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Like Most Things, Climate Change Hurts the Poor the Most

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In August 2016 the temperature in Dubai reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit, it was a record at the time, but it happens all the time now.

Inside the tall skyscrapers of business bay you would never know it’s so hot, thanks to to the hard work of thousands of air conditioners. Inside those buildings it might as well be December, blocks away it quite literally could be on the slopes of Dubai’s premier indoor ski hill. The more privileged class have already conquered climate change. It’s 120 degrees and there is a ski hill, that’s a paradox that probably makes threats of a few degrees globally over the next 100 years seem silly. When every building you’re in is always 65 degrees warnings that 130 degrees could become the new normal in places like Dubai are easy to shrug off. For millions of people though it’s not that simple.

 

Mere miles away from the air conditioned towers of one the Middle East’s great business hubs, Dubai’s poor lay in anguish. Along with millions of others in various cities around the globe.

 

Tens of thousands of migrant workers from India and rural regions throughout the Middle East suffer in small tenements and the concrete shacks they call home for a few hours each day. Most of the day these same people can be found quite literally building the Middle East’s modern metropolis from the ground up. They barely make enough to pay for room and board, if you can call it that, let alone air conditioning. That same 120 degree heat is inescapable for these people, but inside the buildings they erect it’s a cool 70 degrees around the clock.

 

As the 120 degree days spread throughout most of August and slowly bleed into July and September, the lives of people who can’t escape the elements will get precipitously worse. Whether it’s the aforementioned workers of Dubai, or any of the tens of thousands of homeless people in cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix, life will get worse, and people will die. A few decades ago these incredibly hot days might only occur once or twice in the hottest urban centers, but now it can be months of never ending above average heat. Something which some people can escape, but for millions of people in these cities this can prove deadly.

 

This is a painfully obvious trend in Dubai, but it’s happening in every major city where already warm climates are being driven up even further. Whether it’s Phoenix, Las Vegas, or Los Angeles this trend can be seen in the United States. The real life impact of climate change is often far removed from the people with the political clout to make the fundamental changes required to help reverse the trend. The real problem though is deeper than that and rooted in the fact that those same people with the political clout have the resources available to keep their offices 65 degrees. The same corporations responsible for the bulk of the emissions that fuel climate change are the same people with billions in their bank account because of it.

 

The real life personal impacts of climate change aren’t felt in those offices, but they are surely felt by people on the street with limited shelter and little water. Temperatures of 130 degrees can be fought by staying inside with an air conditioner, but those temperatures are deadly to those without that luxury. Same for the executives that sign off on the decisions that drive climate change to begin with.

 

This is illustrative of a much broader problem surrounding climate change, when things get worse they often get disproportionately worse for the most vulnerable. That’s how climate change plays out on the individual level, but it can be seen globally as well. Often times the countries with the most to lose are at the whims of those with the resources required to reverse the trend of climate change. Countries that need to modernize quickly, like India, are blamed for their coal emissions disproportionately driving climate change while struggling to maintain a modern standard of living for a population quickly reaching 2 billion.

 

It’s like shaming someone who was just evicted for their cars emissions because they turned on their car for some air conditioning while stranded in a parking lot with nowhere to sleep that night. To make it worse, recent actions from the United States might as well be people in the air conditioned glass towers syphoning gas from that evicted person’s car in order to fuel the inefficient backup generator used to power the air conditioners.

 

There’s a disconnect between who is actually impacted by climate change and those who have the ability to solve it. These people do not face the real world consequences of climate change and the day to day lives of those who are contributing to it the most are uncoincidentally the most sheltered as well. Until that disconnect is resolved, it’ll remain easier to blame countries like India for using coal power to claw their way to modernity, than take stock and appreciate the inefficiency of our own systems. It’ll remain easier to stick with inaction at the expense of green infrastructure both at home and abroad.

 

Low lying coastal regions in the global south, island nations in the pacific, and others all around the globe are ill-suited to deal with the short and medium term impact of climate change. Let alone decades, especially if emissions are not curbed and catastrophic outcomes are locked in. People will lose their homes, people will lose their communities, and people will die. However, it’ll be the poor people. It’ll be the poor people around the world and it’ll be the poor people in the United States.

 

Unfortunately as climate change gets worse it’s not at all clear this disconnect will be resolved. In fact, if the United States’ recent behavior is any indication, as things get worse an ever increasing amount of energy, both literal and metaphoric, will be spent to maintain the standard of living enjoyed by a smaller and smaller slice of the world’s population. Hopefully they see the writing on the wall, because when push comes to shove, I doubt people will be content dying in the heat when their peers in glass towers look down from their air conditioned perches.

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