Climate Change Is Much, Much Worse If You’re Poor

The World Bank says something must be done.

If you’re worried about your beach house getting flooded in the next superstorm, or that the warming planet is ruining the ski slopes, remember that it’s the poor who are most at risk from climate change. They’re the ones in low-lying slums in flood-threatened megacities like Jakarta. They’re the senior citizens who die during heatwaves when nobody bothers to check in on them. They’re the farmers in Africa, where 95% of agriculture is rain-fed and heavily dependent on the weather.


“Poor people are disproportionately affected—not only because they are often more exposed and invariably more vulnerable to climate-related shocks but also because they have fewer resources and receive less support from family, community, the financial system, and even social safety nets to prevent, cope, and adapt,” says a major new report from the World Bank.

Climate change affects the poor in a number of ways, including natural disasters that wipe out homes and small businesses, diseases and pests that multiply during heatwaves and floods, and crop failures and food price spikes that hurt those on lower incomes most. The World Bank says if we don’t move towards “rapid, inclusive, and climate-informed development,” we’ll see an additional 100 million people living in poverty by 2030.

By climate-informed development, the bank means infrastructure and housing that’s designed to meet new-normal conditions, like new sewage systems that can handle more rainfall and settlements above sea level rather than below it. It also means agriculture where water, soil, and nutrients are used more sustainably, the spread of higher-yield farming techniques and technology from richer countries to poorer ones, and better health and financial systems for poor people to withstand climate shocks. Effectively, the Bank argues climate change should inform a wide range of social policy.

Some argue that climate change policies are themselves anti-poor. For example, if we put a green tax on gasoline, that makes driving or food more expensive. But that assumes that we use environmental tax revenue badly: We could use it to improve people’s lives in other ways. The Bank argues for “strengthening social protection and cash transfers” and perhaps reducing other taxes to compensate.

“There are many options to make climate policies pro-poor—such as introducing a carbon or energy tax and recycling the revenues through a universal cash transfer that would benefit the poor,” the report says. “Even a low carbon tax at $10 [per metric ton of CO2] would make it possible to significantly scale up social assistance or other investments that benefit poor people, like connections to sanitation and improved drinking water or access to modern energy.”

Read more of the report here.


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.