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Examining the relationship between inequality and climate change in Papua New Guinea and Tonga

A comparative study of Papua New Guinea and Tonga that captures the relationship between climate change vulnerability, social inequality, and globalization.
Pablo Ramirez


Understanding the relationship between inequality and climate change risk is increasingly recognized as being central to informing effective adaptation action. In this research, negative outcomes of inequality associated with factors contributing to climate change vulnerability are traced in case studies in two high-risk Pacific nations; Papua New Guinea and Tonga. Specifically, the study seeks to answer:

  • How does inequality shape vulnerability among different socio-economic groups?
  • How is the vulnerability-inequality nexus related to the process of globalization?

In Papua New Guinea and Tonga, social inequality drives vulnerability among particular sections of society. For instance, the lowest socio-economic classes have restricted access to resources required for building adaptive capacity and responding to climate change. Further, inequality facilitates institutional arrangements which weigh against adaptation, particularly in terms of social security and the management of growing rates of urbanization.

Inequality, vulnerability and globalization

The processes of globalization both drive and mitigate climate change risk and social inequality. For example, both the erosion of traditional social support systems and increasing rates of urbanization cause particular challenges for certain segments of the population. Such processes are fundamentally underwritten by inequality because it produces the circumstances under which the challenges drive climate change vulnerability. If resources were distributed more fairly and justly, social support systems would not be relied upon to the extent that they are today in Papua New Guinea and Tonga.

This study finds that globalization creates particular environments in which climate change vulnerability may be facilitated in the absence of targeted measures. These environments are particularly susceptible to the negative implications of inequality. Thus, not only is inequality problematic from the perspective of access to resources, but also in the sense that political and social institutions are less responsive to the most vulnerable segments of unequal societies.

Lessons Learnt

Papua New Guinea as well as Tonga are societies in transition. Here, political representation and social trust is needed to foster long-term national adaptation strategies. While certain measures can be taken to facilitate individual adaptation, other measures, such as infrastructure and social safety nets, will need to be implemented at a collective level. If inequality remains high, such measures will be significantly more difficult to realize.

There is considerable scope to mainstream climate change policies in the Pacific region. What needs to be better contemplated are ‘no-regrets’ policies which address drivers of climate change vulnerability and issues of inequality and uneven development, simultaneously. Poverty reduction is one such ‘win-win’ policy goal which is often sought. Reducing inequality is often coupled with poverty reduction, but even progress in both is not always achieved. A more targeted approach to tackling socio-economic equality, ensuring that more people share in economic growth, solidarity and political participation, has the potential to significantly reduce vulnerability and build resilience.

This study aimed to highlight specific problems associated with globalization and the relationship with climate change vulnerability and social equality. The issues discussed must be addressed if resilience is to be strengthened, for example through stronger national policies on social security and urban planning; two particularly pressing issues in Papua New Guinea and Tonga.

Suggested Citation

Pfefferle, T. (2017) The Inequality of Vulnerability: Examining the Relationship between Inequality and Climate Change Vulnerability. University of Oxford.

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