Climate change? It’s everyone’s problem

As the extreme weather events of this year have shown, richer countries are not escaping the impacts of a changing climate – they need to start taking meaningful action, argues Nanjala Nyabola.

Satellite view of Lake Mead, US, taken on 19 July 2022 during a drought. It shows how little water there is and dry ground around it.
A satellite image captures Lake Mead, a reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River in the US. Taken on 19 July 2022, during a drought where water levels reached record lows. Public domain image by NASA.

A debilitating heatwave swept through Western Europe in late June, with temperatures topping 40 degrees centigrade in much of France and the Iberian Peninsula. In Spain, wildfires triggered by the extreme heat burnt through more than 4,000 hectares of forest. In the US, the iconic Yellowstone National Park was closed after unprecedented rainfall caused massive flooding and rainfall. Meanwhile, at the Stockholm+50 conference, marking five decades since the establishment of the United Nations Environmental Programme, it was business as usual as wealthy countries made paternalistic noises towards their poorer counterparts about finally taking some radical action on the climate.

In the rush to raise the alarm on how poor people will indeed be disproportionately affected, the suggestion is that climate change will not impact wealthy countries at all

Listening to discussions within policy circles on migration and refugees, you might imagine that climate change will only affect countries of the Global South, leading to a massive influx of people into Europe and North America from predominantly non-white countries. For example, in 2021, the US government launched a report on the impact of the climate crisis on migration which focused on how countries in the Global South could be destabilized by intensifying conflict, driving more people to migrate. Overall the report was clear: climate change is a threat to the US because it might lead to massive immigration into the country, not emigration from it. There is one line acknowledging that poor communities at home might also be affected by climate change but no mention that the dramatic increase in wildfires and flooding across the country does not discriminate between economic strata. There is also nothing on the stagnation of the US’s own climate policy in light of its fragmented politics, as was evident in June when its Supreme Court decided to constrain the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from power plants.

This policy blind-spot recurs across all sorts of wealthy countries and even within multilateral organizations. In the rush to raise the alarm on how poor people will indeed be disproportionately affected, the suggestion is that climate change will not impact wealthy countries at all. There is an embedded presumption that rich people in richer countries will somehow be able to buy their way out of the most devastating impacts. By extension, this assumes that a movement of humans triggered by a changing climate will only be people from a devastated South seeking safety in a somewhat untouched North. The call to action is framed around pity instead of universal solidarity in the face of a challenge caused by wealthy countries.

Certainly, individuals already living in precarious conditions – in semi-arid and arid areas, conflict zones and more – will be disproportionately affected by a changing climate. But the summer heatwaves and flooding seen across the Global North underscore how naive and indeed dangerous it is to assume that rich countries will escape. Current policies on climate migration don’t seem to fully recognize that anyone can become a refugee at any point, regardless of their race or national background. When climate change disruptions become the norm, people will not be asked to show their passports before they affect certain countries. It will be a universal problem.