U.N. Report: ‘Human Rights Might Not Survive’ Climate Crisis

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Yves here. I have trouble understanding how U.N. officials chose to present what they clearly view as an urgent message. Rights don’t matter much to people who are starving or suffering from debilitating diseases. Why is the U.N. not willing to say, “The survival of large numbers of the poor and even one-time middle class is at stake, and climate migrants won’t be well received unless they are rich”? The language used to describe the severity of what faces populations who will be hit early and hard by climate change is bloodless. Perhaps the text comes off as forceful to consumer of NGO-speak, but to mere mortals, it reads as anodyne.

By Justine Calma, a staff writer for Grist. Originally published at Grist

A United Nations watchdog on poverty and human rights is the latest to call attention to the looming threat of a “climate apartheid.” In a report presented to the Human Rights Council on Friday, U.N. special rapporteur Philip Alston writes that climate change is an “unconscionable assault on the poor.”

He cites a World Bank estimate that climate change could push at least 120 million more people into poverty globally by 2030 unless immediate action is taken. This is backed up by a study from Stanford University published earlier this year, which found that the disparity in per capita income between the richest and poorest nations is roughly 25 percent larger now than it would be if human-caused climate change weren’t at play.

“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 said in a statement. Global warming tends to exacerbate economic and racial inequities — an effect that’s been described as a new form of ‘apartheid’ by the likes of Desmond Tutu, the South African Nobel Peace Prize laureate, for the past decade.

The recent U.N. report adds that global warming will have far-reaching effects on just about any humanitarian issue — housing, migration, and more. “Human rights might not survive the coming upheaval,” the report concludes.

The U.N. Human Rights council appoints dozens of special rapporteurs to serve as independent watchdogs. They investigate human rights abuses and report back to the council on specific issues. Alston is one of several special rapporteurs who have focused on climate change in recent years.

Victoria Tauli Corpuz, the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, wrote in a 2017 report, “Climate change not only poses a grave threat to indigenous peoples’ natural resources and livelihoods, but also to their cultural identity and survival.”

A 2015 report by Hilal Elver, the special rapporteur on the right to food, concluded that climate change threatens to leave an additional 600 million people vulnerable to malnutrition by 2080.

In the new report, Alston writes that climate change has long been on human rights defenders’ radar, but is usually treated as an afterthought. He calls out international institutions for marginalizing climate change as a “niche issue.”

Taking on the climate crisis needs to be an integral piece of all international rights groups’ work, rather than a bullet point way down on a laundry list of issues, he contends. “As a full-blown crisis that threatens the human rights of vast numbers of people bears down,” Alston said, “the usual piecemeal, issue-by-issue human rights methodology is woefully insufficient.”

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  1. Sharkleberry Fin

    Human beings encountered catacylsm of this scale in the relative recent past; the Black Death of the 14th century swept across Europe and the Middle East. Rather than exacerbating class divisions, the death toll ushered in the obsolence of feudalism, elevating the serf and thinning out an overbearing aristocracy.

    There is anthropo-centric hubris in believing humans can usher in Earth’s grand finale. The Earth will survive, albeit humans may find it more hostile than to what we’ve grown accustom. Human extinction, whether sooner or later, is a safe bet: 95% of all known species have gone extinct. Surely we all feel the biologic tension of overpopulation; something that would occur even without the sharp increase in greenhouse gases. On a brighter note, I anticipate a revival of the “dense macabre” genre in the arts, as we go hand-in-hand, the tech-burgher and suburban pauper, into the night, all in together now, one last musical number…

    1. Ignacio

      Black death was relatively ummm… democratic compared with CC and afflicted basically humans. This is quite different since it effects whole ecosystems. Some migth be tempted to think that CC can be a “solution” to overpopulation. On the contrary, it is a consequence of overpopulation, and not strictly in the numeric sense but in the sense of consuming unsustainably. Think of car, smartphone, expansion machine overpopulations. etc. So, while I have read here opinions on the superpopulation of India, for instance, when we apply superpopulation in relation with resource usage it would be more apt to talk about superpopulation in OECD countries where consumption is exceedenly unsustainable compared with most other countries.

      Another way of looking at it is that if a new human disease would decimate human populations, it would be more effective against CC if it spreads through rich rather than developing countries.

