Climate Change and Health: Inequality is a political decision

It is clear that climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity, and that the people who are least responsible for human-induced climate change will suffer—and already are suffering—the greatest consequences. / Cover Image: Shutterstock.com/Maharaniafifah
Climate Change and Health: Inequality is a political decision

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The science is clear. And so was the United Nations’ Secretary General, António Guterres, on Monday 28 February: “Today's IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership. […] Unchecked carbon pollution is forcing the world's most vulnerable on a frog march to destruction—now. The facts are undeniable”. This was the start of his keynote address at the latest report launch of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Indeed, it is clear that climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity, and that the people who are least responsible for human-induced climate change will suffer—and already are suffering—the greatest consequences. These are the people, more generally living in the Global South but also in marginalised and disadvantaged communities across the globe, with the fewest resources to cope with the impacts of climate change. These are the people whose lives and chances to be in good health are compromised by intersecting determinants of health. The ones with low-income, high-risk and insecure jobs, living in poor quality housing conditions and unsafe neighbourhoods with poor air quality; the ones from ethnic minorities who are suffering from discrimination and social exclusion, having limited access to good quality education and health care services; and those who have a higher risk of disease because of poor hygiene and unhealthy diets. And these are the people that were hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, which both exposed and worsened these inequalities.

In 2021, the richest 10% of the world owned 76% of all wealth, while the poorest half of the global population (i.e. 50% of the people on the planet!) owned just 2%. 

The World Inequality Report 2022, which presents a synthesis of international research efforts to track global inequalities, emphasises that despite the abundance of data, basic information—disaggregated data—on inequality and the various dimensions of socioeconomic disparities is lacking. The report does show that income and wealth inequalities have been on the rise nearly everywhere since the 1980s. In 2021, the richest 10% of the world owned 76% of all wealth, while the poorest half of the global population (i.e. 50% of the people on the planet!) owned just 2%. Also, there are large inequalities in carbon emissions, with the top 10% of emitters being responsible for about 50% of all emissions in 2021, while the bottom 50% produced only 12% of the total.


Read more: Planetary Health: Safeguarding Human Health and the Environment in the Anthropocene by Andy Haines, Professor of Environmental Change and Public Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine & Howard Frumkin


Let’s come back to the IPCC report, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, where  270 authors from 67 countries have integrated knowledge across the natural, ecological, social and economic sciences. They stress that “climate resilient development” can only be realised in equitable, just and enabling ways, including rights-based approaches that focus on capacity building and meaningful participation of the most vulnerable groups. In their factsheet for Europe, the key barriers that they identified, besides the limited resources, are a low sense of urgency and a lack of political leadership.

Climate change and (health) inequalities are political decisions, not inevitabilities, and facing them calls for bold leadership, now, and at scale.

This lack of political leadership, and often a lack of frameworks or ways to ensure political accountability, are indeed some of the greatest obstacles in tackling both climate change and unfair, unjust and persistent (health) inequalities. Climate change and (health) inequalities are political decisions, not inevitabilities, and facing them calls for bold leadership, now, and at scale. It requires leaders unafraid of making uncomfortable and unpopular decisions for climate justice, and it demands hard work and strong determination to extrapolate. In the case of Europe, this means a vision for building a Union of Equality into tailored national, regional and local policies that are in turn translated into specific and measurable actions for which people and organisations can be held to account.

In the face of adversity, there is hope that change will come to the benefit of health equality and the planet. Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic—hopefully soon, with countries developing and implementing their recovery plans to allocate unprecedented amounts of resources to health and with the political momentum around the climate crisis—there will be opportunities for climate-resilient development and a fair and just recovery that leaves no-one behind. However, as stated above, it requires that mix of bold leadership, a rights-based approach and the involvement civil society groups.

Therefore, at the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) we call on those courageous leaders to commit themselves to bold actions, we advocate for their actions to be ambitious, specific and measurable, and we will hold people and organisations to account if commitments are watered down or not met. We are one year into the decisive decade and have only one chance to do it right: to stay on track for a 1.5-degree Celsius global warming and to avoid irreversible climate tipping points.

Find out more about the OECD's International Programme for Action on Climate providing policy advice and sharing best practices to support countries’ efforts to achieve the objectives of the Paris Agreement

Find out more about the OECD's International Programme for Action on Climate supporting countries’ efforts to achieve the objectives of the Paris Agreement

Read the report "The long-term environmental implications of COVID-19" and see the latest OECD data for #ClimateAction, recommendations and policy advice on the Green Recovery

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