Who will suffer climate breakdown first?

Jackson Bigasaki, caretaker at the permaculture demonstration garden in Bikunya
Some countries and communities will feel the impacts of climate breakdown much earlier and more devastatingly than others.

Climate breakdown will affect everyone — but according to current research, not everyone will feel those effects equally.

Climate breakdown is often discussed as a future hypothetical, but we're already starting to see how it will affect lives throughout the world. 

Homeowners in coastal communities are asking what their elected officials are willing to do to prevent neighborhoods from being submerged by rising tides.

In US states like Louisiana, Texas and Florida, many are beginning to feel the impact of especially intense hurricane seasons. Long-lasting droughts are likely contributing to record-breaking fires on the West Coast.

Climate breakdown will affect everyone — but according to current research, not everyone will feel those effects equally.

Here's who will likely suffer the most without policies and action that brings carbon emissions under control.

Hardest Hit

Communities in countries with limited resources and underdeveloped infrastructure will likely be the most susceptible to climate change vulnerability.

For example, the government of the Maldives — an island chain off the coast of Sri Lanka where 80 percent of the country is less than 3 feet above water — is already preparing for the worst.

The nation, which is investing heavily in disaster-resistant infrastructure and renewable energy, could be effectively wiped off the map by rising tides.

Fast-growing cities in developing countries will also face issues with limited infrastructure strained by new citizens.

These places are some of the most at risk — like Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria, where 15 million people live just 6 feet above sea level.

It's a major financial hub, but growth in recent years, driven by urban migration from rural areas, has put a severe strain on local infrastructure. 

Climate breakdown will affect everyone — but according to current research, not everyone will feel those effects equally.

As a result, rainstorms intensified by climate change are a serious threat. In 2017, flooding in the city submerged homes, cars and valuables, and caused major economic damage.

Around the world, you can already see similar crises developing in cities like Mumbai and Bangladesh in India and Beira in Mozambique, which was devastated by Cyclone Idai in 2019.

Recovery pains

Even people in more developed countries are not safe from climate change. Those who suffer the most will likely not have the resources to pick up and move as climate change disrupts their communities.

For now, real estate in coastal communities is still valuable. However, this could quickly change once erosion and rising sea levels begin to make some areas more unlivable. 

If people can't sell their homes, only those with the money to relocate will be able to escape the worst effects.

In California, we've already seen this play out — with the poor being the least able to move away from fire-prone areas and having the hardest time recovering

In the future, the entire country could look like California.

Inland communities in the American South, for example, have mostly been spared the worst effects of climate change so far — with the exception of some unusually late harvests. However, this could change soon. 

In some of the most extreme scenarios modeled by scientists, we could see large areas of the South made almost unlivable due to heat and drought.

New research suggests that this could prompt a major migration in the US — with one in 12 Americans from the South moving to California, according to one 2018 study.

As with coastal communities, those who have the hardest time moving — especially poor, disabled and marginalized people — will feel the worst of this change.

They may be stuck in place long after people in wealthier communities have fled or recovered from disaster.

Take action

If left unchecked, climate change could soon have major impacts around the world. To make matters worse, some of the most vulnerable will be hit the hardest.

Fortunately, there's a lot we can do — as individuals and communities — to prevent the worst-case climate change scenarios. 

Investing in resilient infrastructure and supporting policies that will reduce carbon emissions, for example, can help us prepare for intense disasters and reduce their likelihood.

As individuals, we can make eco-friendly choices — like driving less, buying from sustainable brands and reducing energy consumption — to lower our personal carbon footprint.

While it will take a sustained effort from people around the world, we can slow or prevent the worst effects of climate change.

This Author

Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.

More from this author