The coming climate apartheid

A man attempts to fend-off a swarm of desert locusts at a ranch near the town on Nanyuki in Laikipia county, Kenya.

Over the past 40 years, the economic gap between the world's richest and poorest countries and peoples has narrowed sharply. Goods, services, and people began to cross borders at greater velocity, creating opportunities for people to live healthier, more secure, and more prosperous lives. Billions rose out of poverty.

Here's the catch: all that beneficial economic activity has also sharply increased the use of fossil fuels and the amount of carbon that's reaching the atmosphere. Life on earth remains possible only because carbon dioxide in our atmosphere captures enough heat from the sun to sustain us while deflecting enough extra heat into space to keep us from burning up. That's the "natural greenhouse effect."

The fossil fuels we've been using to produce energy have upset a delicate atmospheric balance by pumping a lot more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which traps more heat near the earth's surface. Deforestation in some parts of the world adds to the problem, because trees absorb and store carbon dioxide. Higher temperatures melt Arctic and Antarctic ice, rising sea levels everywhere.

And as sea levels rise and extreme weather events become more common, poorer countries and people are the most vulnerable. In other words, climate change threatens to undo many of the gains of the past 40 years.

The poorer half of the world's people generate just 10 percent of the world's carbon emissions, but the UN has warned that poorer countries – which are more dependent on climate-vulnerable agriculture and generally have ricketier infrastructure – will bear 75 percent of the costs for paying for it: the costs of housing and feeding refugees driven from their homes by floods or famines, as well as rebuilding roads, bridges, and property damaged by more extreme weather.

The result will be a form of "climate apartheid," a term coined by Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Some governments in wealthier countries will promise to help, but their taxpayers, aware of climate-related disasters in their own countries, will likely prove less willing to bear the burdens of new "bailouts" for foreign countries.

To understand the scale of this problem, take the example of Bangladesh. More than 45 million of Bangladesh's 161 million people now live in places already prone to flooding. Climate scientists warn that global warming will increase the frequency and severity of the storms that hit Bangladesh. Over the next generation, rising sea levels alone will force as many as 18 million Bangladeshis from their homes.

This catastrophe will be repeated in poorer countries in every region of the world. In some cases, people will be dislocated by flooding. In other cases, there will be droughts. These movements can have political consequences: failed crops in rural Syria a decade ago sent large numbers of people scrambling into cities, adding to the growing unrest in that country at the time. Droughts in Central America have pushed many people north toward the US border in search of better prospects.

Who will pay to meet these coming challenges? Where will these people go? How will they be greeted when they get there? Taxpayers in New York, London, Shanghai and other rich countries may not be interested in helping. International organizations can't shoulder the load alone. But because the world remains deeply interconnected, this isn't a problem only for the world's poorest people. It's a challenge for all of us.

More from Global Stage

Live from Davos: Crisis in a digital world | Monday, May 23 | 11 am ET / 5 pm CEST | Global Stage

GZERO streams live from Davos

As industry and government leaders gather in person for the 2022 World Economic Forum, GZERO Media is hosting a special livestream to discuss “Crisis in a digital world” at 5 pm CEST/11 am EDT.

Live from Davos: Crisis in a digital world

Live from Davos: Crisis in a digital world

As industry and government leaders gather in person for the 2022 World Economic Forum, GZERO Media is hosting a special livestream to discuss “Crisis in a digital world” on Monday, May 23, at 5pm CEST/11am EDT.

Global Stage Podcast | Patching the System | Fighting Cybercrime

Podcast: A cybercrime treaty proposed by…Russia?

Listen: Cybercrime is a rapidly growing threat, and one that will require a global effort to combat. But could some of the same measures taken to fight criminals online lead to human rights abuses and a curtailing of freedom? As the United Nations debates a new and expansive cybercrime treaty first proposed by Russia, we’re examining the details of the plan, how feasible it would be to find consensus, and what potential dangers await if the treaty is misused by authoritarian governments.

Haiti stuck in a "vicious circle," says IMF economist

Amid the current global turmoil, one country that's definitely no stranger to crises is Haiti. Haitians will surely feel the pinch of rising prices of things like food and fuel, International Monetary Fund economist Nicole Laframboise says during a Global Stage conversation with GZERO Media in partnership with Microsoft.

Podcast: Cyber Mercenaries and the digital “wild west"

Podcast: Cyber Mercenaries and the digital “wild west"

Listen: The concept of mercenaries, hired soldiers and specialists working privately to fight a nation’s battles, is nearly as old as war itself.In our fourth episode of “Patching the System,” we’re discussing the threat cyber mercenaries pose to individuals, governments, and the private sector. We’ll examine how spyware used to track criminal and terrorist activity around the world has been abused by bad actors in cyber space who are hacking and spying activists, journalists, and even government officials. And we’ll talk about what’s being done to stop it.

Egypt wants COP27 to be all about implementation

Later this year, Egypt will be hosting the COP27 Climate Summit. What does the gathering hope to accomplish at such an uncertain time for climate action? It's time to go from pledges and commitments to implementation, Egyptian Minister for International Cooperation Rania al-Mashat says during a Global Stage livestream conversation hosted by GZERO Media in partnership with Microsoft.

Digital Equity