Everyone in the world is affected by the climate crisis, whether they realize it or not, as temperatures climb and trigger chain reactions that destabilize environmental norms. 

But not everyone is affected in the same way. In parts of the world, the impacts are both more acutely felt and devastating than in others. And it’s a profound irony that the people most harmed by climate change today are the ones least responsible for it. This is what environmental advocates mean when they say “climate injustice,” and it’s a problem that’s getting worse as the impacts worsen.

In the latest report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the injustice of the climate crisis is front and center, as scientists from different fields painstakingly detail the many ways in which the poorest communities are being betrayed by the global community and its insistence on an economic order that ravages the planet. 

This is the first report that discusses the historical role of colonialism in shaping the conditions that have led to the climate crisis. Spanning more than 3,600 pages, the report is an undeniable record of a runaway catastrophe that can only be stopped by transforming human society and supporting a just transition.

“The report takes a very clear position on the inequity of the climate crisis and how unfairly the impacts of climate change are affecting historically marginalized populations and countries disproportionately,” Shyla Raghav, the vice president of climate change at Conservation International, told Global Citizen. “It's clearly an injustice because these are the communities that are the least responsible for emissions.”

Global Citizen spoke with Raghav about the main takeaways of the IPCC report, some of the impacts that communities are facing today, and what needs to be done to protect vulnerable populations.

Global Citizen: What are your main impressions from the report?

Shyla Raghav: Reflecting a little bit on each IPCC assessment report and the last two cycles, this one stands out in terms of the clarity and the certainty and how hard hitting the recommendations are. 

I think in past reports, it almost felt that we were trying to prevent threats, risks, and harms in the future, so the impacts felt distant, further in time and space. There was this sense that climate action was still very much a mitigation issue.

The main impression I get from this report is it squarely positions climate change as a present reality. It’s here today, it's our new normal. We aren’t necessarily in a position to stop, halt, or reverse climate change, but rather prevent it from getting catastrophically worse. 

The second impression is that the report takes a very clear position on the inequity of the climate crisis and how unfairly the impacts of climate change are affecting historically marginalized populations and countries disproportionately. It's clearly an injustice because these are the communities that are the least responsible for emissions.

Clearly calling this an injustice is something that is notable about this report because that implies that the international process and governance has failed to adequately, sufficiently, and appropriately address climate change, in particular when it comes to the provision of funding. There’s a staggering gap in climate financing between what’s needed and what’s delivered.

This is the most direct call to action that we’ve seen, calling out these injustices and the financing gap. We’re already in this position to address climate change, but unless we act now, unless we react immediately, these impacts will cause our planet to reach tipping points that are irreversible, a complete collapse of ecosystem and planetary stability that will have cascading effects for populations. 

The report features many jarring examples of the current impacts of climate change. What’s an example that stands out to you?

I’m in California, and of course fire has always been an issue here but growing up it was never something we were day-to-day worried about. We were always worried about earthquakes. Every year, we would worry about “the big one” coming and we would take our earthquake kits to school. They would include water, juice, and supplies. We grew up with this constant fear of earthquakes and, now, nobody’s talking about earthquakes. Now, it's only fire. There's been a doubling of area under fire risk, and these impacts are accelerating exponentially.

To tie it back to the news we’re seeing today — the conflict in Ukraine — these aren’t separate issues. Instability and conflict in one place is not disconnected from climate change. In fact, it’s even more important to recognize the connection because the risk of instability will just increase as climate impacts continue to disrupt our livelihoods and societies. 

We shouldn’t see climate change as a fringe or environmental or even an issue just for those vulnerable populations. It’s going to affect all of us. 

This report features some of the harshest warnings yet. Do you think it will be enough to spur world leaders to finally take action and phase out fossil fuels?

