Wealthy Nations Continue to Drive Climate Change with Devastating Impacts for Poorer Countries

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

In a November 2021 article for The Conversation, Sonja Klinsky outlined how and why poorer countries and regions are disproportionately affected by climate change. Wealthier nations, such as the US, Canada and Australia, all have roughly 100 times the per capita greenhouse gas emissions of several African countries largely due to reckless burning of fossil fuels to power industries, build infrastructure, and mass-produce goods. The responsibility to turn things around has long fallen on the shoulders of those who have been directly impacted by climate change, but developing nations cannot afford to reduce their comparatively small emissions without also negatively impacting their own populations’ well-being.

“As a country’s emissions get higher, they are less tied to essentials for human well-being. Measures of human well-being increase very rapidly with relatively small increases in emissions, but then level off,” writes Klinsky. “That means high-emitting countries could reduce their emissions significantly without reducing the well-being of their populations.”

Fossil fuels release carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, where it lingers for hundreds of years. CO2 locks in heat and its gradual build-up warms the planet, causing catastrophic natural disasters, like wildfires, severe storms, and floods. But the greatest emitters are often not the ones bearing the brunt of the climate crisis. As sea levels rise, people in small island countries, like Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, will struggle to survive. In 2019, according to a 2021 report by Quartz Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, South Sudan, and Niger all experienced unpredictable and drastic changes in temperature and precipitation, which led to food shortages, loss of key infrastructure, economic disasters, and hundreds of fatalities.

“Processes that marginalize people, such as racial injustice and colonialism, mean that some people in a country or community are more likely than others to be able to protect themselves from climate harms,” writes Klinsky.

Unsurprisingly, only 5 percent of the world’s population is responsible for 36 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions from 1990-2015. The impoverished half of the population account for less than 6 percent of all emissions.

The 2015 Paris Accord included a lofty promise made by the United States meant to address the needs of low-income countries who are suffering from the disastrous effects of climate change. The United States guaranteed that industrialized nations would help contribute to a goal of $100 billion a year to tackle climate change beginning in 2020. However, they missed the mark that year. And then did so again in 2021. Shortly before the United Nations’ Glasgow climate conference in 2021, Canadian and German diplomats released a joint statement, which said they anticipated “significant progress toward the US $100 billion goal in 2022 and express(ed) confidence that it would be met in 2023.” By now, though, $100 billion would simply not suffice. The damage is so great that the price of adapting to climate change will only continue to rise.

Fortunately, corporate outlets such as Time and the New York Times have started reporting on environmental racism in the United States. In June 2020, the Washington Post highlighted a 2019 study by the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences which revealed that “Black and Hispanic communities in the US are exposed to far more air pollution than they produce through actions like driving and using electricity.” Missing from this coverage, however, is the US’s role in speeding up the effects of climate change in the global south.


Sonja Klinsky, “Climate Change Is a Justice Issue – These 6 Charts Show Why,” The Conversation, November 3, 2021.

Tawanda Karombo, “These African Countries Are among the World’s Worst Hit by Climate Change,” Quartz Africa, January 27, 2021.

Student Researcher: Lena Anderson (Diablo Valley College)

Faculty Evaluator: Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)