same time period.
The ILO report titled “Working on a warmer planet: The impact of heat stress on labor productivity and decent work” further suggests that the sectors most affected by the rising temperatures will be the agricultural and construction sectors as workers in these sectors are highly exposed to outdoor work. Other sectors highly dependent on natural resources and climate such as energy, tourism, and transport sectors are also to suffer the consequences of climate change.
Geographically, the ILO report suggests that the most seriously affected regions will be southern Asia and western Africa, while European subregions are expected to experience a smaller impact. This inevitably brings a further widening of the inequality gap between low and high-income countries. Furthermore, ILO points out the high impact risks on the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) due to their vulnerability and low adaptive capacity.
On the other hand, the adaptation policies to reduce climate vulnerability may have the potential to create positive effects and stimulate demand for labor. In their guide titled “Adaptation to Climate Change and the World Of Work”, the European Trade Union Confederation(ETUC) brings attention to the benefits of the adaptation policies. These policies, according to ETUC, may contribute to preserving existing jobs and stimulate demand for labor and for new types of goods and services. Depending on the average annual spending on adaptation measures for EU countries, such implementation could lead to the creation of between 500,000 to one million direct and indirect jobs in 2050.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) acknowledges that disasters affect men and women differently on a number of levels, including economically, socially, psychologically, and in terms of exposure to risk and risk perception. (link) The experts, however, seem to agree on the fact that there is a need for further research on this subject and draw attention to gender aspects being generally neglected in international climate policy. Another important point to be kept in mind on the subject of gender equality is that gender norms and values are not fixed and evolve over time. This means the adverse health consequences resulting from gender differences and gender inequalities evolve as well.
Women are often considered to be more vulnerable to climate change than men. Sometimes this is due to gender norms in a particular society that dictate acceptable behaviors for men and women. An example of this can be found in some Latin American and Asian countries, where women and girls are often not taught to swim for reasons of modesty, making their chances of survival in flooding disasters significantly lower. DW reports that, according to a UN Population Fund report, women and girls are 14 times more likely to die than men during natural disasters. In most cases, however, it is their lower socioeconomic status in the society that makes women more vulnerable. They make up the majority of the world’s economically poor, doing most of the agricultural work, bearing unequal responsibility for household food security, carrying a disproportionate burden for harvesting water and fuel for everyday survival, and relying on threatened natural resources for their livelihoods. Not to mention their lack of access, control, and ownership of these resources and their exclusion from important policy-making processes.
There is strong evidence suggesting it is children who will be hit the hardest by the effects of climate change. In its publication titled “Our climate, our children, our responsibility”, UNICEF UK draws attention to the detrimental effects of climate change on livelihoods. Some of these effects, the publication suggests, may make it more likely that parents remove their children from school – and in most cultures, this will almost certainly mean removing girls first – so that they can work to supplement household income. Another possible outcome is that entire families may need to migrate in search of food, water, and employment, pulling their kids out of school.
“Indian women born during a drought or a flood in the 1970s were 19 percent less likely to attend primary school when compared with women the same age who were not affected by natural disasters.” – Human Development Report 2007–2008
The physical harm brought by extreme weather events on the educational infrastructure is, of course, another challenge that needs to be addressed. ‘Climate change proofing’ of educational infrastructure seems like the most logical first step in that regard. Climate proofing is defined as, “(…) the explicit consideration and internalization of the risks and opportunities that alternative climate change scenarios are likely to imply for the design, operation and maintenance of infrastructure. In other words, integrating climate change risks and opportunities into the design, operation, and management of infrastructure.” in the UNDP report “Paving the Way for Climate-Resilient Infrastructure”.
Local Perspective: Climate Change in Austria
Since the mid-nineteenth century, records indicate an increase in the average annual temperature in Austria of about 2°C. Compared with a global increase of 0.85°C for the same time period and considering that approximately half of that increase is recorded after 1980, it is clear that Austria is among the countries most affected by climate change in Europe and also on the global scale. This is also reflected in Germanwatch’s Global Climate Risk Index(CRI) 2020 report, where Austria is ranked as the 10th country in Europe and overall 49th among the 183 countries that most suffer from the negative consequences of extreme weather events. The index, developed by Germanwatch, combines the impact of extreme weather events both in terms of fatalities and economic losses.
Given experts’ expectations towards further temperature increases in Austria in the following decades, the already substantial economic and social impacts of climate change seem destined to grow. The Austrian Assessment Report on Climate Change, published in 2014, draws attention to this fact stating that “(i)n addition to extreme events, gradual temperature and precipitation changes also have economic ramifications, such as shifts in potential yields in agriculture, in the energy sector, or in snow-reliability in ski areas with corresponding impacts on winter tourism.” (link) The report also warns against the risk of significant increases in events such as landslides, mudflows, and rockfalls in mountainous regions as well as the reduction in surface area of glaciers in Austria.
After Us, the Flood
Illustrating the complex correlations of the climate crisis through photography and video, Kunst Haus Wien, which holds the honor of being Vienna’s first green museum, hosts the exhibition titled ‘After Us, the Flood'(Nach Uns die Sintflut) until February 21, 2021. Featuring 21 Austrian and international artists, the exhibition shows the ecological consequences of our growth-orientated economic system at the global level and highlights the need for urgent sustainable action.
One of those artists is the young Iranian photographer Solmaz Daryani, who through her photograph series ‘The Eyes of Earth(THE DEATH OF LAKE URMIA)‘, ongoing since the year 2014, documents the vanishing of the largest lake in the Middle East with its repercussions on agriculture and tourism, of which many inhabitants of the region depend upon.
Another artist, Angela Tiatia, in her twenty-minute film ‘Tuvalu‘, shows some of the daily effects of rising sea levels on Tuvalu, a low-lying island in the Pacific. This small island represents many others facing to be overcome by the rising sea levels, as people in different parts of the world continue to produce waste and live unsustainably, unaware of the severe effects of these actions on their neighbors in the Pacific.
Also in the context of the exhibition, there will be special events such as guided tours, reading classes, and an open-to-public panel named ‘Future Talks’, where experts, artists, and activists will discuss the relationship between climate and various topics such as the economy, legislation, and fossil fuels.
The Cure for Climate Change: Does It Exist?
Luckily, not all predictions are pessimistic: according to the Austrian Assessment Report on Climate Change mentioned earlier, various scenario simulations show that emission reductions of up to 90% can be achieved in Austria by 2050 through the implementation of additional measures. This, however, seems only possible with what is described as a social-ecological transformation, a paradigm shift in the prevailing consumption and behavior patterns, and in the traditional short-term oriented policies and decision-making processes. An essential part of this transformation will be the establishment of new business and financing models, promoting environmentally sustainable development, and a circular economy.
Therefore, the thing that is missing is not a cure for injustices and inequalities brought by climate change. We already have the cure in our hands. Indeed, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), contained within The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, already provides the blueprint for a prosperous and peaceful future. But instead, what is missing is the will to put theory into practice. A roaring pressure from the silent masses which will force politicians and big corporations to put things in the right perspective. The real question now is, whether we will achieve that before it is too late.