Climate Change and Equity -- What's Fair?

Climate change is such an expansive problem that it is often difficult to know where to begin to address it. It is a technological challenge: How do we develop and exploit the technology of the day to usher in a sustainable future? It is an economic challenge: How do investors remove the inherent risk of climate change from their portfolios and shift the world toward a green economy? It is, of course, a political challenge: How do we find consensus on a way forward for 193 nations at different stages of development and with different responsibilities, goals and ambitions?

Through this kaleidoscopic lens, we often miss one of the more forgotten and disturbing impacts of climate change: that it has deeply disproportionate effects on the most vulnerable among us.

Everyone on the planet will be impacted in some form or another by climate change. Unfortunately, as is the case so often in society, it is the disadvantaged and the poorest who suffer the worst environmental consequences of global warming.

Reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have shown that developing countries are likely to continue to suffer the worst effects of climate change, as extreme weather patterns become the norm and sea levels rise. The consequences of these environmental changes may reveal themselves in decreased food security, loss of livelihood, increased displacement, health and sanitation impacts, among other ramifications.

Africa provides an illuminating example of how drastic these effects can be. Agriculture is the economic foundation of many African countries. With 98 percent of it rain-fed, farming is very vulnerable to variable weather patterns. Projections have shown that anywhere from 7-40 percent of staple crops could be lost by 2050, depending on the region. This corresponds not only to a 25-90 percent potential increase in undernourishment but also a significant loss of livelihood given the agricultural sector employs up to 60 percent of labor on the continent.

In Bangladesh, it is estimated that by 2050, up to 18 million people could be on the move away from low-lying coastal areas. Small island developing states may provide the most dramatic visual of rising sea levels. The island nation of Kiribati has famously already purchased land for its citizens in Fiji as a contingency plan should their island be submerged.

Extreme weather events, which will be more common in a warmer world, will have drastic effects on water supplies. The issue is apparent already. A recently published UNISDR report has shown that 90 percent of natural disasters in the last 20 years have been weather-related. Floods can contaminate sources of drinking water, while droughts can wipe them out. Lack of access to clean water will have devastating effects on human health and increase the spread of disease.

Pope Francis has been a powerful voice on the world stage linking climate change with social justice. Writing in his environmental encyclical that "a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach," the Pontiff pinpointed that a response to environmental degradation is simultaneously a response to social inequality. He is right. The "moral imperative" to care for our planet, as Pope Francis has put it, is founded in the reality of the poorest societies.

The Paris climate conference is an opportunity to seize the imperative to take action to address this issue. Mitigating the effects of climate change through ambitious and concrete action plans will help greatly in reducing the severe consequences to the world, and especially the world's poor.

However, we must also recognize the new world we will be living in for some time. The impacts of climate change will unfortunately not stop the instant world leaders agree to or even take action.

This means we will need to adapt. Sadly, the developing countries that feel the effects of climate change the worst are also the least equipped to adapt to this shifting ecological reality. Where developed nations will suffer impacts from global warming as well, the infrastructure to cope with them is much more resilient.

Political commitments to address climate change are important in Paris. Financing will be just as necessary. According to UNEP's Adaptation Gap, climate adaptation financing needs could climb as high as $150 billion by 2025/2030 and $250-500 billion per year by 2050.

So far, 38 states have made pledges to the Green Climate Fund, which has been established to mobilize $100 billion annually in funding to developing nations to support mitigation and adaptation initiatives. This is promising, but the gap remains large.

As we consider the complexity of the climate change issue in Paris, we can't forget that it is often those furthest removed from the negotiation process who most need it to be a success. Whether this success is defined by action to walk back climate change or to finance measures for the world to adapt, it is at its core underlined by goals of a more just and equal society. It is not the first time the most powerful will decide the fate of the most vulnerable, but a strong climate change agreement may have the strongest reverberations in recent memory for the most disadvantaged in our world.

This post is part of a "Climate Justice" series produced by The Huffington Post, in conjunction with the U.N.'s 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris (Nov. 30-Dec. 11), aka the climate-change conference. The series will put a spotlight on populations who are adversely affected by climate change. To view the entire series, visit here.