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Climate change: the losers, the winners and how to adapt

The biggest losers of climate change

Alexandre Magnan, Senior Researcher in "adaptation to climate change" at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI-Sciences Po)
On May 16th, 2023 |
4 min reading time
Alexandre Magnan
Senior Researcher in "adaptation to climate change" at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI-Sciences Po)
Key takeaways
  • The population groups most vulnerable to climate change are those in precarious situations and/or in isolation.
  • But the more affluent parts of societies will also suffer, less quickly and less directly, because their wealth is based on all the other strata of society.
  • The risk level for some areas is increasing due to the intensification of natural hazards, such as the intertropical and polar areas.
  • Drought could accelerate social and political destabilisation in areas where conflicts already exist, such as the semi-arid areas of Africa.
  • Adaptation is the solution to reduce vulnerabilities, but it requires, among other things, institutional changes and relevant public policies.

Who are the losers of ongo­ing cli­mate change?

More specif­i­cal­ly, we are talk­ing about vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, i.e. the risk of a socio-spa­tial sys­tem being affect­ed by the effects of a haz­ard (flood, drought, cyclone, etc.)1. The most vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tion groups are those in pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tions, with low-income and/or in iso­la­tion. Pre-exist­ing inequal­i­ties are exac­er­bat­ed by cli­mate change: this gen­er­ates cas­cad­ing effects. Less resources, more pres­sure on ecosys­tems, more social and polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty… The impact of cli­mate change depends of course on nat­ur­al haz­ards but also on the devel­op­ment con­di­tions of coun­tries. But let me empha­sise one point: cli­mate change affects all stra­ta of soci­ety, more or less directly.

How­ev­er, in its lat­est report2, the IPCC talks about “hot spots”, where pop­u­la­tions’ vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty is high­er. They are locat­ed in East, Cen­tral and West Africa, South and Cen­tral Asia, South Amer­i­ca, the Arc­tic and small island devel­op­ing states. 

I am increas­ing­ly wary of this notion. Every­one is vul­ner­a­ble, but at dif­fer­ent times and to dif­fer­ent degrees. Cli­mate change affects every region. The ‘biggest losers’ are on the front line, and the risk is exac­er­bat­ed by the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of their cir­cum­stances. But the bet­ter-off parts of soci­eties will also suf­fer from the effects of cli­mate change, as their wealth is based on all oth­er sec­tions of soci­ety. They will lose out, but they will lose out the least, or at least less quick­ly or directly.

More­over, if we talk about region­al hotspots, it is very impor­tant to con­sid­er the inter­con­nec­tion of states. Cli­mate risks are trans­mit­ted across bor­ders through shared nat­ur­al resources, trade links, finance and human mobil­i­ty3. For exam­ple, low­er crop yields in Brazil will have an impact on live­stock pro­duc­tion in France, and there­fore on con­sumer prices. Anoth­er exam­ple is tuna, where the geo­graph­i­cal dis­tri­b­u­tion of stocks is being altered by cli­mate change. This could dis­rupt trade agree­ments, par­tic­u­lar­ly for Europe, but also at inter­na­tion­al level.

What are the fac­tors that aggra­vate vulnerabilities? 

The devel­op­ment pat­terns of recent decades have cre­at­ed the con­di­tions for cur­rent vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, for exam­ple through inequal­i­ties. In a world with­out inequal­i­ties, the impacts of cli­mate change would be very dif­fer­ent and dis­trib­uted dif­fer­ent­ly across social groups. 

Added to this are the effects of cli­mate change. Today, the risk lev­el in cer­tain ter­ri­to­ries is ris­ing due to the inten­si­fi­ca­tion of nat­ur­al haz­ards, such as intertrop­i­cal and polar areas, for exam­ple, where cli­mate dynam­ics are more active than else­where. This con­cerns, for exam­ple, island regions, par­tic­u­lar­ly atolls such as the Mal­dives, Kiri­bati, Tuvalu and French Poly­ne­sia. Ris­ing sea lev­els threat­en the future hab­it­abil­i­ty of these areas.

What are the risks faced by the “losers” of cli­mate change?

