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Global inequalities in capability to adapt to climate change

What is climate change adaptation?

According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, adaptation is “the actions that people take in response to, or in anticipation of, projected or actual changes in climate to reduce adverse impacts or take advantage of the opportunities posed by climate change” (1). Examples of this process include growing agriculture that is less vulnerable to storms, fires and drought; updating zoning laws and building designs to withstand projected storm surges and wind speeds; fortifying homes and businesses against flooding and preserving water sources, to name a few. However, while adaptation strategies are vital, the availability of resources or capability to execute them and adapt to a changing environment are not equally distributed across the world (2).

Costa Rica has already started to implement a range of climate change adapations (Image: Jasmine N. Olivera)

Climate change and inequality

The overarching theme among populations that are disproportionately affected by climate change and struggle the hardest in the adaptation process is poverty. Owing to this, developing nations are generally worse off due to the cost of both anticipatory and reactive measures against climate change. Poverty and inability to adapt are exacerbated by worsening storms, rising sea levels/flooding, and shifts in the timing and duration of seasons during which crops are grown. Small islands with indigenous communities are also disproportionately affected as worsening storms and rising sea levels pose threats of flooding, major coastal erosion, and other forms of destruction. On a more microscopic level, within developing and island nations, women are also at a greater disadvantage and find it harder to adapt to climate change.

Climate policy and poverty considerations

Social deprivation, along with age and pre-existing health conditions, is one of the leading factors that determine an individual in the UK’s vulnerability to climate change (3). While there are currently plans developed to increase adaptation capacity on a population level, many of these plans do not address inequalities present within populations. The UK Climate Impacts Programme for example, suggests four types of options to address adaptation capacity, however only one of these options address structural inequalities in access to implementing such measures. These so-called “win-win” options are actions that address climate impacts and social and economic factors at the same time (4).

Addressing climate change and poverty together

Both national and local strategies to address adaptation capacities should follow the framework set out by the UN Sustainable Development Goals to “end poverty and other deprivations… hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.” (5) . An example of such action could be allocating funds to renovate and build climate change resilient infrastructure to people and businesses who cannot afford to do so on their own, thereby increasing future financial security for these communities. In short, our approach to adapting to a changing environment will not be successful without also considering the implications climate change will have on social and economic inequalities—all of these areas need to be considered when planning to mitigate the effects of climate change and adapt to the effects that we cannot reverse.

More about the author: Jasmine N. Olivera

Jasmine N. Olivera is a recent MPhil in Public Health graduate at Jesus College. Her interests include sustainability, global health, and health inequalities.


  1. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228816846_Building_Resilience_to_Climate_Change_Through_Adaptive_Management_of_Natural_Resources

  2. https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/adaptation_en

  3. https://ehjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12940-017-0328-z

  4. https://www.ukcip.org.uk/wp-content/PDFs/ID_Adapt_options.pdf

  5. https://sdgs.un.org/goals

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