What impacts will climate change have in the developing world?

Climate change affects the entire globe; its impacts are more pronounced in the developing world than in the developed world.

In fact, ironically, although most of the human activity that produces climate change occurs in the developed world, many of climate changes’ effects will actually be beneficial in the developed world. In the short- and middle-term, for example, climate change will likely increase fish and agricultural yields where populations are small and shrinking and productivity is highest.

Climate change’s impacts in the developing world will be almost exclusively negative, often terribly so.

As K. Smith tartly observed in 2008:

“The rich will find their world to be more expensive, inconvenient, uncomfortable, disrupted and colourless; in general, more unpleasant and unpredictable, perhaps greatly so. The poor will die.”

Potential vulnerability
(Source: The Atlantic)

In the developing world:

Sea rise

Sea rise is expected entirely to submerge a number of small, island countries, and to flood coastal spawning grounds for many staple marine resources, as well as low-lying capital cities, commercial agriculture, transportation and power generation infrastructure and tourism investments. For an interactive map of how different sea levels will affect different coastal areas worldwide, see Sea Surge at Climate Central


Downpours and storms

Torrential downpours and devastating storms will increase large-scale damage to fields, homes, businesses, transportation and power systems and industry in countries without the financial or human capital resources to respond.

Thailand sea rise
Thailand sea rise
(Source: )
Heatwaves and droughts

Heatwaves and droughts will increase pressure on already fragile power, healthcare, water and sewage systems, as well as reducing countries’ ability to feed themselves or export agricultural products.

Heat will also become an increasingly important killer, especially of the very young and the old. The handful of deaths during the European heatwave of 2003 resulted in a storm of press outrage that this could happen in the developed world.

In 2016, sections of North Thailand suffered two straight months of temperatures of 105⁰ F (44⁰ C) without air conditioning, cooling centers, public health or hospital support. No one counted the dead, but there is no question that across the tropical developing world heat will become a major killer.

Changing ecosystems

In the developing world, changing ecosystems seem to result almost exclusively in the loss of important food species, for example of fish and staple crops, and the increase of malign species such as disease vectors.

A study published in Nature, a leading scientific journal, provides data that suggest that climate change related phenomena have killed 150,000 people annually for the past 30 years, and that numbers will increase.

The authors contend that included in the death count should be those killed by, for example, heat induced cardiovascular attacks, as well as those killed by malnutrition resulting from climate change induced crop failures, most of them, needless to say, live in the global South.

Food security, already shaky, is crumbling under rising temperatures and related climate changes. Major staple crops are declining in productivity, while unlike in the developed countries, there are no new, more tropical staples to move in to take their places. Rising population combined with declining productivity, increasing incidence of drought and storms is increasingly leaving developing countries vulnerable of food shortfalls.

Projected Dengue distribution for 2050
(Source: Nature.com )

Rising temperatures increase the reproduction rates of pests and so shorten the time required for insects and plant pathogens to develop resistance to control regimes. For a review of many of the different ways in which climate change affects pests, see JH Porter etal.

Diseases, like pests, develop more rapidly in the heat and so do their insect vectors. Moreover, with climate change, the range of critical vectors – mosquitos, for example, vectors for dengue, encephalitis, malaria, West Nile and Zika – all expand putting larger and larger populations at risk.

Ongoing ocean acidification threatens more and more small shell fish, which form the broad base of the ocean food chain. Ultimately, this will threaten the entire ocean population and so the critical protein source for a third of the people on earth and a major industry.

Can we adapt to the negative impacts of climate change?


What happens in any given region, country or district, or how a given farmer or fisherman responds to the challenges can make a huge difference.

Scientific, technological and extension resources in the developed world, for example, combined with highly educated and well-resourced farmers makes adaptation fast and easy. Developing world farmers, too, can adapt. They have, for example, fundamentally changed how they farm over the past 50 years, largely on their own. (Aid agencies and government ministries will contest this observation, but out in the field, there is little evidence that aid agency or government extension programs have reached very deep.

Farmers have learned through imitation and judicious borrowing, not training and wholesale adoption.) The same problems that have constrained very small farmers and fishermen for the past 50 years will also inhibit their ability to adapt to rapid climate change.

They have no financial cushion and so are risk constrained; they have little access to new techniques and materials; they lack the capital to invest in big changes to farming or fishing practice, however much they might like to make such changes; and they have no outside support. They are on their own to observe, understand and develop responses to climate change.

More generally, a country’s capacity to respond will be a function of income, technological capacity, extent, type and variability of vulnerability and, not least, ruling elite interest in acting. (It is not simply that the developed world will look to itself first; ruling elites everywhere are ruling elites because they can shift benefits to themselves and costs to the poor.)

Next: What can we do in the developing world to slow climate change?