“Climate change is, among other things, an unconscionable assault on the poor.”
Rabat – Climate change and human rights go hand in hand, a reality the world is recognizing at its 11th hour. Large-scale natural disasters now occur once weekly and forced migration is increasingly a part of international policy discussion. It is no longer possible to ignore climate change or label it a problem for future generations. Climate change already causes suffering and exacerbates inequality worldwide, and its impacts will not be slowed without swift, robust action.
“Although climate change has been on the human rights agenda for well over a decade, it remains a marginal concern for most actors. Yet it represents an emergency without precedent and requires bold and creative thinking from the human rights community” said UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Philip Alston, who released a landmark report on June 25.
Regarding climate change outlook, Alston wrote in no uncertain terms, “We have reached a point where the best-case outcome is widespread death and suffering by the end of this century, and the worst-case puts humanity on the brink of extinction.”
Concentrated efforts may improve circumstances towards this “best-case outcome,” but outcomes will affect populations differently. Alston terms this the “climate apartheid.”
“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 continued, “Even if current targets are met, tens of millions will be impoverished, leading to widespread displacement and hunger.”
The special rapporteur’s report chastises governments, other major actors, and even its author for ignoring the gravity of this emergency. Now, Alston writes, the time to dispute science is finished. Now is the time to act.
Climate change is increasingly framed as a human rights issue.
Human rights groups and major climate change actors came together September 18-19 at the People’s Summit on Climate, Rights, and Human Survival in New York, the first forum of its kind. Participants signed a declaration calling for acknowledgment and action from all stakeholders, especially to hear and protect those most vulnerable:
“To achieve climate justice,” reads the declaration, “we must also recognize that although the climate crisis is a global problem affecting everybody, it disproportionately affects persons, groups, and peoples in vulnerable situations, who see their rights violated and who are subjected to multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination. The climate crisis also impacts countries unequally.”
The onus to act no longer lies on eco-activists. Problems for the environment are problems for people.
The summit preceded the annual UN Climate Action Summit. December’s COP25 in Chile will allow governments to agree on more rapid and stringent action against the climate crisis.
Climate apartheid is undeniable in the MENA region
Alston’s report echoes scores of scientifically-based reports with undeniable evidence. Yet, the report misses one key point. Alston’s language is almost entirely framed in the future tense. His conclusion reads that “the group that will be most negatively affected across the globe are those living in poverty.”
Damages already affect the world’s poorest populations. Climate change is no longer an issue to address “for future generations.” Populations suffer today. A major manifestation is the displacement of vulnerable populations.
The UNHCR reported that about 41.3 million people were internally displaced at the end of 2018. A total of 16.1 million of these IDPs were displaced due to “weather-related hazards” according to the International Displacement Monitoring Center. This figure predominantly comes from storm events such as cyclones and hurricanes but also encompasses issues such as droughts, floods, and extreme temperatures.
As of now, climate change is not a legally recognized reason to seek asylum. This creates legal barriers for people already suffering against great odds.
In Syria, “extreme droughts from 2007-2010 were made three times more likely due to climate change and caused 75 percent of the most vulnerable farmers to experience total crop failure, displacing 1.5 – 2 million people,” according to Caitlin Werrell, co-founder of the Center for Climate and Security. This massive displacement preceded one of the deadliest conflicts in the last several decades.
In Yemen, lives on the Socotra Islands have been uprooted, causally linked to climate change. The archipelago was quite undeveloped and separated culturally and ecologically from mainland Yemen. Two cyclones hit the islands within one week in 2015. The cyclones wreaked havoc and uprooted about a third of Socotris. Climate change played a role in the unusual cyclones, according to researchers.
The UAE brought humanitarian aid to the islands and remained as a military presence. A recent report by Minority Rights Group International said, “Just as they have played no part in the development of the conflict on the mainland, so too the Socotri community has contributed little to climate change – and yet, like other communities on the frontline of global warming, they are now faced with its worst effects.”
Climate apartheid in apartheid Israel
This climate apartheid is visible in Israel, MENA’s apartheid state. The environment inhabited by Israelis and Palestinians, both within Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, presents the same natural stressors. Rising sea levels and average temperatures are threats causally linked to climate change.
Israeli forces attacked water treatment plants in Gaza in 2014. Israeli restrictions generally do not allow construction supplies to reach Palestine, so Palestine cannot rebuild the plants. Palestinians must rely on polluted and disappearing groundwater. This water insecurity results in drought crises, food insecurity, and sanitation hazards. At the same time, Israel controls the Jordan River headwaters, a crucial water source.
Israel ranks high for resilience to climate change, as an upper-income country; Palestine is absent in the same rankings. The UNDP deems Israeli occupation an environmental risk factor, as the Palestinian Authority is unable to manage its land and resources.
The same area of land faces a high risk for climate change impacts, but its poorer population is by far shouldering the brunt. The Israeli apartheid state exacerbates the climate apartheid in a tragic MENA case of climate injustice.
America’s climate apartheid
Well beyond the MENA, climate apartheid already plays out across the US. According to a study by the National Center for Climate Assessment, “Results at national, state, and county scales all indicate that non-Whites tend to be burdened disproportionately to Whites.”
Senator Kamala Harris and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently introduced a proposal entitled the Climate Equity Act to support communities suffering from these uneven consequences. The bill would require environmental legislation to rate impacts on low-income communities. This comes alongside other climate justice proposals by Governor Jay Inslee of Washington and presidential candidate Tom Steyer.
The new plans “are timely and they are needed,” according to Obama-era EPA justice official Mustafa Ali. “And they help us to begin to think critically about the steps that are going to be necessary to protect people’s lives in the moment, and in these challenges that are rushing at us at a very quick pace.”
Global inequality is on the rise, but two developing African nations show a feasible path to minimize climate apartheid.
Morocco and The Gambia are the only two countries worldwide on track to surpass Paris Agreement goals, and to reduce carbon emissions to a 1.5°C warming scenario, according to Climate Action Tracker.
While these two countries tackle internal development challenges and did not create the climate apartheid, they show leadership in limiting its harm.