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Humanity will soon be living in a “climate apartheid” unless dramatic actions are taken to curb climate change, said Phillip Alston, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, in a new report on climate change

Apartheid is a loaded term that invokes South Africa before its liberation in 1994, but Alston said it reflects the split realities that climate change will create for the world’s wealthy and the world’s poor. Although wealthy countries are largely responsible for pumping greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, it’s the poorest countries that will be most affected by the consequences of climate change.

In fact, the report estimates that low-income countries will bear 70% to 80% of the costs of climate change.

“Climate change threatens to undo the last 50 years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction,” Alston said. “It could push more than 120 million more people into poverty by 2030 and will have the most severe impact in poor countries, regions, and the places poor people live and work.

“Perversely, while people in poverty are responsible for just a fraction of global emissions, they will bear the brunt of climate change, and have the least capacity to protect themselves,” he added. “We risk a ‘climate apartheid’ scenario where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”

Alston’s report shows the inextricable link between climate change and human rights. 

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As climate change intensifies, access to food, water, shelter, and opportunity will be disrupted for millions of people. 

Sea level rise threatens to submerge coastal communities around the world, displacing tens of millions of people by the end of the century. Extreme storms, meanwhile, are becoming more powerful and will displace millions more. 

The report notes that 18.8 million people were displaced by natural disasters in 2017, nearly double the amount of people displaced by conflict. 

Changing precipitation patterns and rising temperatures will subject more areas to droughts and heat waves, endangering water supplies and agricultural output. The UN warns that two-thirds of the global population could face water shortages by 2030

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These emerging crises could undermine democracies as people lose their jobs, struggle to obtain basic necessities, and experience the harsh indignities of poverty, Alston argues. 

Governments already strapped for resources will be hard-pressed to deal with the scale of natural disasters and climate-related emergencies in the decades ahead, he said. 

“Most human rights bodies have barely begun to grapple with what climate change portends for human rights, and it remains one on a long laundry list of ‘issues,’ despite the extraordinarily short time to avoid catastrophic consequences,” Alston said. 

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“As a full-blown crisis that threatens the human rights of vast numbers of people bears down, the usual piecemeal, issue-by-issue human rights methodology is woefully insufficient,” he added. 

The Paris climate agreement is the primary framework through which countries are curbing greenhouse gas emissions, but Alston said that the commitments made under it are astonishingly inadequate. 

The Paris agreement aims to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, but that goal is wholly unrealistic at this point in time, he said. 

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The report ultimately urges countries to radically reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and develop policies to ensure the human rights of people who will be harmed by climate change.  

“A robust social safety net will be the best response to the unavoidable harms that climate change will bring,” Alston said. “This crisis should be a catalyst for states to fulfil long ignored and overlooked economic and social rights, including to social security and access to food, health care, shelter, and decent work.”


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