Locusts, climate loss and inequality

In the summer of 2020, when the world was reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, Kenya and other drought-stricken countries in East Africa were hit by a plague of locusts. It was a truly biblical moment. Millions of these voracious insects devoured the crops of millions of farmers. This in turn drove up hunger and destitution which has only continued to get worse. We estimated that one person is dying of hunger every 48 seconds in the region.

Nairobi is just a few hundred miles away, and in fact some of these insects managed to make it there.  I first saw one in the car park at the shopping mall when I was going to buy our weekly groceries; we later had one or two in our garden.  They are big, ugly things.

(Locust on our window in our house in Nairobi, May 2020)

I was thinking about this recently; how within one country, people can be starving, whilst a few hundred miles away people are going to the supermarket in a nice shopping mall to stock up on their favourite foods. How a locust is a novelty to be photographed in my garden in Nairobi, when just a few hours drive away their swarms are helping to drive unprecedented levels of hunger and starvation.

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

We have written a lot recently about the inequality of carbon emissions between rich and poor; and how the top 1% emit more carbon that the whole of the bottom half of humanity and that their emissions are increasing dramatically. It has been great to see this analysis go mainstream. Yesterday the International Energy Agency took up this issue, reiterating that the gaps in emissions between rich and poor people within countries are now more important than the gaps between countries.

The other side of the climate and inequality story

There is also another powerful way in which inequality and climate change interact: in the inequality of climate losses and harm of climate breakdown.   This has been highlighted really well in the brilliant new Climate and Inequality Report by Lucas Chancel and the team at the World Inequality Lab.

(Great chart from the Climate Inequality Report, showing how capacity to respond (wealth) and emissions are skewed towards the rich, losses are hugely skewed toward the poorest.)

I have written in the past how disasters, and in particular the reporting of disasters is so often inequality blind. Time and again we are given the impression that everyone in a country has been impacted equally.  

We saw this with COVID-19 which was misdescribed as the ‘Great Leveller – poor people were in fact four times more likely to die from it than the rich.

It was very much in evidence in the reporting of the terrible earthquake in Turkey. We read lots about poorly constructed buildings, but very few made the logical leap that rich people are far less likely to be living in those buildings. The Economist was a rare exception. They used clever data to show that most building collapses happened in poor neighbourhoods.  A world bank survey of 207 countries showed that the bottom 20% are twice as likely to live in fragile dwellings than the average person.

Disastrously unequal

Disasters are a great example of what is known somewhat euphemistically as a ‘social gradient’.  The brutal fact is that poor people are far more likely to be harmed in a disaster, are least able to cope, and have the worst long-term impacts. The overall impact of disasters is to increase inequality in a country. This is something we see as Oxfam time and again all over the world, from Bolivia, to Pakistan, and it is this learning and experience that we can now connect with inequality and climate breakdown.

Climate losses and climate damages are deeply and profoundly unequal. They are unequal globally; with poorer nations hit hardest, which is well known. It is so unfair that those nations least responsible are the ones hardest hit. But climate losses are also deeply unequal at national level too.

One of the biggest impacts is hunger. People in poor countries on average spend a greater proportion of their incomes on food (40%) than those in rich countries (17%).  But within those developing nations the difference is enormous in sub-Saharan Africa, the split is 60% to less than 10%.   Poor people in the USA spend more than three times more of their incomes on food than do rich people in Africa.

Climate change has a big impact on inequality when we look at heat stress. Very high temperatures are experienced very differently depending on your wealth. One study in India found that average temperature difference between formal and informal housing was 7.6 degrees Celsius. A 50 degree day on average feels a very different in an air-conditioned house in the Delhi suburbs than it does in a tin shack in a slum, which operates like an oven.  This is the case in rich countries too; one study in Germany found that poor people were much more likely to die because of extreme temperatures.

There is a steep social gradient when we look at flooding. In Greece the loss from flooding for the poorest people was four times higher than that of the middle class.

Disasters and losses drive up inequality.

Climate-driven inequality also impacts on the scale of these kinds of losses. In absolute terms, richer people may have more to lose – but it is always those at the bottom whose proportionate losses are bigger. The World Bank found that in 92 countries, the relative income losses for the bottom 40% are 70% higher than those of the average population.

Poorer people also take much longer to recover because they have fewer resources to do so.  In Armenia and Georgia the difference in recovery time between poor and rich regions was five years. The poorest people don’t have much in the way of savings or assets to help them, and those who have tend to be fixed, like a house, or crops or livestock or land – things that can be destroyed, killed or swept away. Financial assets are not only protected, but they can also buy insurance, protection, safety, escape, and the necessities. Economic inequality of course intersects with other inequalities; the UN showed last year that women and children are 14 times more likely to be killed in a disaster than men.  I remember how the complete failure of the US government to help the poorest at the time of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans exposed the brutal racism of US society.

After a disaster, poor people find it much harder to prove their losses in order to secure help from the government or insurance, because their assets are often not registered or formally recognised. In Nepal, only 6% of the poorest people got government help following extreme weather events, compared to 90% of the well off. This is particularly true for proving land tenure, which can lead to long-term displacement after a disaster when ‘disputed’ land is grabbed from those who were impacted, as happened for example in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan.

The richest can afford to live in much stronger houses and on land much less prone to floods or other disasters.  Their property is registered and insured. They have diversified assets, with money in the bank, not just in bricks and mortar. Their incomes are not as dependent on agriculture. Rich people may barely notice a doubling of food prices. They can get a generator for their own electricity or buy bottled water. In short, whilst never fully protected, the richest in every society are much better able to weather the impact of climate change.

These immediate privileges in the face of more frequent weather-related disasters drive up long-term inequality. This was modelled in a paper released last week which projected that climate change will increase inequality within every country in the world.

I think that the main impact is of climate-related inequality is political.

Rich countries have dragged their heels in tackling climate change simply because they haven’t felt its impact as much as poor countries. I can see this happening too within countries – for exactly the same reason.

Because the richest are relatively shielded, they are less likely to support and indeed fund through their taxes the kind of collective, national actions needed to protect all of society from climate breakdown.

Equality as the best form of adaptation

More equal societies we know have greater levels of trust and of solidarity.  These attributes are vitally needed in our new age of climate breakdown.  A more equal society at its best not only redistributes risk across society, but in so doing reduces that risk overall. Rich people can only insulate themselves so much. I am reminded of a Dutch colleague some years ago explaining to me that a big part of the Dutch mindset and collective action was shaped by their need to keep the sea out; no matter how rich you are, you can’t simply have a dyke at the end of your garden whilst your poorer neighbours have nothing.

In Vietnam for example, a relatively more equal country, although everyone’s exposure to floods in Ho Chi Minh city was high, poor people were only 6% more likely to be exposed than the average for the city.  In Mumbai, in India, a much more unequal country, 44% of the poorest were exposed to floods against just 1% of the richest.  I think that more equal societies, where risk is more evenly distributed, are one of the best forms of adaptation to climate breakdown. Not only is there more trust and solidarity, more equal societies are more likely to have systems, like progressive taxation, universal social protection, or universal public services, that make them more resilient against disasters.  Equal societies are arguably able to face this new age of extreme weather in ways that both minimise the impact while maximizing the ability of everyone, rich and poor, to cope.


Author: Max is the Head of Inequality Policy at Oxfam International & EQUALS Podcast co-host. He is also Chair of the Global People’s Vaccine Alliance.

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