Whoever still thinks climate change is purely an environmental issue, threatening only nature, needs to think again. Climate change is also essentially a human issue because of its devastating effect on human life – and rights. It exacerbates existing inequalities, undermines democracy and threatens development at large. Likewise, by far the greatest burden will fall on those already in poverty, while the rich will be able to buy their way out of rising heat and hunger.
Human rights and climate change
The latest report on climate change and poverty by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights puts it bluntly: “climate change threatens the full enjoyment of a wide range of rights,” – from the right to land, resources and food, to the right to good health. It will spark conflicts and aggravate all current forms of insecurity.
Equally important will be the impact on democracy. As the UN report outlines, governments struggle to get support for (the costs of) action to combat climate change and the major socio-economic transformations this requires. “In such a setting, civil and political rights will be highly vulnerable.”
Mitigating climate change is an urgent human rights obligation.
We at Hivos, and a number of organizations and individuals with us, have long warned about the terrible impact climate change can have on development and how it so unfairly affects people living in poverty. For years, we have been calling for an integrated approach to combatting climate change that benefits both the environment and development goals. Here’s why:
Exacerbating poverty and inequality
People in poverty are far more vulnerable to climate shocks because they have fewer resources available to adapt or make themselves resilient. Hence, they are driven deeper into poverty. For example, farmers risk losing their income due to drought or other extreme weather, and (fishing) communities living in coastal areas will have to flee rising sea levels.
Apart from increasing inequalities between rich and poor, climate change is also causing a growing divide between ethnicities, the sexes, generations and communities (Amnesty International). Areas inhabited largely by migrants and ethnic or racial minorities are more exposed to problems like industrial pollution, overcrowding, food insecurity, landslides, and the impacts of resource extraction; women and girls are disproportionately affected across the board; (indoor) air pollution is particularly harmful to children and the elderly; and the lands of indigenous people are more vulnerable to changing weather patterns.
And there is the threat to all our economies. At present, heat stress already causes loss of productivity. This will rise to 2 percent of working hours by 2030 even if we manage to maintain the global temperature increase below 1.5°C, estimates Moustapha Kamal Gueye, Coordinator of the ILO’s Green Jobs Program.
The risk of “climate apartheid”
The UN report also cites what is possibly the most disturbing risk of all. A new era of “climate apartheid” where the wealthy pay to escape rising temperatures, hunger, and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer. “Perversely, the richest who have the greatest capacity to adapt and are responsible for and have benefitted from the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions, will be the best placed to cope with climate change, while the poorest, who have contributed the least to emissions and have the least capacity to react, will be the most harmed,” the report states.
A just transition
For all these reasons, mitigating climate change is an urgent human rights obligation. But it also provides a huge opportunity to enhance these rights. The transition to a low carbon economy would actually strengthen workers’ and women’s rights and reduce the divide between individuals and between communities.
Providing access to clean and affordable energy resources will increase the (economic) wellbeing of people currently living in poverty. Replacing firewood with “clean” solar, biogas or electric cooking equipment not only reduces carbon emissions but provides much healthier conditions for women and children. The same goes for the energy needs of (remote) off-grid rural communities, which can be much easier met by wind and solar energy sources that in turn do not harm the environment. In fact, it is estimated that the renewable energy sector alone will create 18 million new jobs – also for the underprivileged.
Making the right link
Linkages made by some human rights organizations have referred to specific issues like the “right to food” or the “land rights” of indigenous peoples. But they barely ever make the connection between climate change and human rights writ large. This is we so warmly welcome the UN report on climate change and poverty.
Governments and the private sector have equally failed to integrate the two. In the Paris Agreement, governments committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support climate vulnerable countries to adapt to irreversible consequences. But missing is the fact that people have the right to be protected against climate change. That there needs to be a just transition, ensuring gender equality, and minority and indigenous rights, while reducing economic and social inequalities. And that the implementation should be transparent and participatory, in accordance with the right to information.
The private sector also has a huge role to play. Fossil fuel companies in particular must take responsibility for the negative climate effects they cause and transition to renewable energy, phasing out fossil fuel exploration and use.
Climate change policies must be human rights policies
In conclusion, integrating human rights into climate change policies will simply improve and expand their effectiveness. As the UN report states, “This crisis [climate change] should be a catalyst for states to fulfil long ignored and overlooked economic and social rights, including to social security and access to food, healthcare, shelter, and decent work.”