Posted: 20 Oct. 2020 4 min. read

Climate Change’s Disproportional Impact on At-Risk Populations

The impacts of climate change continue to command headlines. According to a story in the Los Angeles Times, climate change led to record heat in California, which may have contributed to recent wildfires that have burned more than three million acres of land. Deloitte considers climate change to be variations in climate that last longer than individual weather events and cause changes such as floods, wildfires, extreme drought, and secondary effects like poor air quality. These changes can impact the resources and systems on which we depend, such as water, energy, transportation, wildlife, agriculture, and human health.

When looking deeper into climate change impacts, certain groups, such as women, children, remote populations, those with low socioeconomic status, disabilities, or pre-existing health conditions, are disproportionately affected and need to be considered during climate-related plans and actions. They are especially vulnerable due to higher exposure and a lower ability to recover based on a number of factors, including geographic location, lifestyle, physical health and economic situation. While some progress is being made to help those more intensely affected, further progress can be made through different entities working together in a unified effort, utilizing digital tools.

At Risk Populations

There are several groups that are affected more severely by climate change than the general population. Each group’s unique vulnerabilities are described in more detail below. It is important to note that these vulnerabilities are cross-cutting; some individuals or populations may experience vulnerabilities associated with multiple groups.

  • Children can be particularly affected by climate change, because their physical and emotional development is still evolving, and their dependence on others exposes them to protection risks. Children’s bodies are still growing, making them more susceptible to the physical impacts of climate change, such as injury, disease contraction and illness as a result of extreme climate-related events (e.g., flooding, storms, heat waves, or drought). In addition, resource scarcity resulting from climate change events can have secondary effects on children, such as hunger, poor nutrition and emotional stress. Children are also more dependent on others for their well-being, and less able to cope with the emotional and financial stressors caused by extreme climate-related events, such as loss of shelter or the loss of household income. In cases, such as those requiring evacuation, they may even face family separation, exposing them to protection risks such as neglect, violence and exploitation. In extreme cases, where families do not have the resources to recover financial losses caused by climate change, families could resort to child labor or child marriage to cope with financial shocks.
  • Studies show that women are more likely than men to be affected by climate change due to their societal roles, safety risks and healthcare needs. According to a BBC story, figures from the United Nations (U.N.) show that 80 percent of people displaced by climate change are women, as their roles as caregivers and providers of food make them more vulnerable during floods and droughts. Women’s health is disproportionately affected by climate change, as it can impact their maternal health and sanitation. They are also at risk to exposure in their work, as the frontlines of both climate change and COVID-19 are health professionals, of which 70 percent are women in the Asia-Pacific region, according to the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS). Similarly, women face additional safety impacts from the effects of climate change. During instances of drought, women who have to travel to get water are at greater risk of gender-based violence in some regions. Additionally, in the case of evacuation following emergency events (e.g. flooding, wildfire), they are more likely to experience physical or sexual assault in temporary shelters.
  • Remote populations, those in non-indigenous rural communities, are much more dependent on climate conditions for agriculture and their livelihood. They can also face forced migration from rural to urban environments as a result of climate change. According to a story in The New York Times, in the African Sahel, millions of rural people have been moving toward the coasts and cities to escape drought and widespread crop failures. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans have fled north towards the U.S. in recent years. The story also states that World Bank has noted more than eight million people have moved from Southeast Asia toward the Middle East, Europe and North America, due to unpredictable rainfall and drought conditions. Within remote areas, Indigenous populations are vulnerable because they live in places susceptible to climate change, such as flood zones, and areas with inadequate access to drinking water. Furthermore, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, indigenous populations often rely on agriculture, and face political and economic marginalization, as well as human rights violations, discrimination and unemployment.
  • Those with disabilities need to be considered in evacuation and emergency response plans to ensure that their accessibility and safety requirements are addressed. Those with pre-existing health conditions (e.g., asthma, cardiovascular illness) are more vulnerable to certain climate and environmental conditions, such as extreme heat and air pollution, which can lead to complications or higher rates of mortality among these populations.
  • People with low socioeconomic status (SES) have less resilience to climate-related shocks. Resulting financial and emotional stress may lead to the application of negative coping mechanisms, such as increased domestic violence and increased drug and alcohol use. This can lead to mental distress, and/or the use of child labor and child marriage in some contexts as a way to generate income, exacerbating child protection risks and potentially leading to gender-based violence.