      1. human

        Climate change is not a consequence of overpopulation. It is a consequence of mis-allocation of resources. Simple, but untenable, policy solutions could have forestalled and possibly even have prevented our current scenario, eg fuel economy regulatons that have been regularly ignored, diminished, and eliminated since the ’70’s. Leaving it in the ground was never seriously considered though the consequences were as revealed by recent reports. The original X Files series had it right with it’s underlying message of an evil oil.

  2. Samuel Conner

    One wonders if the human race will learn anything of enduring value from coming sorrows. In the sci-fi future of the Dune series, an ancient war with autonomous machines led to a universal revulsion toward non-biological computation.

    I’d like to think that we will deal kindly with each other and help each other to “get through” the coming crises, but that’s probably wishful thinking. It will more likely be “devil take the hind-most”, more or less the way things are now.

  3. Dirk77

    Well, to “solve” global warming we need either 6 of every 7 people to die, or have massive geoengineering, either right now. If I were comfortably well off, and thus had time to look around what the average educated and concerned person is doing, namely wringing their hands but not really modifying their lifestyle at at all, I would be betting on the former. I mean has any reader at NC modified their lifestyle at all in the last few years? I also notice that the global warming predictions seem to be underestimates these days. Instead of our earth being in some local minimum that can withstand shocks and bounce back, it’s maybe not really in a minimum at all. Still, understanding seems better than when I was younger. And leadership almost always lags that. Thus, the apparent tepid language of the UN report. But good things may still happen.

    1. jrs

      Modified their lifestyle, why don’t you ask if they’ve tried to change their political situation? Because that would at least be relevant. Even there we often have limited power, but for instance, and this is hardly radical, campaigned to get better people who care about the issue elected etc. (harder to do some places in the country than others of course).

      1. Dirk77

        Yes. The counter argument to mine that friends have made is that individual effort, while noble, is doomed without a true global one. In that sense, electing enlightened people to office, and these people collaborating with other countries. In a sense, because you have chosen to be alive, you should act in ways that shows that life matters to you. And that often means not to go gently into the good night. I just don’t know what that means here. But with nothing really tried, giving things a try is the least one can do. So I agree with you!

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Enough people doing their individual efforts and getting in steady constant organizing touch with eachother, can scale up to a culture-group which could support a movement to do the society-level political engagement actions. And if challenged by junior-high-school-level hypocrisy-hunters to show their own individual conservation numbers, they would have the individual numbers to show.

          That would not impress the shallow sneermongers who raise the question. But it might impress those gathered-around bystanders who might see and remember and do and join.

      2. wilroncanada

        Thanks Dirk77 and jrs for your contributions.
        I have short stories on both sides of the modified lifestyle comments.
        First, I was waiting for my daughter in a Walmart parking lot late yesterday while my daughter tried in vain, as a last resort, to get a cheap pair of tennis shoes to wear on a yacht. In the aisle in front of me were four big trucks and a full-size cargo van. As their drivers and passengers arrived, all were carrying their groceries in Walmart single-use plastic bags. I thought, “Is there something about the upbringing or genetic makeup of people, putting driving gas-guzzlers together with consuming single-use bags?”
        On the other hand, when we first moved into our house here 10 years ago, we set up our compost bins, brought in topsoil to cover the clay, removed a section of gravel, and planted a backyard garden. At the time, only one other neighbour on the block had a backyard garden, and several had poisoned the front of their homes to keep the grass “pure.” Now almost everyone on both sides of our street is growing veggies to some degree. A little silent missionary work and demonstrating how it can work has had community benefit.

    2. clarky90

      Re “…has any reader at NC modified their lifestyle at all in the last few years?”

      Yes, I have. I am incrementally, learning how “to do without.” I only warm one small room of the house, for a few hours on the coldest evenings (about 30 nights a year). I use an electric fan heater for heat. I am at 45* South, so cold-ish. The rest of the time, doors and windows are open, to let in the fresh air. I routinely, “rug up” (woolly hats, socks coats…..) for the cold.

      I have been walking and busing to the shops, I buy, mostly, recycled clothes and gadgets. (However, new socks, underpants, laptops and cellphones).

      I have turned the front and back yards (we say “section” in NZ) into food, herb flower garden. I avoid air-travel. I go on multi-day (sometimes weeks) fasts.

      I have taken responsibility for my own health- so am pharma-free. (However, a few years ago, my retina tore and I got wonderful help from the MDs).

      “Human Rights Might Not Survive Climate Crisis”

      IMO, this is not a “prediction” from the Ruling Classes, but rather, “Their Plan”.