I think that every time one of these reports comes out, it's a wake-up call. We’re sounding the alarm, but I don’t know how many more alarms it’s going to take. I hope that leaders, especially coming out of a pandemic and thinking about recovery, will see the imperative to build resilient societies. It’s hard for me to predict if they’ll wake up in time. But I sincerely hope that the mounting evidence and the demand of citizens will culminate and gain enough traction to cause the type of tipping point that we want, which is a tipping point of behavior change and the acceptance of climate change in our voting demands.

The report details failed adaptation efforts of the past that have often made things worse for communities and the environment. What are some of the best adaptation practices that CI has learned?

You need to take a systemic approach. If you’re looking at water quality or the availability of water, you need to take into account the entire watershed. Has it been diverted or depleted or polluted by industries upstream?

The first issue is getting deeper levels of coordination within and across sectors. We need to connect biodiversity and climate change, and think about them holistically and comprehensively. We need integration of the entire ecological context with the social and the economic context. 

Just thinking more broadly, building on this concept of integration, the report calls for transformative adaptation. What that means and what it compels is really moving away from incremental responses. If you see a storm coming, you might put in an early warning system to alert communities, but this is just tweaking one part. You’re not thinking about what’s causing the storm or what’s making people vulnerable to the storms. For example, have all of the mangroves that are protecting people from surges been cut down or degraded or replaced with aquaculture?

Most historic adaptation efforts have been standalone and isolated. They need to be transformative. Our values and our goals as a society need to change. We can’t just think about one climate impact, but have to look at how it’s affecting our entire model of society, our entire understanding of growth and development. That might be thinking about how we live, where we settle, and thinking about how we maintain the agency of people and their ability to shape their own futures. 

Wealthy countries that are largely responsible for the climate crisis agreed to provide $100 billion in climate finance by 2020 to low-income countries, but have yet to fulfill this promise. Why is it essential for them to follow through?

It’s really imperative that industrialized countries and the largest historic and current emitters scale up the amount of finance that’s provided because of this injustice.

The climate crisis is caused by historic emissions. Methane can stay in the atmosphere for 10 years, carbon dioxide for decades. So the warming of today is really an aggregate of a century or more of emissions, which points to industrialized or developed countries in the warming of today. They hold a larger share of the responsibility to provide low income countries with the resources they need to cope with the current and future consequences. 

It’s not just that financing estimates fall short, it’s also that the type of financing is sometimes loan-based or concessional finance which limits their use or requires that countries pay them back. 

Can you describe some of the impacts that vulnerable countries are facing?

Drought is one of the most severe impacts, but there’s also the fact that 70% of human populations live on the coastlines and live in urban centers on coastlines, and these urban areas are incredibly exposed to climate impacts from sea level rise and storms, which might might disrupt the survival and livelihoods of more than a billion people. 

Climate change is water change — too much water or too little water. The increased incidence of droughts and floods, much of this is rooted in unsustainable human processes, the fragmentation of human ecosystems, but climate change is going to multiply those effects. There’s a lot in terms of actions that can be taken, there are ways of integrating more sustainable practices to prevent these problems from getting so much worse.

Nature-based solutions are so important because they're easily available and directly affect how these impacts materialize.

What needs to be prioritized in climate action?

The first thing, immediately and with urgency, is to scale up our efforts to mitigate climate change. We have to adapt, we know that, but these impacts are just going to accelerate even more rapidly unless we quickly mitigate our emissions in line with the recommendations of the IPCC — moving toward net zero by mid-century and halving emissions every decade.

There’s a COP [Conference of Parties, the UN climate change conference] later this year, COP27 in Egypt. Because it will be hosted by an African government, it’s really an opportunity for that COP in particular to be a watershed moment and milestone in generating the additional resources that are needed to support vulnerable countries. 

We need to call on the global community to support the COP27 process and for us to make it clear on the individual level that we want to see leaders take action to support the people most affected by climate change. 

Global Citizen Asks

Defend the Planet

Why Does the UN's Latest Climate Report Call Out the Injustice of Climate Change?

By Joe McCarthy