Global inaction on climate change is creating a catastrophic 'climate apartheid' in which human rights as we know them – especially those of the world's most vulnerable people – are themselves threatened with extinction, a United Nations (UN) official warns.
Philip Alston, the UN's Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, is an independent expert tasked with assessing how human rights are faring in all the world's poorest places today. According to him, they're not.
"Most human rights bodies have barely begun to grapple with what climate change portends for human rights," Alston says.
"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."
In a blistering new report being presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva this week, Alston warns hundreds of millions of people will face food insecurity, forced migration, disease, and death this century – and even in the short term the mounting crises will be devastating in effect.
"It could push more than 120 million more people into poverty by 2030," Alston says.
"Climate change threatens to undo the last 50 years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction."
The biggest risk, the report explains, is to the world's poor; people from nations who are the least responsible for the consequences of carbon pollution, but who will feel its most severe impacts.
While those in developing countries will not be the only victims of the climate crisis as it unfolds, they will be the most exposed to its dangerous environmental repercussions, Alston says.
"People in poverty tend to live in areas more susceptible to climate change and in housing that is less resistant; lose relatively more when affected; have fewer resources to mitigate the effects; and get less support from social safety nets or the financial system to prevent or recover from the impact," the report states.
"Their livelihoods and assets are more exposed and they are more vulnerable to natural disasters that bring disease, crop failure, spikes in food prices, and death or disability."
It's these types of factors, Alston writes, that help to explain why in this century alone, people in poor countries have died from disasters at rates up to seven times higher than citizens from wealthy countries.
This phenomenon, which may be even more exacerbated as climate strife deepens, paints a dire picture of where things are headed.
"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 says.
While the assessment identifies failures of governmental leadership (and the private sector) as the key factors behind inaction on climate change, Alston says the impending human rights crisis we're now facing is also the result of a squandered opportunity by human rights bodies and the UN itself.
"The human rights community, with a few notable exceptions, has been every bit as complacent as most governments in the face of the ultimate challenge to mankind represented by climate change," the report states.
"The steps taken by most United Nations human rights bodies have been patently inadequate and premised on forms of incremental managerialism and proceduralism which are entirely disproportionate to the urgency and magnitude of the threat. Ticking boxes will not save humanity or the planet from impending disaster."
The answer, Alston says, is to make "deep structural changes in the world economy", transitioning to a green, sustainable economy, while providing a fair and stable safety net for workers who temporarily lose their jobs in the interim.
At the same time, human rights institutions need to unshackle themselves from their caution and inertia, Alston thinks, to "step up and engage determinedly and creatively with climate change".
The challenges may be immense and unprecedented, the report acknowledges, but it also points out there is no alternative, nor any kind of enviable future on the world's current course.
"Certain people and countries have gotten incredibly wealthy through emissions without paying for the costs," Alston writes.
"Staying the course will not preserve growth in the long term, but will be disastrous for the global economy and pull hundreds of millions into poverty.
"Climate action should not be viewed as an impediment to economic growth but as an impetus for decoupling economic growth from emissions and resource extraction, and a catalyst for a green economic transition, labour rights improvements, and poverty elimination efforts."
The draft report is available at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights website.