A peculiar characteristic of human society is the correlation between wealth and distance from the equator. Picture a globe, with the equator circling the middle. Sandwiching the equator are the Tropic of Cancer (30° North) and the Tropic of Capricorn (30° South), forming the region known as the tropics. Areas in the tropics include South Asia, Central Africa, and Central America, some of the poorest regions in the world, while areas north and south of the tropics are among the wealthiest: the USA, Canada, Europe, and Australia. Although the historical and evolutionary reasons for the correlation between wealth and latitude remain mostly unexplained, its implications will hold weight as the effects of climate change intensify in the coming decades.
We are already reckoning with the impact of climate change all around the world. The impacts range from small, ecological changes, like shifting phenology of flowering plants, to large, catastrophic changes, such as prolonged droughts in East Africa, Australia, and California. My generation will see a drastically different world than the generations before as we inhabit a planet with rising sea levels, shrinking freshwater reserves, higher annual temperatures, and increased frequency and intensity of droughts and wildfires. The entire world will see changes in the coming decades, but the region of the world that is the most vulnerable to climate change, due in part to weather systems and poverty, is the tropics.
While it may seem counterintuitive to say the tropics will be the most impacted by climate change— there are no melting glaciers, and in many tropical areas the climate is naturally quite warm— the ecosystems and countries of the tropics are actually more severely influenced by shifting weather patterns, rising sea level, and hotter temperatures. Because the equatorial climate is generally less variable, tropical ecosystems have adapted to a smaller range of temperatures. Higher temperatures reach and surpass the normal climate window in the tropics much faster than in temperate and arctic regions, which are adapted to a wider range of annual temperatures. Higher temperatures and increased aridity in the tropics push already hot and dry regions to be unlivable; in Africa, natural geography and high pressure weather systems make the continent especially vulnerable to shifting climatic patterns, and Africa is already seeing catastrophic droughts and unliveable high temperatures (Corcoran, 2015). A warmer climate is also more conducive to mosquitos and ticks, and scientists are predicting an increase in infectious diseases in the tropics due to climate change (Ginty, 2018). Tropical islands and coastal regions will see increased frequency and intensity of tropical storms, exemplified by the catastrophic and hyperactive hurricane season in 2018, as well as the threat of tropical islands literally sinking below the ocean as sea level rises. The irony of it all is that the biggest threats of climate change fall on the shoulders of countries that are the least responsible for causing anthropogenic climate change in the first place.
Due to regional challenges of poverty, political instability, and weak economies, countries in the tropics are less equipped to bear the unequal burden of adapting to and mitigating climate change. It’s important to note that many of these countries, especially those in Central America and Africa, face socio-economic and political challenges due to the legacy of colonialism from their hegemonic northern neighbors— those same neighbors that contributed the most to climate change. Climate change brings up the uncomfortable topic of climate equity, forcing wealthy countries in the Global North to reckon with the unintended consequences of industrialization and the lingering impacts of colonialism that make those who were the least responsible for climate change the most vulnerable. In this coming era, countries that have reaped the benefits of industrialization must take responsibility for climate change by taking action to mop up their mess and providing a safety net for those who are most vulnerable. The 21st century offers up a key question: will climate change increase our divides, further separating the wealthy North from the tropics that have been left behind, or provide a chance to mend our past mistakes, and look toward a more equitable future?