Climate Change and Poverty

Caroline Petrow-Cohen

The effects of climate change have already been felt within communities, like the delay of snow on the North Coast during the winter of 2017, and 2016 being observed as the hottest year on historical record. Most people seem happy about the hotter weather- they get to enjoy more beach days, shovel less snow, and enjoy their tans earlier in the year. In reality, climate change in the coming years will be disastrous for many groups of people, most seriously for people living in poverty.

A Different Perspective

Studies on climate change usually focus on the economical impact of climate change in a region or nation as a whole. As a result, they often fail to investigate the impacts of climate change on the poor versus the rich. Most studies focus on the fact that poor countries are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than rich countries, but fail to make that distinction between poor individuals and rich individuals. This is considered a top-down approach, in which the composite impact of climate change is considered first, and the intimate consequences for households are considered second.

One study seeks to close that lack of perspective by supporting a bottom-up approach, in which household effects of climate change are estimated before the total impact of climate change in a region. They acknowledge the importance of looking at economic growth in a region when investigating the impact of climate change on the poor, for in the past decades, the reduction of poverty was not achieved by redistributing income, but by participating in the growing size of national economy. However, they realize that economic growth is not the only way climate change affects poverty, and in other cases, an encompassing approach is insufficient when determining individual impacts. Therefore, they used a bottom-up approach to explore the multiple ways poverty is affected by climate change.

The Findings

Basic findings confirm that people living in poverty are likely more heavily affected by climate change than the richer members of their communities. Many self-reported household surveys show that poor people are more often affected by environmental shocks, and that poor people are losing more of a percentage of their wealth when they are affected by a shock. Poor people are reported to also receive less post-shock support from friends and family, financial systems, and social safety nets. Poor people were also found to be more exposed to floods and extreme heat than their richer counterparts. In Nigeria, the poorest 20% of people were found to be 50% more likely to be affected by a flood, 130% more likely to be affected by a drought, and 80% more likely to be affected by extreme heat than the average Nigerian. Similar findings occurred in Bangladesh, India, and Honduras.

What Does This Mean?

The researchers explored numerous scenarios of climate change and impacts to get a clearer picture of the vulnerability of the poor. To do this, they came up with scenarios in which poverty outcomes by 2030 were explored as optimistic or pessimistic. The optimistic outlook assumed that there would be a rapid decrease in people living under the poverty line. The pessimistic outlook assumes a slower and lesser decrease of people living under the poverty line. They produced five channels to explore both sets of views within the context of over a million households. The channels are:

  1. The impact of climate change on agricultural productivity and prices and it’s consequences for farmers. The final impact on poverty depends on the fraction of a population working in agriculture, their productivity, and the diversification of income within their households.
  2. The impact of climate change on food prices and its consequences for consumers. The impact on poverty depends on the fraction of each household’s budget that is dedicated to food consumption. This fraction decreases with increasing household income.
  3. The impact of climate change on natural disasters, and the fraction of the population affected annually by storms. This area had more of a distinction when looking at the optimistic versus pessimistic viewpoints.
  4. The impact of climate change on labor productivity. This channel uses the recent evidence suggesting that a single degree celsius in warming could reduce labor productivity by 1-3% for people working outdoors or without air conditioning.
  5. The impact of climate change on child stunting, malaria, and diarrhoea. Impacts are modelled through fixed treatment costs and number of workdays lost.

Although these channels are likely to interact and affect each other in the real world, this study allowed for no double counting of the impacts. This may increase or decrease the total impact in actuality. For instance, under-nutrition, as explored in the second channel, makes people more vulnerable to diseases, as explored in the fifth channel. This was not taken into account. Similarly, all scenarios with the first channel, exploring agricultural production, did not consider the effect of higher temperature on the ability of farmers to work, as explored by the fourth channel. The researchers acknowledge further limitations in the accuracy of their findings.

These findings strongly suggest that the best way to reduce the impact of climate change on the poor by 2030 is to participate in rapid development and find ways to help people out of poverty as soon as possible.


These climate-related shocks can keep people in poverty by making it more difficult for households to accumulate their assets, as their assets and health are more regularly affected than non-poor people. They are more often in a position of recovery, all while being more likely to feel the devastating impacts of climate change. This seemingly never-ending cycle of poverty is only going to get worse as time progresses.


The study aimed to analyze the impact of climate change on poverty in a more intimate way than other studies on the impacts of climate change for poor countries versus rich countries. The researchers saw this gap in information, and decided to investigate the elements that could affect people experiencing the consequences of climate change. They discovered that climate change will continue to be more of a burden for those in poverty for various reasons, and recognize that it is necessary to solve this problem before it gets exponentially worse.

Ouarida Benatia ’18



Leave your thought