With his 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si,” Pope Frances went further than perhaps anyone has before to reframe the entire debate around climate change by focusing on the world’s poor and the duty to protect them from environmental harms that they did not cause themselves.
Now, new research in the journal Scientific Reports has underscored the pope’s message by showing that when it comes to climate change, it is indeed the countries with the most to lose that tend to contribute to the problem least — and also the other way round. The countries that contribute most to the problem — such as China and the United States, the current top two emitters — tend to show less relative vulnerability to the impact compared with nations that have quite low levels of emissions, the research finds.
“The general rule is, at a global scale, if you’re a nation that is going to suffer from climate change, you’re very likely not contributing to the problem,” says James Watson, a professor in the school of geography at the University of Queensland in Australia who also works with the Wildlife Conservation Society on climate change. Watson conducted the study with two colleagues from the University of Queensland.
“That’s the general rule that we found,” Watson continues. “But it’s completely inequitable.”
Many have observed this — including small island nations, which successfully lobbied to have the extra-protective climate target of 1.5 degrees Celsius included in the Paris climate agreement in December — but the new research has done something else: quantified it.
To do so, Watson and his colleagues compared two datasets. The first is a dataset kept by the World Resources Institute of the present-day emissions of countries around the world. Clearly, the relative contributions to the problem are quite unbalanced. The study notes that just 10 countries currently contribute more than 60 percent of all emissions, and a single one, China, contributes more than 20 percent (or did in 2010, which was the year used for the study).
The second dataset is a “Climate Vulnerability Monitor” kept by the humanitarian group DARA, which ranks countries according to vulnerability based on measures such as exposure to sea-level rise and drought, health hazards, risks of extremes or disasters, and more. Here, 17 countries were rated as “acutely vulnerable,” and they tended to be either island nations such as Vanuatu or African nations such as Gambia.
And the result? Sure enough, the research found — based on 2010 emissions and 2010 vulnerability levels — widespread inequity. The study noted, “20 of the 36 highest emitting countries are among the least vulnerable to negative impacts of future climate change. … Conversely, 11 of the 17 countries with low or moderate GHG emissions, are acutely vulnerable to negative impacts of climate change.”
The research also looked toward the future, when the number of climate-vulnerable countries grows as climate change itself becomes worse. In 2030, there are expected to be 62 “acutely” vulnerable countries, rather than 17. Again, small island nations and African nations lead the way. And inequity, the study found, is expected to be even worse.
Climate equity concerns were a key factor in the decision in Paris late last year to include the 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature target in a historic climate accord. The idea of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels has long been championed by small island nations, as well as a growing body of climate-vulnerable nations, and for understandable reasons; it limits their impacts.
However, it is generally agreed upon that the world is well off course if we want to hold warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. (We are currently at about 1 degree warmer than the late 19th century.) Indeed, many scientists say it won’t be possible without overshooting the goal and then coming back down again thanks to future technologies that will be capable of removing carbon dioxide from the air on a vast scale.
Granted, although the effects of climate change may be very disproportionate, it’s also becoming clear that the major emitters are also going to see their share of problems. Recent research, for instance, points to a major warming of waters off the U.S. East Coast that could have large implications for fisheries, storms, and sea-level rise.
So it’s not that the major emitters won’t suffer any impacts — but that those impacts aren’t likely to be distributed across the globe in proportion to emissions. Watson likens the current research on climate inequity to prior findings about secondhand smoke: “The people suffering from the impacts of smoking aren’t the smokers themselves, it’s the people next door,” he says.