For the lat­est IPCC report, we addressed a new ques­tion: among the mul­ti­tude of impacts of cli­mate change to be expect­ed on a glob­al scale, which are the most severe for human­i­ty? Each of the authors of the chap­ter answered this ques­tion for his or her study area. In this way, we have assem­bled the con­di­tions for 120 key risks that are severe by the end of the cen­tu­ry. For exam­ple, it is clear that even with lit­tle warm­ing, the risks will be severe for coastal areas that already face high vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and low adaptation.

No sec­tor of activ­i­ty is spared and all coun­tries are affected.

These key risks to human­i­ty are grouped into eight cat­e­gories: low-lying coastal sys­tems; ter­res­tri­al and marine ecosys­tems; infra­struc­ture, net­works, and ser­vices; liv­ing stan­dards; human health; food secu­ri­ty; access to water; and peace and human mobil­i­ty. One thing that struck me dur­ing this exer­cise is that no sec­tor of activ­i­ty is spared and all coun­tries are affected.

Aren’t there spe­cif­ic risks for these very vul­ner­a­ble populations?

The key risk of “peace and human mobil­i­ty” is prob­a­bly quite spe­cif­ic to coun­tries already marked by socio-polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ties. Cli­mate change is unlike­ly to gen­er­ate armed con­flicts in the com­ing decades in peace­ful coun­tries. How­ev­er, in semi-arid areas in Africa where con­flicts already exist, intense drought can accel­er­ate desta­bil­i­sa­tion. This effect has already been observed, and the same phe­nom­e­non is sug­gest­ed for migra­tion (e.g. in the case of Syr­ia in 2015).

Will vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties change in the future? Who are the future ‘big losers’ of cli­mate change?

This depends in part on the lev­el of warm­ing reached. From +1.5°C (i.e. very soon), we will move from a sit­u­a­tion where risk is detectable but not yet sys­tem­at­ic, to a world where ‘hot spots’ will spread geo­graph­i­cal­ly and social­ly as sci­en­tists fear. At +2–3°C, the risks will be wide­spread and part­ly irre­versible. At +3–4°C, they become wide­spread and irre­versible. As warm­ing increas­es, vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties are exac­er­bat­ed. The “big losers” become even more vul­ner­a­ble. And this group will grow: more peo­ple will become “big losers”.

How to lim­it the impact of cli­mate change, how to reduce vulnerabilities?

In a word: adap­ta­tion. The tools for adap­ta­tion are now well known. Tech­nol­o­gy, glob­al finan­cial resources and sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge are not the main prob­lems. The main obsta­cle today is com­mit­ment. Adap­ta­tion requires polit­i­cal courage, insti­tu­tion­al changes, rel­e­vant long-term pub­lic poli­cies, and pop­u­la­tions that accept these changes. But adap­ta­tion is first and fore­most a ques­tion of col­lec­tive will, and then a tech­ni­cal ques­tion: what options, where and when?

Adap­ta­tion is first of all a ques­tion of col­lec­tive will, and then a tech­ni­cal question.

On the oth­er hand, wait­ing will only aggra­vate the prob­lem. As warm­ing takes hold, cli­mat­ic events will be more intense, more fre­quent, and will fol­low one anoth­er… This makes risk man­age­ment com­plex. Warn­ing sys­tems must be oper­a­tional in the face of these haz­ards: this relies on finan­cial and human resources and on the risk cul­ture of the pop­u­la­tions. How­ev­er, the most vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties are pre­cise­ly those that lack these resources… Once again, the « big losers » of cli­mate change leave disadvantaged.

Anaïs Marechal 
1Web­site con­sult­ed on 25/04/2023 : http://​geo​con​flu​ences​.ens​-lyon​.fr/​g​l​o​s​s​a​i​r​e​/​v​u​l​n​e​r​a​b​ilite
2IPCC, 2023, Syn­the­sis report of the IPCC sixth assess­ment report, Longer report.
3Anisi­mov A., Mag­nan A.K. (eds.) (2023). The glob­al trans­bound­ary cli­mate risk report. The Insti­tute for Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment and Inter­na­tion­al Rela­tions & Adap­ta­tion With­out Bor­ders. 114 pages.

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