Author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.” The prophetic warning also can apply to nations addressing the consequences of climate change. Unfortunately, nations that are more vulnerable to climate change bear a disproportionate burden of those consequences compared to the nations that contribute to them.
Understanding this disconnect between the largest polluters and those who most suffer the impact is paramount to developing climate change policy.
Let’s take a closer look at climate vulnerability and adaptability as they relate to the world’s largest polluters.
Climate vulnerability refers to the inability to cope with the adverse effects of climate change. The term could refer to a deteriorating ecosystem, like a melting ice sheet or an eroding coastal area. It also might refer to the downstream consequences of the environmental impact. A country largely dependent on agriculture for its food security and economy can be climate vulnerable if its native crops are threatened by climate change.
Some countries have the ability to adapt to changes in climate. Developed nations tend to be more climate-adaptable; they have the resources to build the necessary infrastructure required to adapt. A warmer, drier climate could potentially burn out crops. But climate-adaptable countries can create appropriate irrigation systems, or plant different crops that thrive in the heat.
In a fair world, the largest contributors to climate change also would be the most vulnerable to its impact. In reality, an inverse relationship seems to exist. MHA@GW, the online MHA offered through the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University, created an infographic to compare the nations that contribute the most CO2 emissions with the nations that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Carbon dioxide emissions continue to be the largest contributor to man-made global warming. But few of the climate-vulnerable nations are among the world’s largest CO2 emitters. Similarly, few of the world’s largest CO2 emitters are among the world’s climate vulnerable. A handful of nations fall into neither category, but only two nations—Iraq and Nigeria—contribute to climate change through their CO2 emissions while also being vulnerable to its consequences.
While climate vulnerability is most noticeable on the African continent, its footprint may quickly spread. Developing nations will lack resources to mitigate or recover from severe weather as it becomes more common. Islands, particularly in the Caribbean and Pacific Rim, may be the next group of nations to become climate-vulnerable. Meanwhile, international efforts to reduce CO2 emissions also may shrink the footprint of CO2-emitting nations.
Until the biggest polluters begin feeling the consequences of their pollution first-hand, they may be slow to adopt policies necessary to combat global warming. The climate-vulnerable nations are doing their part. Forty-five of the world’s most vulnerable countries have pledged to take aggressive actions toward implementing the landmark Paris Agreement. But unless they have a shared commitment from the world’s largest polluters, their actions alone may not be enough to prevent the climate consequences we all hope to avoid.