      “It horrifies Us to say this, but there was no other alternative. Ohhh, The Great Sorrow! What else could we have done?”

      1. lordkoos

        These wealthy people who think they can survive climate change are crazy. They can stave off it’s effects for a time, but there is going to be a great leveling eventually. Even with money, it’s not going to be much fun to live in the world even 50 years from now. People like Jeff Bezos, with his fantasy of colonizing mars or the moon, or Peter Thiel with his huge spread in New Zealand, are dreaming if they think they have some kind of long term solution. Although, I guess neither of them has kids, so maybe they don’t care.

        The sad part is that the places on earth than contributed the least to the warming, are the ones that are going to be most hurt by it (India, and any place in the tropics really), while the countries most responsible for it will skate, relatively. Although a North America with constant storms, heat waves and hurricanes isn’t going to be a picnic, it’s going to be a lot better off than Bangladesh, which will be underwater. As far as refugees goes, Europe ain’t seen nothing yet. Or the US, for that matter.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Peter Thiel can share his huge New Zealand spread with a thousand climate refugee Chinese. Or maybe a million. There will be plenty to go around.

          He won’t have to like it. But he will have to do it regardless . . . . because they will have more AK-47s than he does.

    3. clarky90

      Re”…Well, to “solve” global warming we need either 6 of every 7 people to die,…”

      The Great Leap Forward (Chinese: 大跃进; pinyin: Dà Yuèjìn) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was an economic and social campaign by the Communist Party of China (CPC) from 1958 to 1962…..


      …aimed to rapidly transform the country from an agrarian economy into a socialist society through rapid industrialization and collectivization. These policies led to social and economic disaster, but these failures were hidden by widespread exaggeration and deceitful reports. In short order, large internal resources were diverted to use on expensive new industrial operations, which, in turn, failed to produce much, and deprived the agricultural sector of urgently needed resources. A significant result was a drastic decline in food output, which caused millions of deaths in the Great Chinese Famine….

      ….The exact number of famine deaths is difficult to determine, and estimates range from upwards of 30 million, to 55 million people. ….”

      1. Dirk77

        Needless to say, my comment was just to underscore what you need to do if you were really serious about this issue, but we’re too lazy to come up with anything realistically better. I mean I read somewhere that if 50% or more of your people die, then the culture does not recover. So if your words aren’t just blather, then get moving. They’re are surely better answers.

  4. Ian Perkins

    Tackling climate change requires the world to cease burning fossil fuels.
    The economies of countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia are almost 100% based on fossil fuels, and those of the USA, Russia, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, Australia and so on a bit less so.
    For the UN to tell these countries to immediately decarbonise would be seen as tantamount to declaring war on them, something the United Nations is unlikely to do. Hence the anodyne language.
    The “wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer,” and they don’t see what is wrong with that.

    1. jrs

      But of course those countries have absolute control over it, and the average person little. OPEC etc. can and have just decided to cut back production for now. In the name of prices and profits. When it no longer serves those ends they will ramp up production again. OPEC Is not new news to anyone, but it struck me with this latest news that wow they could do the same the name of global survival. But they won’t.

  5. Jon Claerbout

    Polar warming is well established in theory and in practice. Tropical warming is not. Population growth is what pushes people into poverty.

  6. Susan the other`

    I think more is being done than meets the eye, and intentionally so. China has done an enormous amount of work building dams to control water; declaring their tidelands as national reserves (where hundreds of millions of Chinese now live and will surely be displaced) – so this is a politically acceptable precursor to telling them all that they must now move inland, etc. China has begun intensive farming in southern Russia as well. I think each state here in the US is working on mitigating climate problems – but nobody’s sure how to do much but address the immediate emergencies. Europe the same. When it comes to monsoonal rain and floods and ocean rise there isn’t much anyone can do but get out of the way. It would make sense for countries to start building shelters for long term occupation. Think about our own southern border mess. I would guess that Japan has organized sheltering – they are good at anticipating things. One way to look at it is that the inequity started long ago and was neglected because there was no urgency. Now that the world must accommodate displaced climate refugees it will. I’m not worried about climate apartheid – no more than the previous apartheid. This will be a good opportunity to equalize global living conditions.

    1. Ian Perkins

      What on earth makes you claim “Now that the world must accommodate displaced climate refugees it will”?

