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A motorists on Highway 101 watches flames from the Thomas fire leap above the roadway north of Ventura, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017. As many as five fires have closed highways, schools and museums, shut down production of TV series and cast a hazardous haze over the region. About 200,000 people were under evacuation orders.
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'5 Minutes to Midnight': Amnesty Warns Catastrophic Climate Change Is Near

By Laurie Goering

LONDON, Sept 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Amnesty International's new chief, Kumi Naidoo, has little patience for UN climate change talks that have made slow progress for decades but left the world heading for disaster.

"The return on investment I would say should cause us to pause and reflect," Naidoo said in an interview this week, as talks resumed in Bangkok on hammering out guidelines to put the painstakingly agreed 2015 Paris climate deal into practice.

Even now, as head of a global human rights group, the former Greenpeace executive director will keep an eye on the climate change proceedings because the threats are fast converging, he said.

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"It's abundantly clear climate change impacts are having — and will continue to intensify having — human rights impacts. So Amnesty has to embrace this," Naidoo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, after taking the organization's reins in August.

Around the world, climate change is putting more people at risk from extreme heat waves, wilder storms, sea level rise, and worsening droughts, floods, and wildfires.

If not quickly tackled, scientists say, global warming is likely to bring large-scale food and water shortages and force more people to migrate, while exacerbating problems such as human trafficking, land conflicts, and early marriage of girls.

"We are at five minutes to midnight. We're right there at the precipice," said the South African-born activist, who spent his youth as an anti-apartheid campaigner.

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But protection for those hit by climate-related disasters is limited. People forced to leave their homes by climate pressures like recurring drought, for instance, are not classified as refugees and cannot access the same support systems.

Amnesty International has been working to get climate change recognised as a human rights issue since at least 2009, Naidoo said — and has long helped environmental activists.

"I'm not starting with a blank slate," said the group's new secretary-general.

But with the backing of its 7 million members, Naidoo now aims to move climate threats closer to the forefront of Amnesty's work.

"This is about securing our children and their children's future. We must not make the mistake of framing climate change as an environmental issue only," he said.

Climate Lawsuits

One particularly promising avenue for action is the growing crescendo of lawsuits brought against oil companies and other climate polluters, Naidoo said.

So far more than a thousand climate-related cases have been filed, according to the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.

Among them, 21 young plaintiffs in the US state of Oregon charge that the nation's fossil fuel-heavy energy system deprives them of their "constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property."

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A separate case filed by a Peruvian farmer against a German power giant argues its emissions have contributed to flooding threats in his community. The Philippines' Commission on Human Rights, similarly, this year began holding public hearings on whether fossil fuel companies have violated the rights of Filipinos, hard-hit by fiercer hurricanes.

Even if they fail, the legal actions "open up public awareness, and you help contribute to development of climate law and case law around climate change," Naidoo said.

"If you apply existing human rights conventions and the logic many courts follow in regard to human rights, we're in pretty good shape to win some battles," he added.

Trump an Ally?

The bearded social justice campaigner also has long advocated civil disobedience and other frontline action to bring change. He was arrested in 2012 while occupying a Russian oil platform with Greenpeace, and has engaged in hunger strikes.

Driving climate action fast enough to keep human rights risks from spinning out of control will require building new alliances, not least between climate and rights campaigners.

"There has to be a different message that speaks to the urgency of the problem, the scale of what it means for food, the economy, jobs. We need to spell that out more clearly," he said.

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He counts US President Donald Trump as an ally in the effort — not least because he has spurred about 400 local governments in the United States to push ahead with their own climate action plans in defiance of Washington.

Leaders such as Canada's Justin Trudeau and France's Emmanuel Macron are more problematic, he said, because they talk about climate action but do too little.

"Saying the right things creates a false sense of complacency," Naidoo said.

Meanwhile the worsening of climate impacts — from hurricanes and flooding to wildfires — in rich countries, including the United States, opens up opportunities to press ahead, he said.

"This is not an issue that respects national boundaries," Naidoo noted. "We either get this right together or continue to drag our feet and engage in symbolic half measures - and ultimately rich countries will not be immune."

(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit