“Climate change… represents an increasing problem, with poor countries hit especially hard,” said Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, while speaking before an audience in Washington. As a recent report commissioned by the G7 members found, climate change threatens the stability of developing countries. Lagarde explained, “Instability victimizes the poor and the most vulnerable first.” Instability discourages investment, which undermines development, which further undermines stability, spurring a cycle of destabilization that can cripple at-risk communities.
Climate change threatens to continue to derail development in vulnerable countries. Extreme storms will impair roads, bridges, power grids and water lines. Drought will drive up the cost of food and water. Rising seas will flood coastal cities, forcing families and businesses to flee for drier pastures. Even modest warming could permanently depress GDP in Africa and South Asia by 4 to 5 percent, the World Bank found.
The cruel and oft-discussed irony of this is that the countries that have contributed the least to carbon pollution stand to suffer the most. While Europe, America and a small handful of other states have relied on cheap fossil fuels to propel economic growth, Africa, South Asia and small island states have subsisted on a more modest energy diet. The wealthiest nations have incurred a debt that will be paid by the children of the poorest people. It seems that those communities will be receiving our just deserts.
Part of this injustice comes down to the distribution of extreme weather, which disproportionately affects Africa and South Asia. But that’s only half the problem. Most of the countries most likely to see heat, drought and torrential storms are also least equipped to mount an effective defense. Imagine Hurricane Katrina in a nation without paved roads or working phones, where rampant corruption has sapped funding for vital infrastructure. In this country, there is no highly trained national guard to hand out fresh water. There is no FEMA (competent or otherwise) to usher victims to shelter. When disaster strikes, the social order breaks down.
Dealing with climate change will no doubt be a costly endeavor for the United States. The transition to clean energy, the overhaul of our transportation sector, the remaking of our infrastructure to deal with extreme weather — none of it will come cheap. We will see more droughts like the one in California and more storms like Katrina and Sandy. Through all of this, though, we must remember: climate change will inflict more damage and come with a larger price tag in the countries with the slimmest wallets.