On August 8, a semi-basement area in Gwanak-gu, Seoul was flooded by heavy rain. As a result, three family members with disabilities became trapped in the semi-basement, and eventually died, shocking many people. According to the residents, a sinkhole formed right in front of the small apartment where the incident occurred, causing water to flow rapidly and blocking the exit. Every time there is heavy rain like this, people living in semi-basements suffer damage. There are growing calls for a solution to the poor housing problem in semi-basement homes, but the solution to this problem is incomplete.
Climate crisis derived inequality
The climate crisis is a phenomenon in which climate patterns change rapidly worldwide as the average temperature of the Earth gradually rises. This is due to the emission of greenhouse gases and carbon which is mainly generated by human activities, especially industrial and corporate activities. NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) announced in September 2021 that the amount of ice covering the Arctic Ocean was the second smallest since 1979. The minimum area of Arctic Sea ice was 3.74 million square kilometers, almost similar to the record low of 3.41 million square kilometers in 2012. But these climate crises such as reduced glacial area and rising sea levels are not such faraway stories. Climate change threatens human life with heavy rains and heat waves, reduced species and crops, droughts, and floods. Actually, the average temperature in Europe from June to August this year was 0.4℃ higher than the same period last year, the highest ever. In addition, 64% of the total area of the European continent was affected by the drought last August. On September 5 this year, during the heat wave in California, the U.S. saw temperatures rising to more than 43.4℃. In August, there was record-breaking heavy rain in the South Korean metropolitan area. According to government figures on August 17, heavy rain killed 14 people, with 6 missing, 26 injured and 2,873 displaced people. It caused not only casualties but also various losses, including flooding of crops and livestock deaths. The climate crisis can damage human life as a whole, ranging from basic rights to life, health, and housing, to the right not to be discriminated against.
This climate change is linked to inequality because all people in the world are affected by climate change, but not to the same degree. In addition, the damage can affect completely different classes, regions, and generations, regardless of when, where, and who emitted the greenhouse gases. According to the report 'Climate Change and Poverty' by Philip Alston, the UN's former Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, there is a climate "apartheid" between those who can respond to the climate crisis and those who are forced to suffer. Apartheid refers to the racism and separation policies legally institutionalized in South Africa in the past. The report explains that the rich are paying to avoid the crisis, while the poor are dealing with the consequences. It shows the correlation between the climate crisis and inequality. The climate crisis has different effects for each class, and there are significant differences in how each class responds. Recently, Oxfam and the Stockholm Environmental Research Institute analyzed CO2 emissions by class. The results showed that between 1990 and 2015, 10% of the world's wealthiest people emitted about 52% of the world's emissions. Even so, the world's richest 1% emit more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorest 50% of the population.1) Poor people are relatively free from responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions, but suffer greatly from exposure to climate risk. Climate inequality is ethically problematic in that the countries and classes responsible for emissions are different from those that are severely damaged.
Victims of the influence of the rich
The damage from the climate crisis is more serious for the vulnerable, including the poor. Heavy rains in the central region of Korea in August caused a lot of damage to semi-underground residents, migrant workers, and the disabled. Some migrant workers were electrocuted at a construction site, and semi-basement residents died or suffered heavy losses due to flooding. Containers of migrant workers were also buried in piles of earth by a landslide. More than 170 flood victims have yet to return home even after 40 days of flooding damage across Gyeonggi Province. The 'Second Working Group Report of the IPCC 6th Assessment Report' released in February this year scientifically shows the unequal impact of the disaster of climate change. The report said low-income people, socially underprivileged, and the elderly and women are the most vulnerable. Houses where relatively poor people live are more likely to be damaged in the event of a heat wave because it is difficult to buy air conditioners. According to the report, 'Adaptation to the Health Effects of Heat Waves in Sensitive Groups,' by the Korea Institute of Health and Social Affairs, 49.1% of low-income people said it was difficult to withstand the temperature of their daily living space. This was higher than the general population response rate of 35.2%. In addition, 44.9% of the general population said that even if there is an air conditioner, they cannot use it sufficiently due to electricity bills, while 68.6% of low-income people said so. This shows that vulnerable groups are more exposed to the adverse effects of various climate changes. The Seoul Metropolitan Government announced its plans to install 150 air conditioners for residents of small rooms, and to support the electricity bills of up to 50,000 won per household. However, some criticized this as not a fundamental but a temporary solution. Also, a broader and equitable support system is believed to be needed, considering that extreme weather phenomena will increase further in the future.
