Climate change and society

Climate change will have a big impact on human society, even if we manage to slow it down. The people who are likely to suffer most are those who have done least to create the problem—those that live in the developing world. Many already have to cope with extreme climates, where farming and even getting enough drinking water can be difficult. Climate change and its effects will only make life harder, so there are likely to be more famines, mass migrations, and conflicts over land and resources. Low-lying nations may be flooded by rising sea levels, forcing their citizens to leave. Industrialized societies will suffer too, both directly and because of serious problems in other parts of the world.

Makeshift tent



If land becomes uninhabitable because it has been flooded or has turned to desert, the people who live there will have to leave. The result could be the biggest mass migration in history. It is unlikely that neighboring countries will allow huge numbers of people to simply move in, settle, and produce their own food. The refugees will end up in camps like this one in Ethiopia, relying on foreign aid and living in miserable conditions, with poor sanitation, little to eat, and nothing to do. Whole societies could collapse, and conflicts caused by disputes over land could easily lead to violence, civil war, and famine.


As the world warms up, tropical diseases seem to be spreading. Malaria, which is carried by tropical mosquitoes, now infects about 500 million people a year —four times more than in 1990. Blood tests will reveal if these children have also been infected.


Many highly populated parts of the world lie close to sea level. They include the Ganges Delta region of India and Bangladesh. If climate change causes a sea level rise of just 39 in (1 m), this could flood 17 percent of Bangladesh, forcing millions of people to move out. If a hurricane caused catastophic flooding on top of this—as it did in 1970—millions could die. Here survivors of a flood in 2004 wait to be rescued from a roof in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

Makeshift tent



Clean, fresh water is vital to life, but droughts will make it scarce in regions that are already semideserts. Shrinking glaciers could have the same effect, because large areas of central Asia and China rely on water stored in the mountain glaciers of the Himalayas. Many South American cities such as Lima in Peru depend on the glaciers of the Andes in the same way. If the glaciers melt, the water that they contain will drain away. Flooding by rising sea levels could also contaminate the water supplies of some of the world's largest cities, which are built on low-lying coasts.

Wheat crops could benefit from warmer climates

Wheat crops could benefit from warmer climates


Global warming could make farming harder in tropical countries, because many crops are grown in regions that are already as warm as the plants can stand. In temperate regions, cereal crops such as wheat may benefit from the longer summers and the higher levels of carbon dioxide, although this could be offset by increased ground-level ozone reducing plant growth.


If farming in the tropics is badly hit by climate change, food supplies could start to dry up. This will have the biggest impact on people in developing countries who are already struggling to get enough to eat. It will affect other people too, all over the world. A lot of the food that is sold in our stores comes from the tropics. If local farmers cannot produce enough to make up for reduced supplies, the supermarket shelves will start to empty much faster.


Developed countries rely on a network of services such as power, communications, and transportation to provide the necessities of life including food, water, and heating. This makes them just as vulnerable to destructive events as less complex societies. This was demonstrated by the chaos that followed the flooding of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, shown here from the air. While the service networks collapsed and many people lost their lives, the city sank into lawlessness, with looters stealing from damaged buildings and violent gangs roaming the streets.

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