Progress in Some Areas, But Not Others

Progress towards adapting to climate change can vary greatly between countries. The International Institute for Sustainable Development examined how 15 different countries in Africa and Asia are adapting to climate change. The study found that, overall, these countries are becoming better prepared, but some are putting a higher priority on climate change than others. For example, Botswana is trailing behind lesser developed countries, such as Ghana and Uganda, which are investing in drought-tolerant seeds for agriculture, implementing flood protection measures around riverbanks, and improving hydrometeorological forecasting to better predict and prepare for extreme weather events. In Asia, in 2009, India requested that states develop their own action plan on climate change to align with the country’s National Action Plan on Climate Change. However, budgetary constraints and insufficient institutional capacities have limited the benefits of this initiative.

Some aspects or areas of recovery get more focus and resources than others. For example, agriculture development is a top priority in developing countries, because local crops and livestock are a key part of the residents’ livelihood and provide food security for the population at large. Flood protection efforts and weather forecasting are also given high importance in an effort to try to protect people’s homes and shelter.

However, there may be some resource and focus gaps. At-risk populations mentioned above do not get sufficient attention even in the areas that are prioritized. On the other hand, the health sector or gender-based violence does not get the attention it needs in relation to climate change, including mental health support services. Some areas need higher prioritization, whilst all areas need special planning, taking into account the needs of vulnerable groups, which are disproportionately affected by climate change.

What Needs to Be Done – Working Together; Digital Tools Address Gaps 

To improve the response to climate change, different organizations and groups need to work together, including governments, NGOs and the private sector. The response to COVID-19 has shown us that global collaboration can be possible, with different countries and sectors working together toward a common goal.

Digital tools can play a key role in helping governments, NGOs and businesses collaborate to respond to the adverse effects of climate change, particularly with respect to improving planning and response to extreme events. This is outlined in Deloitte’s article in The Wall Street Journal, “Digital Tech Critical to U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.” In looking at 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) created by the U.N., which detail critical challenges facing humanity and how to solve them, digital tools can be powerful and have a transformational effect on the SDGs. For example, cellular networks can play an important role in connecting people in remote areas, to important climate- and weather-related information, and to each other

A report by the Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) and Deloitte, Digital With Purpose: Delivering a SMARTer 2030, analyzes SDG targets and quantifies how technology can help governments, philanthropic organizations and businesses accelerate their efforts to achieve the SDGs. One example of technology in action is a flood app from the American Red Cross that allows users to receive alerts, track hazards on a live map and monitor areas of interest, which can aid evacuation planning and reduce impacts on the population.

For those populations more severely affected by climate change, inclusive digital technology can play an important role in addressing climate change risks, with its ability to deliver faster solutions and reach more people more efficiently. This technology can help harness and optimize the collective efforts of governments, business and other organizations, to help improve living conditions, facilitate access to important resources, and drive more purposeful and proactive approaches to climate change. While using technology to mitigate the effects of climate change, one should be mindful of the “digital divide” and not exclude certain groups of people. Investments and partnerships on climate change and technology need to go hand-in-hand, be more inclusive, leaving no one behind.

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Key contact

Iraz Soyalp | PHD

Iraz Soyalp | PHD

Iraz is a Manager within Deloitte’s Sustainability and Social Impact Practice. She has 12+ years of experience in the international development sector. Before joining Deloitte, she has worked with UN for ten years and managed multi-million dollar multi-stakeholder projects. Currently, she leads the ‘International Development Organizations’ practice within the Canada firm. She is specialized in social inequalities and is experienced in designing, executing and evaluating programs on social inequalities and impact. She is also an Adjunct Professor at University of Toronto.

Madeline Collins

Madeline Collins


Madeline is a Consultant within Deloitte’s Sustainability and Social Impact Practice specializing in climate change related risks. With a master’s in sustainability and three years of experience in sustainability consulting, she has worked alongside numerous corporate clients to support their environmental and social initiatives. Within the international development space, she is currently researching the disproportionate impacts of climate change and environmental degradation on children and vulnerable groups for a UN country office.

Joe Solly

Joe Solly


Joe Solly is a Partner with Deloitte’s Risk Advisory practice and is also the Ontario Leader of their Sustainability and Climate Change practice. Joe provides strategic advisory, consulting, risk assessment / management and audit expertise to our clients to review and solve complex problems in business processes including environment, community, health, safety (EHS), sustainability & climate change (S&CC), quality management and general operations.