The Big Question

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From the Summer 2015 issue "Climate's Cliff"


Who has the most to lose from climate change in your country?

With a host of climate-driven natural disasters in recent months, and among the worst winters in years in the northern hemisphere, there is an increasing perception that climate change is a critical reality that must be faced by a growing mass of the world’s population. Accordingly, we chose to ask our panel of global experts, weighing in from six continents, who in their country has the most at stake in the face of our changing climate and the forces driving these environmental disruptions.



Climate change has had and is projected to continue having huge impacts across all socio-economic sectors in Zimbabwe. However, immediate and critical impacts with huge losses will be felt mostly by smallholder subsistence rural farmers who also form the bulk of the marginalized poor. Smallholder farmers’ dependence on rainfall and temperature dynamics exposes them to climate variability and change. In Zimbabwe, subsistence rural farmers’ vulnerability to climate change is reinforced and amplified by multiple and interacting non-climatic stresses and shocks from widespread poverty to poor input and output markets, marginalization from decision-making processes and a failing economy and poor governance systems with deteriorating safety nets. 

Vulnerability to climate change in Zimbabwe is closely related to existing critical development needs, with the most evident effects and biggest losses once again among subsistence rural farmers. These smallholder farmers occupy two thirds of all agricultural land in the country, and because the agriculture sector is the mainstay of Zimbabwe’s economy, they occupy a key position in the country’s overall economic growth and food security. The effects of climate change on smallholder rural farmers will, therefore, have huge ripple effects on food security in the country as a whole. With smallholder farmers’ lives and livelihoods largely dependent on mixed crop-livestock systems, however, they have the most to lose from climate change in Zimbabwe.  

Admire Nyamwanza is a postdoctoral research fellow with the African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI) at the University of Cape Town, currently working on climate change adaptation in Africa.





Extreme weather events, such as drought, tornadoes, and flash floods, caused serious damage in different parts of Turkey in 2014. For the first time, government officials associated those extreme weather events with climate change and drew public attention to the crisis. Climate change projections from the Turkish State Meteorological Service indicate that climate change will affect the whole country, and that agriculture will be one of the most affected industries.

Agriculture is one of the pillars of the Turkish economy, and a negative impact on the industry will have a broad impact on the economy, food security, and public health. Desertification has been a major issue for some time, especially in the central parts of Turkey, where employment depends heavily on agriculture. Over the last several decades, unsustainable farming methods and increased costs led people to abandon their lands and move to urban areas. Expected adverse consequences of climate change, such as loss of soil, scarce water resources, and reduction of crop yield, would only add to this crisis. In a scenario where decreased crop yield is added to urban population growth and increased demand for food, the impact on agriculture would have devastating consequences not only for people who depend on the farming industry, but for the population at large. As always, low-income groups will be the most affected.

Ali Kerem Kayhan is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Istanbul University Faculty of Law. 





Among human communities, the poor, and particularly farmers as an economic group, will suffer the most from climate change. Recent studies show that climate change will result in considerable declines in productivity of important crops, such as rice, maize, and horticultural crops, such as apples. In terms of increasing temperatures, erratic and unseasonal rainfall, and extreme weather events, the  anticipated changes will result in widespread agricultural productivity losses, changes that we are already witnessing. Agricultural laborers will be the hardest hit by economic losses, and the urban lower-class living in slums will be severely impacted by diseases like malaria, which may be on the rise. Fatalities due to soaring temperatures during summers will be most prevalent among these communities.

In terms of ecosystems, mountain landscapes, such as the Himalaya and the Western Ghats, and the coastal regions, such as Sundarbans in Bengal straddling the border with Bangladesh, will lose the most from climate change. Biodiversity hotspots are likely to witness species range shifts, extinctions, and biological invasions under changed climate conditions. Changes in these regions will impact human communities that depend on the ecosystem services of these landscapes. The Indian coastal regions will be vulnerable to inundations, due to sea level rise and the extreme weather events we have witnessed over the last couple of years that caused massive life and property losses. Coastal areas, in general, and unique mangrove ecosystems will be impacted and along with it the habitat of the charismatic Royal Bengal Tiger.

Dr. Maharaj K. Pandit is a professor at the University of Delhi’s Department of Environmental Studies and a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study as of September 2015.





Bangladesh has the fifth highest population density in the world and is also one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. Most people in Bangladesh live with the risk of climate-induced vulnerability, while nearly 25.6 percent live below the poverty line and do not have the capacity or knowledge to cope with climate vulnerability. Most people living below the poverty line are fishermen or farmers, and live in communities located in areas that are at the bottom of the social and economic safety nets. The coastal zone of Bangladesh is severely affected by cyclones, tidal surges, sea level rise, and saline water intrusion, which affect agriculture, fish, and water availability, on which their livelihoods depend.

Recents scientific studies have revealed that the frequency of climate change-related disasters, like temperature increases, erratic trends of rainfall, sea level rise, flooding, and drought, will increase in Bangladesh. People living on the coast, and other disaster prone regions like the northwest of Bangladesh, are at greatest risk of losing their lives and their livelihoods. They are also more likely to lose their shelter and all assets, along with their hope for better lives. Proper knowledge, effective early warning systems, and a combination of science with indigenous practice could help them a bit in their daily existential struggle.

