In depth

Climate change is hitting poor and vulnerable people first and worst

In addition to making it harder for families to feed themselves, more severe cyclones, droughts and floods are wiping out decades of hard-earned development. 

Sea levels are rising due to climate change. (c) Rodney Dekker/Oxfam

Pacific people on the low-lying atolls are particularly vulnerable to climate change

Climate change is also taking a substantial toll on the economy. The Global Humanitarian Forum estimates that economic losses due to global warming amount to over US$165 billion annually – more than the flow of aid from rich to poor nations. This is expected to rise to US$450 billion each year by 2030.
 
Oxfam campaigns to keep global warming to no more than 1.5°C and for poor countries to receive the finance necessary to protect themselves from the climate crisis, which they played little part in causing. At the same time, we work with communities to help increase their resilience to unpredictable seasons and worsening extreme weather. 

What’s happening?

Rising sea levels – Coastal flooding, erosion and saltwater contamination of fresh water and staple food crops are already major problems. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) conservatively estimates that sea levels could rise 28-98 centimetres by the end of the century, and the US National Research Council believes the rise is more likely to be in the range of 56-200 centimetres. With only a 100 centimetre rise, 15 per cent of Pacific islands will be wiped out. And looking beyond just the next few decades, multiple studies have shown that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is beyond the point of no return, which equates to 10-13 feet of sea level rise. 
 
Less food – Climate change is hurting crop yields, particularly in the tropics. Harvests of the staple sweet potato in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea could halve by 2050. Agricultural land is eroding and becoming infertile due to saltwater intrusion. As seawater acidity and temperatures increase, coral reefs bleach, depriving local fish populations of their habitat. This worsens food shortages and nutrition for people in the Pacific.
 
Water shortages – In the Pacific, the freshwater lens on low-lying atolls is being contaminated by salt from higher king tides. In most dry subtropical regions, climate change over the next few decades is expected to significantly reduce renewable surface water and groundwater. 
 
Extreme weather events – The Pacific is facing more intense cyclones. From Cyclone Ian to the Solomon Islands flash floods of 2014 to Cyclone Pam, fierce storms are destroying crops and infrastructure, washing away people's food supplies and livelihoods. Droughts are increasing in many areas, but highly damaging shifts are also likely to come from relatively small changes in rainfall, which could dramatically decrease global crop yields and inflate prices; areas of sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America could face severe food shortages. 
 
Human health – At present, climate change exacerbates health problems that already exist; heat stress, water shortages and malnutrition. Higher temperatures are likely to worsen the spread of vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever. 
 

Climate change and poverty

Rising sea levels put fresh water resources and agricultural land at risk

Rising sea levels put fresh water resources and agricultural land at risk. (c) Rodney Dekker/Oxfam

These changes are dangerous enough in themselves, but when matched with the vulnerability of poverty – poor housing, lack of infrastructure, few financial options, and insecure food and water supply – they are potentially devastating. Climate change amplifies poverty, deepening existing problems and increasing vulnerability to others.
 
The impacts of climate change go up dramatically with temperatures – if we keep warming to 1.5°C the effects will be considerable. Warming past 2°C and beyond would mean severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts (e.g. islands going underwater, famine, widespread water shortages, frequent extreme storms, dengue fever spreading to new places including Australia). 
 
Without fundamental changes to business as usual, we’re headed towards a world where it will be even harder for poor communities to work their way out of poverty and thrive. 

Further reading

 
 
 
Making it Happen: As the era of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) comes to an end, two major injustices continue to undermine the efforts of millions of people to escape poverty and hunger: inequality and climate change. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Standing on the Sidelines: For the food and beverage industry, climate change is a major threat. For millions of people, it means more extreme weather and greater hunger. The Big 10 companies are significant contributors to this crisis, yet they are not doing nearly enough to help tackle it.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Hot and hungry: Climate change threatens to put back the fight to eradicate poverty by decades – and our global food system is woefully unprepared to cope with the challenge.