A new study by The University of Queensland (UQ) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) shows a dramatic global mismatch between nations producing the most greenhouse gases – including Australia - and those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
The study shows that the highest emitting countries are ironically the least vulnerable to climate change effects such as increased frequency of natural disasters, changing habitats, human health impacts, and industry stress.
Those countries emitting the least amount of greenhouse gases are most vulnerable.
"There is an enormous global inequality in which those countries most responsible for causing climate change are the least vulnerable to its effects," said lead author Glenn Althor, a PhD student in UQ's School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management (GPEM).
"It is time that this persistent and worsening climate inequity is resolved, and for the largest emitting countries to act," he said.
Co-author Associate Professor James Watson of GPEM and WCS said: "This is like a non-smoker getting cancer from second-hand smoke, while the heavy smokers continue to puff away.
"Essentially we are calling for the smokers to pay for the health care of the non-smokers they are directly harming."
The researchers conducted a global analysis of the relationship between a nation's carbon emissions and vulnerability to climate change.
They found that 20 of the 36 highest emitting countries – including the U.S. Canada, Australia, China, and much of Western Europe – were least vulnerable to its impacts.
Conversely, many of the lowest Greenhouse Gas-emitting nations were most vulnerable to climate change, most of which were African and small island states.
Eleven of the 17 countries with low to moderate emissions were most vulnerable to climate change. Most were found in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
The authors said these countries were not only exposed to serious environmental change such as oceanic inundation or desertification. They were also generally the least developed nations, having few resources available to cope with these issues.
They said the finding acted as a disincentive for high-emitting "free-rider" countries to mitigate their emissions.
The researchers predicted that the number of acutely vulnerable countries would worsen by 2030 as climate change-related pressures such as droughts, floods, biodiversity loss and disease mounted.
"The recent Paris agreement was a significant step forward in global climate negotiations," he said.
"There now needs to be meaningful mobilisation of these policies, to achieve national emissions reductions while helping the most vulnerable countries adapt to climate change."
"The free rider countries need to do much more to ensure that they bear the burden of coping with climate change impacts."
The study appears today in the journal Scientific Reports.
Althor, G., et al. (2016). "Global mismatch between greenhouse gas emissions and the burden of climate change." Scientific Reports 6: 20281.