Climate Action

Climate change is a human rights issue

As the planet heats up, bringing with it more drought, famine and extreme weather events, people will be left without access to basic human needs. Millions of people will suffer and die because of climate change, and as political leaders drag their feet to act on humanity’s biggest threat ever, those numbers will only increase.

Climate change isn’t simply a political or economic issue. It’s a human rights issue, perhaps the biggest one in human history. If we continue spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we not only destroy ecosystems and drive species to extinction, we indirectly violate human rights.

Extreme weather events are more prevalent in a warming world, leading to death, destruction of property and crops and limited access to food, water, shelter, healthcare and education, as the United Nations Environment Programme outlined in its 2015 climate change and human rights report.

“We need to understand that environmental collapse generally, as well as climate change specifically, is completely a cross-cutting issue,” said Amnesty International Secretary-General Kumi Naidoo, on a October briefing call with Earth Day Network.

As world leaders enter the second week of the United Nations’ COP25 in Madrid, they must understand what’s at stake for humanity and the human rights threats if we continue to delay climate action. Many options lie ahead of us, but the most effective ones are those that reduce greenhouse gas emissions as fast as possible.

That said, humanity’s best-case scenario is to immediately transition into clean-energy economies, fair and equitable systems that don’t exploit lower classes but instead empower and enrich communities.

The worst-case scenario? Civilization, as we know it, collapses.

No matter the outcome, people will suffer. All that carbon dioxide in the air isn’t going away any time soon, even if we miraculously stopped spewing the stuff into the air tomorrow. The impacts from the greenhouse gasses currently in the atmosphere will be felt for decades.

“Today, climate change … constitutes a mass death penalty facing all the people on this planet,” said Naidoo.

Any amount of suffering that can be averted by curbing greenhouse gases, therefore, is something we should strive for. Every hundredth of a degree increase matters.

A panel of human rights experts attempted to make this point and accelerate climate action last year at the United Nations’ COP24 in Poland. They released a joint statement urging countries to achieve an emissions target of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as well as “to commit to urgently increase their ambition, given the grave nature of the climate crisis and the pressing need for scaled-up mitigation efforts.”

Today, climate change … constitutes a mass death penalty facing all the people on this planet.

Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International Secretary-General

As climate change intensifies, people will be forced to adjust, investing billions of dollars in infrastructure or migration. Those who have more money can afford to move out of harms’ way. And those historically neglected or marginalized in society will only be further disadvantaged and threatened in a warming world.

Climate change doesn’t treat everyone equally. Low income communities, people of color and women will all be disproportionately affected as global temperatures rise. The inequality of climate impacts could be a continued hindrance to the progress of climate action.

As Naidoo said, “Sadly, there probably would have been more urgency if the people that were dying first in the largest numbers were people in the most powerful countries.”

Women and children are 14 times more likely to die in climate change disasters, according to the U.N. Women make up most of the world’s poor, and women tend to rely more heavily on natural resources for their livelihoods and societal gender roles.

When Hurricane Maria his Puerto Rico, for example, women worked overtime to prep houses before the hurricane hit and rebuilt houses after they were demolished. The additional domestic work — with fewer resources — can make it difficult for women to recover financially.

But women and girls may also be a powerful, untapped climate solution: Research organization Project Drawdown lists educating girls as the sixth-most most impactful solution to reducing total atmospheric CO2.

In cities, it’s another story. Air pollution and the heat island effect disproportionately hurt people of color. A 2017 report by the NAACP and the Clean Air Task Force found that black Americans breathe air that’s nearly 40 percent more polluted than white Americans. People of color are also at least 75 percent more likely than other Americans to live in communities that border oil and natural gas refineries.

To level the playing field, we must recognize the double-edged sword of climate change, which both violates human rights and disproportionately affects communities that are already most vulnerable.

“We need to fundamentally change our system on collaboration and equitable development in all parts of the world,” said youth climate activist Jerome Foster II, in an interview this year with Earth Day Network. “Not seeing other countries as a handout, but as a responsible to make sure that the entire world is fair and equal.”

One way to work toward a more just, equitable society is for countries to meet their commitments under the Paris Agreement and contribute to the Green Climate Fund, established to limit greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries and help vulnerable societies adapt to climate change.

Recent climate strikes — coordinated by organizations like Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion and Sunrise Movement — should make us more optimistic for the future, but they are only a start. Climate change is a global problem that needs global solutions. Everyone, world and youth leaders alike, must be on board to make meaningful change. The future of humanity is on the line.

As climate activist and indigenous hip-hop artist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez told Earth Day Network in September, “For us this is about our survival. This is not just about our future, our future generation. This is about the lives that are being lost today and the people that are being displaced today.”

Photo at top: Scene from Port-au-Prince as Hurricane Matthew makes landfall in Haiti. Photo credit: UN Photo/Logan Abassi