Climate crisis is a human rights issue

POISONING OUR FUTURE: The Kendal Power Station looms over Mpumalanga, home to the largest air pollution hotspot in the world. Mpumalanga is evidence of how the climate crisis and human rights often intersect

Last Friday saw a historic event take place across the world.

In more than over 100 countries, around the world, millions of students and young activists took to the streets as part of the Global Climate Strike to protest against government and corporate inaction against the ongoing climate crisis.

NO PLANET B: Johannesburg’s part in the march against Global climate charge march
Picture: Thapelo Morebudi

The strike was inspired by the actions of Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish student who’s protest outside the Swedish parliament has inspired a global eco-movement on a scale not often seen before.

Here in SA, the strike was led by groups like Extinction Rebellion Mzanzi and and was supported by a variety of other NGOs and businesses.

Even trade federations Saftu (SA Federation of Trade Unions) and Fedusa (Federation of Unions of SA) threw in their support.

Now there are many aspects of the strike that are worthy of discussion (some of which I’ve spoken about in previous columns) but for this week, I want to look at an interesting set of arguments raised by organisers that I haven’t really seen before, namely that the climate crisis is actually a human rights issue.

This argument was expressed the clearest in a report to the UN Human Rights Council by special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, released in June.

Alston doesn’t mince words in this report, saying that we are at serious risk of a “climate apartheid” where the rich can pay to escape the worst effects of the climate crisis (which they caused), while the poor are left to suffer.

“Perversely, the richest, who have the greatest capacity to adapt and are responsible for and have benefited 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,” he says.

The report can be split into two broad sections. The first focuses on what impact the climate crisis will have on human rights, while the second focuses on what needs to be done to mitigate it.

In the first section, Alston says that the climate crisis “could result in global crop yield losses of 30% by 2080, even with adaptation measures” [emphasis mine].

In addition, it is estimated that approximately 250,000 more people will die each year due to increased malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.

And then there’s the loss of habitable land, which the report says will displace more than over 140 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America.

Alston’s report also indicates that the climate crisis will exacerbate global poverty levels.

“The World Bank estimates that without immediate action, climate change could push 120 million more people into poverty by 2030 – likely an underestimate,” he says.

It doesn’t stop there, either.

Alston says that the climate crisis could lead to serious human rights abuses from governments as they struggle to cope with the increasingly desperate situation.

“States may very well respond to climate change by augmenting government powers and circumscribing some rights,” he says.

“The risk of community discontent, growing inequality, and of even greater levels of deprivation among some groups will likely stimulate nationalist, xenophobic, racist and other responses.”

Let’s use immigration as an example.

As mentioned above, the climate crisis is set to displace millions of people through things like famine, environmental destruction or their homes becoming unable to support human life any longer.

These millions of people will have no real choice but to immigrate to other nations in order to survive.

SEPTEMBER 8, 2019. Protesters from various hostels in eastern Johannesburg marched along Jules Street earlier in September. Carrying weapons, including knobkerries, the men sang, “foreigners must go back to where they came from”.
“Defiant Johannesburg marchers shunned Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) founder Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi in a Park, where he attempted to address the recent incidents of looting of foreign-owned shops in the province.
Buthelezi had to sit down for a moment as the masseswalked away from the stage during his speech. PHOTOGRAPH: ALON SKUY

Anyone who’s been watching the news lately knows exactly how that turns out.

Mass migration, coupled with worsening poverty and inequality inevitably leads to xenophobic violence from both politicians and members of the public, which is only going to get worse as the climate crisis marches on.

This is just one example of the many ways the climate crisis is directly linked to human rights abuses.

Moving on to the second portion of the report, how does Alston recommend we go on from here?

The first thing we have to realise, he says, is that even a best-scenario is going to leave millions of people impoverished or worse. There is no getting around that fact.

We can’t prevent the crisis, only limit the damage.

Second, we can no longer rely solely on governments or the private sector.

“Sombre speeches by government officials at regular conferences are not leading to meaningful action.

“Thirty years of conventions appear to have done very little,” he says.

“The [fossil fuel] industry has known for decades about their responsibility for rising CO² levels and the likelihood that the rise would lead to catastrophic climate change … However, the industry took no action to change its business model.”

Alston highlights the fact that only 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Even worse, governments are often complicit in allowing these companies to continue destroying the environment with little to no consequence.

Finally, we must accept the fact that combating the climate crisis will require a massive overhaul of our current socio-economic system on a scale never before seen.

To do so, we must learn to ignore the claims from both governments and businesses that such change would “alter markets, threaten economic growth, harm citizens’ way of life and kill jobs”.

As he points out, “this is a cynical, short-sighted approach”.

As it stands, the climate crisis is set to destroy the global economy anyway, with an estimated 13% of global GDP expected to be wiped out following a 2°C increase in temperatures with over US$69 trillion (R1.03 quadrillion) in predicted damages. Meanwhile, 1.2 billion jobs rely on a sustainable and healthy environment.

And besides, a strong economy won’t do much good once the planet is dead.

Bringing this all back to the issue of human rights, he points out that going forward, “a robust social safety net and a well-managed transition to a green economy will be the best response to the unavoidable harms that climate change will bring”.

“Climate change should be a catalyst for states to fulfill long ignored and overlooked economic social rights, including to social security, water and sanitation, education, food, healthcare, housing and decent work”.

Make no mistake, things are certainly going to get a whole lot worse. We can no longer think of the climate crisis as just an environmental issue.

It will affect all aspects of human civilisation in a way no other threat has ever done before.
While it may be too late to fully cure it, we can at least still make a concerted effort to limit the damage as much as possible not just for our sake, but for our children and future generations.


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