The damage caused by the climate crisis is serious not only in Korea but also in underdeveloped countries as well as developed ones. The African continent is suffering from a severe drought due to global heating. Africa is facing a climate disaster, with only 2% to 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. According to 'The 6th IPCC Assessment Report' mentioned earlier, between 2010 and 2020, the risk of death from floods, droughts, and typhoons in underdeveloped countries was 15 times higher than in areas where they were not vulnerable. Unlike developed countries, it is difficult for underdeveloped countries to respond to climate change. For example, in some areas of Pakistan, abnormal temperatures exceeding 50℃ were observed this year. In addition, 391mm of rain, twice as much as in previous years, caused severe flooding during the two months of July and August. There have been floods in one-third of Pakistan's land, affecting 33 million people, or 15% of its population. Experts pointed to climate change as the cause of the flooding. Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan's Minister of Climate Change said, "Pakistan is the victim of climate change caused by irresponsible development of the developed countries. The total amount of greenhouse gasses emitted by our country is the lowest in the world."2) The opinion is that the difference between the countries that generate greenhouse gasses and the countries that suffer damage is unequal, and countries that are vulnerable to the climate crisis are sacrificed. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said, "I've seen many humanitarian disasters, but I've never seen a disaster of this magnitude. Today, G20 emits 80% of greenhouse gases. The rich countries have a moral responsibility to help developing countries like Pakistan recover from these disasters."3) He mentions that since developed countries are largely responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, their support should be provided to underdeveloped countries affected by them.
A solution without improvement
To solve this problem of climate inequality, international organizations have signed various treaties. The international community, which first realized the dangers of climate change, adopted the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change at the 1992 Rio Environmental Conference in Brazil. This was the first agreement signed by the UN to prevent abnormal climates. Then, in 1997, the international community adopted the Kyoto Protocol and exercised its legal binding effect on greenhouse gas reduction. The Kyoto Protocol is aimed at OECD countries and European countries, excluding Korea and Mexico, and it is meaningful in that it specifies greenhouse gas reduction targets for advanced countries. After that, at the climate change conference held in Paris, France in November 2015, the greenhouse gas reduction target, which was restricted only to developed countries, was applied to all 195 countries. This was the first climate agreement to be applied to both developing and developed countries. Through it, South Korea aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 37% by 2030. However, there is a limit to setting goals that are not legally binding, and it is not only difficult to reach an agreement when adjusting detailed rules, but also difficult to overcome the climate crisis if major countries do not participate in the general meeting or propose only low-level reduction targets. For example, the U.S., one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001 and the Paris Agreement in 2017. At the 16th Conference of the Parties (COP16) in 2010, developed countries agreed to establish the Green Climate Fund (GCF) to support developing countries. However, due to the lack of fulfillment of obligations in developed countries, the problem-solving ability is insufficient.
The solution to the climate crisis is preemptive to address climate inequality. Even if efforts are made to prevent climate disasters, it is difficult to avoid impending disasters. UN is in a position to actively utilize the climate early warning system, which is a system that warns of the climate crisis in a timely manner. Antonio Guterres said at the 62nd World Meteorological Day ceremony on March 23, "Extreme weather such as wildfires and floods caused by global warming is occurring more frequently and intensifying."4) He said that the government should develop its ability to prevent damage since there is no immediate way to prevent climate change. In response, the climate early warning system predicts and informs dangerous weather information such as floods, droughts, and storms, and helps people prepare for it. However, most underdeveloped and small island countries do not have such systems in place, and measures are needed to deal with them. The UN General Assembly also adopted SDGs, which stands for Sustainable Development Goals, that both developed and developing countries must implement by 2030. SDGs' 17 objectives include universal human problems such as climate change, energy, and environmental pollution. The 2011 UNEP Green Economic Report defines a green economy as one which is designed to reduce the risks and ecological losses associated with environmental problems, and address social inequality. At the core of the report is the creation of jobs by investing about 1.3 trillion dollars in the top 10 eco-friendly fields such as climate change, desertification, and energy. Although the international community is making more efforts to solve environmental problems, there is still no noticeable improvement in the danger of the climate crisis.
Until the tragedy of climate change is over
As the climate crisis intensifies day by day, the damage caused by climate change is continuing. The damage caused by the heavy rain is not limited to the deaths of semi-underground residents in Korea, but is spreading to the terrible situation where one-third of Pakistan's land is flooded. In order to protect our future environment from such dangers, it seems necessary to expand the scope of national efforts, not just individual efforts. Many countries have signed agreements aimed at reducing carbon emissions, but they are still insufficient to prevent the dangers of climate change. More international efforts are expected to be needed, including efforts to expand the early warning system of international organizations to minimize damage to the climate crisis.
1) Cho Cheonho, "Poor or Young... Climate Crisis and Inequality Are Intertwine," The Hankyoreh, February 20, 2022
2) Lee Haejoon, "The Farmland Has Become a Lake of 100KM... Pakistan's 'Worst Flood' Shocking Scenery", Joongang Ilbo, September 1, 2022
3) Kim Younghyun, ""United Nations Secretary-General" for the First Time, a Serious Climate Disaster Like Pakistan... "Responsibility of the Rich State"", Yonhap News Agency, September 11, 2022
4) Jung Jongoh, "[Climate Crisis] Extreme Heat Wave, Storm, Rain… Early Warning Systems Are the Only Way to Live", INEWS24, May 22, 2022
Ju Kim Jiyeong / Reporter
Lee Gayun / Reporter