New Internationalist

Climate Justice - The Facts

Issue 419

Climate change is happening now

  • The decade of 1998-2007 was the warmest on record. The top 11 warmest years all occurred in the past 13 years.2
  • This warming is being caused by human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels.
  • In order to avoid a catastrophic rise of 6oC by the end of the century, global emissions need to have peaked by 2015 and reduce by at least 80% by 2050.

Who is being affected?

Climate change is causing human suffering all over the world, due to rising sea-levels, extreme weather events, water and food shortages, and disease.

  • The World Health Organization estimated that in 2000 climate change was causing 150,000 deaths worldwide4 – from malaria, malnutrition, diarrhoea and flooding. This conservative estimate is equivalent to a 9/11 attack every week.
  • 'Natural' disasters are increasing in frequency and severity.5 Since the mid-1970s, storms of the force of Hurricane Katrina have almost doubled.6
  • An estimated 90% of all those killed – and 98% of those affected – by natural disasters live in Asia and Africa. Developing countries are most at risk because they lack the resources and capacity to prevent or mitigate the worst effects.5
  • Between 1996 and 2005, disasters caused $667 billion in direct losses to people worldwide. Losses were 20 times greater in developing countries.5
  • Rising world food prices caused in part by climate change and expanded biofuel production led to food riots and protests in more than 50 countries between January 2007 and July 2008.7

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit the US Gulf Coast causing 1,836 deaths.

In October 2005 Hurricane Stan hit Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, causing more than 1,500 deaths.

In April 2008, a week of protests and riots in Haiti over rising food prices left at least five people dead and 200 injured.

The thawing of the Arctic permafrost is affecting the traditional way of life of its indigenous people, making hunting and travelling difficult and dangerous.

The 2003 heatwave killed approximately 35,000 people from nine countries.

In summer 2007, Britain suffered widespread flooding following one of the wettest months on record. It caused $4 billion worth of damage and prompted the biggest rescue effort in peacetime Britain.

Floods in Mozambique in February/March 2000 killed several thousands.

In September 2007 torrential rain triggered flash floods across Africa, affecting over a million people in 22 countries. The heavy rains destroyed thousands of acres of land and prompted an outbreak of cholera, which killed at least 68 people.

In India a record 944 mm of rainfall in Mumbai in July 2005 claimed over 1,000 lives.

Cyclone Nargis ripped across Burma in May 2008 killing an estimated 150,000 and severely affecting 2.4 million.

In Canberra wildfires killed 4 in January 2003.

Since 2003, Australia has been undergoing its worst drought on record, with many cities facing severe water shortages and crops and farms affected.

The low-lying island of Tuvalu has already evacuated 3,000 of its inhabitants to New Zealand.

The 2,500 residents of the Carteret Islands are being forced to relocate to nearby Bougainville as their island disappears under the waves.

Who is responsible?

Just 23 rich countries, home to only 14% of the world’s population, have produced 60% of the world’s carbon emissions since 1850. Today they produce 40% of the world’s total. Despite committing to reduce annual emissions to below 1990 levels by 2012, their collective emissions are continuing to rise.9

  • In 2007 China overtook the US as the world's biggest emitter.
  • Around 23% of Chinese carbon dioxide emissions in 2004 were due to products produced for export to richer countries. This is comparable to Japan's total CO2 emissions, and is more than double Britain’s emissions in the same year.10
  • A US citizen emits seven times as much in a year as an Ethiopian does in a lifetime.11

Future scenarios

Unless urgent action is taken now, the world faces terrifying consequences.


  • At least 250 million people will be forced to leave their homes between now and 2050.12


  • By 2020, up to 250 million people in Africa and 77 million in South America will be under increased water stress – where supplies no longer meet demand.
  • By 2025 tens of millions more will go hungry due to low crop yields and rising global food prices. 49 million people are at risk of hunger by 2020 in Asia alone. Food crop yields in some African countries could decline by as much as 50% by 2020.


  • Approximately a third of all species will be committed to extinction by 2050.


Sea-levels are set to rise dramatically. If we continue ‘business as usual’ we are likely to see a rise of at least 1-2 metres this century, possibly much more.13

  • A 1 metre rise would displace 10 million people in Vietnam and 8-10 million in Egypt.
  • The number of Africans at risk of coastal flooding will rise from 1 million in 1990 to 70 million by 2080.14
  • In Bangladesh, flood damage has become more extreme in the past 20 years. By 2100, predicted ocean rises threaten to submerge 18% of the country, creating 35 million environmental refugees.15
  • During the Pliocene period, when the world was 2oC to 3oC warmer, sea-levels were 25 metres higher. About 1 billion people live within a 25-metre rise in today’s sea-level, including many US East Coast cities and areas occupied by more than 250 million people in China.16


  • By 2085 an estimated 220-400 million more people will be at risk from malaria, and 3.5 billion from dengue fever.3
  • Some 182 million people in sub-Saharan Africa alone could die of disease directly attributable to climate change by the end of the century.13


Today, renewable energy sources account for only 13% of the world’s energy use. As much as 80% of energy still comes from fossil fuels, and the remaining 7% from nuclear power.

  • In one day, the sunlight that reaches the earth provides enough energy to satisfy the world's current power requirements for 8 years – although only a percentage of that potential is technically accessible.
  • Current wind, wave, solar and geothermal technologies could provide six times more power than the world currently uses.

  1. BBC News, 'Billions face climate change risk', 6 April 2007,
  2. World Meteorological Organization, 'Top 11 Warmest Years On Record Have All Been In Last 13 Years', 13 December 2007.
  3. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Fourth Assessment Report, 2007,
  4. World Health Organization, 'Climate and health fact sheet', July 2005,
  5. Ronald Parker, 'Development Actions and the Rising Incidence of Disasters', World Bank Independent Evaluation Group, June 2007.
  6. K. Emanuel, 'Increasing destructiveness of tropical cyclones over the past 30 years', Nature 436, 2005.
  7. Joachim von Braun, 'Responding to the world food crisis', International Food Policy Research Institute, 2008.
  8. Carbon Dioxide Information Analyisis Center,
  9. World Resources Institute, 'Climate Analysis Indicators Tool 5.0', 2008,
  10. Tao Wang and Jim Watson, 'Who Owns China’s Carbon Emissions?', Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, October 2007.
  11. Based on figures from CIA World Factbook, and Energy Information Administration,
  12. Dr Norman Myers, quoted in 'Human Tide: The real migration crisis,' Christian Aid, May 2007
  13. Christian Aid, 'The Climate of Poverty: Facts, fears and hope', May 2006.
  14. DFID, submission to the Stern Enquiry into Climate Change and Developing Countries, Nov 2005.
  15. Anwar Ali, ‘Vulnerability of Bangladesh Coastal Region to Climate Change with Adaptation Options’, 1999.
  16. James Hansen, Testimony to the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, US House of Representatives, 26 April 2007.
  17. All figures taken from Greenpeace, 'Energy [r]evolution: a sustainable global energy outlook', 2008,

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This article was originally published in issue 419

New Internationalist Magazine issue 419
Issue 419

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New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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