Climate change: A risk to the global middle class

An assessment on the economic implications of climate change on the world's middle class.

13 Jan 2016
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Climate: change for the middle class

There is no doubt that climate events are on the rise, and that people around the world are increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Worldwide, economic losses from natural catastrophes increased from USD 528 billion from 1981 to 1990 to USD 1,213 billion from 2001 to 2010.1

While there have been several studies analysing this, few have focused on the estimated one billion people that make up the world's middle-class - characteristically one of the most dynamic social groups globally..

In sheer numbers, assets, and monetary power, the middle-class make-up a powerful social group in most countries. Moreover, as a group increasingly at risk from the impacts of climate change, they also have the potential to be a driving force in demanding better climate policy from governments. In this study therefore, we at UBS, analyse the impacts of climate change on the city-dwelling middle-class across the globe.

Global urban risk

Our study reveals increasing risk to the wealth of middle-class households, as well as efforts to adapt to the effects of climate change. Over 75% of the world’s top-20 wealthiest cities are impacted by factors like temperature mortality and exposure to floods. The impacts of this are being felt by its residents, where our analysis reveals that middle-class spending patterns are noticeably different in cities that are most exposed to climate change risk, with a higher proportion of  household budget spent on housing and a lower proportion given over to high ticket discretionary spend . Despite this focus on property, uptake of property insurance is low. Swiss Re estimated that total global economic losses from natural disasters have averaged around USD 180 billion annually in the last decade, of which 70% is uninsured.2

We at UBS, believe that as climate change threatens to erode middle-class wealth, the cities in which they reside will also suffer. Cities are the drivers of economic growth, making their health and wealth crucial to the prosperity of global economies. Moreover, the global interconnectedness of economies means local disasters can impact the world economy.

Our study highlights the need for governments in affected areas to take a more proactive approach toward insurability, or risk suffering major economic shocks. We believe it will take adaption, investments in infrastructure, and new levels of human ingenuity to safeguard the middle class against the impacts of climate change.