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Poorest Will Face ‘Climate Apartheid’ if Crisis Deepens, Rule of Law Crumbles


Near-universal failure to acknowledge the magnitude of the climate crisis risks setting the stage for an era of “climate apartheid,” in which private wealth becomes the only guarantor of (relative) well-being and positive social forces like democracy and the rule of law crumble, warns a recent United Nations report.

The release from Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, was sharply critical of all parties putatively involved in responding to the climate crisis, The Guardian reports.

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While Alston singles out denialist demagogues like Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro for special condemnation, he roundly castigates national governments en masse, observing that “states have marched past every scientific warning and threshold, and what was once considered catastrophic warming now seems like a best-case scenario.” He added that “even today, too many countries are taking shortsighted steps in the wrong direction.”

Economists urging a shift in priorities, like William Nordaus and Joseph Stiglitz, have also been given the brush-off, Alston said [2], even though “we know that if we wait another decade before taking really major, revolutionary measures to transform our economies, the situation is going to be absolutely dire.”

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

What must be rigorously resisted, he urges, is “an overreliance on for-profit efforts” to battle climate change. A failure to defend the social contract would “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,” he writes. In that scenario, the greatest burden will fall on the poorest, who are also the least responsible for the crisis.

Faced with the growing odds of “massive human rights violations, with the wealthy catered to and the poorest left behind,” Alton says human rights workers must change their modus operandi in the face of the climate crisis.

Declaring his own past efforts part of the problem, Alston faults the NGO community and the UN for failing to recognize that “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.” While climate change now “threatens to undo the last 50 years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction,” it is also imperiling the rule of law and democratic institutions.

“Maintaining a balanced approach to civil and political rights will be extremely complex” in a world where deepening inequality and deprivation prove fertile ground for xenophobia and racism, he says.

Elsewhere in the report, he writes that “even the unrealistic best case scenario of 1.5°C of warming by 2100 will see extreme temperatures in many regions and leave disadvantaged populations with food insecurity, lost incomes, and worse health. Many will have to choose between starvation and migration.”

Ashfaq Khalfan, director of the law and policy program at Amnesty International, responded that “a state that fails to take any feasible steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is violating its human rights obligations,” adding that governments and fossils would both be hearing from his organization. “We need everybody to live up to their responsibilities to act on climate change and protect human rights,” he said.