Afroza Haque is a research officer at the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, focusing on ecosystems and geospatial analysis. 





As the driest inhabited continent, with a history of devastating drought, floods, fire, and tropical cyclones, Australia has more to lose from climate change than most countries. The most populated areas of Australia are becoming drier, heat waves and extreme fire weather are increasing, while storms are becoming more intense. Australia’s people, economy, and iconic ecosystems, like the Great Barrier Reef and Kakadu, will all lose under a changing climate. Yet, Australia’s political response to climate change has lagged behind many other countries. It was one of the last countries to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, recently removed its newly established price control on carbon, and lacks a credible policy to achieve even the modest emission reductions it has pledged.

This ineffective political response reveals who really has the most to lose from climate change in Australia—the powerful mining companies that thrive by digging up our vast reserves of fossil fuels and shipping them to the world and the politicians who back them. If the world is to respond effectively to climate change, most of Australia’s coal and gas needs to stay in the ground, unburned. Fossil fuel companies face huge losses as the global divestment movement takes hold and the renewable energy boom continues. This unpleasant truth has led mining companies and their political supporters to resist climate action at every turn, so far with great success. However, they are on the wrong side of history and will eventually lose, as demand for their damaging products declines.

Christopher Riedy is an associate professor at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. 





Latin America and the Caribbean are highly vulnerable to climate change. Coastal cities will have to become more resilient to cope with rising sea levels, and core economic activities such as agriculture will face additional challenges due to temperature increases, changes in rainfall patterns, as well as pests. Still, the most affected by this phenomenon will be the poor. The region’s development agenda has been lauded by many, but today’s achievements could be nothing but memories if the agenda does not wrap further climate change variables into key national strategies involving infrastructure projects, basic services, fiscal reforms, social programs, and economic plans.

The poorest face multiple challenges. Many live in hazardous areas, usually over floodplains and foothills, endangering their already precarious homes. Moreover, these people lack access to basic services, such as water, electricity, and sanitation, which may only intensify as watersheds are over-pumped or polluted, and the power generation of hydroelectric plants decreases with reduced rainfall.

Latin America’s model of urban expansion has overwhelmed planning capacities of municipal governments. Climate change will only further stress budget allocations and limit governments’ ability to improve the quality of life for its citizens. The poverty rate in the region dropped to 27.6 percent in 2014, but further improvement must align social and climate variables to attain sustainable and inclusive growth.

Jennifer Doherty-Bigara works for the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), with a focus on climate change, sustainable cities, and social inclusion.





The level of climate change vulnerability in Spain and the Basque country depends on the sector considered. From a health perspective, society’s most vulnerable are those suffering the most from heat stress-related illnesses or food-related diseases—the elderly and the very young. At the same time, the frequency and severity of floods are likely to increase. Sea levels are already rising at a rate of 0.08 inches per year—four times faster than during the previous 7,000 years, and this rate is expected to double. The intensity and direction of swells are changing, so those living close to rivers, waterways, and the coast will be the ones most subject to catastrophic losses of life and property, as well as by a sharp increase in post-traumatic stress. 

From an economic perspective, changes in water flow are likely to have the biggest impact on the agricultural and energy sectors. Ecosystems across the board will suffer a great deal. So many services provided by nature (nutrient recycling, primary production, and soil formation), provisioning services (fishing and other food production, genetic resources, medicinal resources, and energy generation), regulating services (carbon sequestration, water and air purification, pest and disease control), and cultural services (recreational, scientific, and historical) will be seriously impaired. In other words, all Spaniards will be directly and indirectly affected by climate change. With the long-term nature of the impact and limited intergenerational solidarity, future generations are more likely to suffer than current ones.

Ibon Galarraga is deputy director and professor at the Basque Center for Climate Change. His research includes public policy, with special attention to research that can be useful to inform climate policy.





For over a decade now, Inuits from Canada have been openly warning those of us who live far from the North that the climate is undergoing dramatic change. Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a Canadian Inuit leader and outspoken activist, warned that the Arctic serves as “the canary in the coal mine for the global environment.” The ubiquitous polar bear is not the only loser caught in the stranglehold of global warming; the Inuit must face the real possibility of extinction and at the very least must adapt to environmental changes that they did not cause. For a people whose very existence is deeply linked to the land, the sea, and the ice, the loss of traditions such as hunting and fishing is tantamount to the loss of culture. Where the catch feeds the family and is shared among community members, this millennia-old tradition is a source of storytelling, passed from generation to generation, acting as a guide for the future of their people.

Just as Inuit had to endure the assault of colonialism, today they must survive a different type of colonialism. Their homeland, the Arctic, is laced with pollutants contributing to the melting sea ice and permafrost, poisoning local food, infecting mothers’ milk, and broadly threatening further havoc to the ecological sources responsible for the health, well-being, and happiness of Canada’s Inuit. That’s critical not only for Canada’s Inuit, but also as a global indicator of what we all may expect in the future.

Erica Dingman is a senior fellow at World Policy Institute and director of Arctic-in-Context. 



Compiled by  Jordan Clifford, Sophie des Beauvais, & Evan Gottesman

[Photo courtesy of Asian Development Bank]

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