By Gabriel Jones-Thomson


If you had two minutes to talk to Pope Francis about climate change, what would you say? In 2014, atmospheric scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan was given the very opportunity in a parking lot; and because he was caught off guard, he did not discuss greenhouse emissions or complicated science, but replied with a simple, direct, and home-hitting answer: Climate change is a moral and ethical issue– “Most pollution comes from the wealthiest one billion and the worst consequences of that is going to be for the poorest one billion” (Veerabhadran Ramanathan Vox). To his great surprise, Ramanathan succeeded, and during the Pope’s next address and in several subsequent tweets, the world’s leader of Christianity encouraged his listeners to take better care of the environment and appreciate the urgency of climate change.

This anecdote eloquently expresses the importance of presenting climate change as moral issue, and not attempting to gather support by scaring listeners with science and doomsday predictions–as I discussed in last month’s article. But how and why does climate change affect the poor disproportionately?

To begin with, the brunt of climate change will and is currently being taken by countries near the equator, specifically in South America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia, all regions that suffer from poverty and constitute 55% of the globe’s developing countries (Laura Parker National Geographic). As explained by a research paper jointly written by members of the World Bank and Yale School of  Environmental Studies, “Because they happen to be located in low latitude regions, poor countries are currently much hotter than optimal…Increases in temperature consequently cause more damages to poor countries compared with more wealthy countries.” In other words, since low latitude countries, largely poor, are already suffering from high temperatures, a slight increase results in dramatic shifts–like droughts–which cause mass starvation and further push the region into crisis.

Climate change, consequently, is driving immigration. For example, Kevin Young, a UMass history professor–who wrote a newspaper article and gave a presentation in August that I was able to attend–concluded from his research that the rising temperatures (coupled with droughts, rising sea levels, etc.) has played an essential role in increasing immigration from Mexico and South America north to the United States. A study by the World Bank estimated that climate change would create 143 million immigrants across the globe in the coming decades, “escaping crop failure, water scarcity, and sea-level rise” (Laura Parker National Geographic), while the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery estimates that within the next 15 years alone climate change has the ability to relocate 100 million people.

In addition to foreign countries, at home in the United States–an affluent nation–the poor are still hit the hardest, whether due to living in more vulnerable locations (lower elevations, more coastal, etc.) or simply not having the resources in the first place.

Take Hurricane Harvey for example: an extreme weather event that many scientists give at least partial credit to global warming. A survey conducted in August of 2018 found startling disparities with regard to minorities and poverty levels: “27 percent of Hispanic Texans whose homes were badly damaged reported that those homes remained unsafe to live in, compared to 20 percent of blacks and 11 percent of whites” (Manny Fernandez, NY Times). Furthermore, a survey by Kaiser Family Foundation and the Episcopal Health Foundation found that 18 percent more of lower-income families did not receive the necessary assistance compared to middle and upper-income families.

When examining such a myriad of examples, it is quite easy to arrive at the metaphor that climate change literally is a stresser; whenever there is crisis or suffering or economic inequality, it accentuates and worsens the situation.

As illustrated in the Harvey example, climate change’s disproportionate effect on the poor also ties into its disproportionate effect on minorities, since the two are often linked in both the United States and abroad (Latin America, Africa are worst affected remember). In other words, from a domestic perspective, minorities and impoverished people will suffer the worst consequences of climate change, and they have a very limited voice in creating policy. Here lies the environmental movement’s greatest failure but also greatest potential: It is necessary that the environmental movement moves beyond its stereotype of engaging and serving the white middle class, and work to incorporate minorities into its ranks and leadership.

To accomplish the change needed both with regard to social, racial and environmental issues, WE as a community in Franklin County, Western Massachusetts, and as a nation need to realize that all such types of injustice are merely different folds of the same cloth; not separate but integrally related. To recover from and avoid the worst effects of climate change, all groups striving for justice need to be valued and united so that our voices will carry a weight as powerful as the Pope’s, but with the result of legislative and direct action.