      1. Susan the other`

        Because we can’t let them suffer without help. I honestly believe the refugees will all be helped. If your neighbor came stumbling up to your door all drenched, freezing and starving would you help him? Of course you would. Even if he had spent the last 25 years calling you some obnoxious nickname and you talked your kids into toilet-papering his trees every halloween. You get the idea. That’s just the way we are, imo.

        1. lordkoos

          Susan, I wish I could share your optimistic views, however if history teaches us anything, I believe it will not be that long before people trying to cross borders will be shot on sight. The waves of people moving around will be enormous once things really start heating up, and the sea level rises to inundate coastal and low lying regions. Food production will suffer terribly from warmer temperatures as well, so it will be extremely difficult or impossible to feed everyone even if that was a goal.

        2. Yves Smith Post author

          Um, since when has the rest of the world done anything about horrific flooding, earthquakes, and genocidal wars (South Sudan, Rwanda back in the day?) in poor countries? Those are of a scale where help was feasible and not much help was provided. All you see are celebrity concerts and some UN hand-wringing.

          India is in the midst of a massive drought. Is any advanced economy offering to take refugees from India? How about regular and devastating floods in Bangladesh (see here, for instance, Bangladesh is expected to be an early casualty of global warning)? And how about starvation and cholera and Yemen (oh, that doesn’t count because Saudi Arabia)?

          1. Susan the other`

            I agree, it’s all horrific. And it is going to get worse. What I don’t see is a refusal to help. We will help as best we can. Other countries will have their own solutions for sheltering people. What I have a hard time imagining is people just giving up. But yes, it won’t be pretty. And I’m convinced there are national and international efforts under way to organize for these anticipated disasters. People will do what they can, what we can.

      2. FKorning

        Because it’s in one’s long-term interests. It’s never in one’s interest to leave those in proximity in a state of total desperation while living large. Drastic Imbalances cause conflict. Eventually the hordes wil be at the gates. One can either try to manage it peacefully or wait for a more violent outcome.

    2. John Wright

      I suspect a metaphor for how humans will respond to other humans affected by climate change will be similar to how humankind has responded to other animal species who are in the process of going extinct in real time.

      In my view, little accommodation to these other climate change “refugee” species has been the rule.

      I don’t believe “Now that the world must accommodate displaced climate refugees it will.” follows as a truism.

  7. sharonsj

    In 2004 the Pentagon published a 28-page paper on global warming which essentially said that climate change was a threat greater than terrorism. That was because of mass migrations. If you look at the mass migrations from the Middle East and Africa into Europe and Scandinavia, all those areas are becoming destabilized and account for the rise of the hard right. Ditto Latin America coming into the U.S. Meanwhile, American farmers are being destroyed by incessant flooding and our food prices are going up. None of this is going to end well because so many people are in denial. As for geoengineering, the scientists are quite afraid of unintended consequences….

    1. John Rose

      We have got to risk unintended consequences. We could at least begin adequate scale experiments, in ocean fertilization with iron, for example.

      1. Susan the other`

        First reports on adding iron to the oceans were unexpected – it actually contributed more to ocean acidification. Not sure the chemical reactions involved.

    2. Ian Perkins

      We’ve been geoengineering for ages. That is exactly how we’ve managed to start altering our climate.

      1. William Sircin

        Yes, exactly! Thank you! The whole geoengineering thing strikes me as tatamount to digging oneself into a hole, and then digging harder to get out.

  8. 3.14e-9

    Sharon, you beat me to it. That 2004 Pentagon study was the first thing I thought of while reading this article. I was looking for links to post when your comment popped up.

    Fortune got the scoop after the Pentagon “shared” the white paper with the magazine. Here’s the original article, republished from the archives in 2014:

    The Pentagon’s Weather Nightmare

    The Fortune article caused such a stir that the Pentagon eventually walked back on it the report. I’ll see if I can find links to some of those articles, plus the original PDF.

  9. Steven

    ‘Human Rights’ – we might want to define our terms here. For example, is it a basic human right to:
    1. reproduce without limits, including if nothing else the ability to financially support your offspring?
    2. to peddle the most obvious, self-serving bullshit, e.g.:
    a. the Koch brothers?
    b. US politicians of ‘both parties’ (SIC – there is only one)?
    c. Main stream economics?
    d. The main stream media’s “manufactured consent” used to control an corrupt the public’s consciousness?
    3. to rob the commons of present and future generations ‘because you can’ so you and your employers (thanks for NAFTA, globalization and that ‘post-industrial economy Clintons and all you Democratic Party regulars!) can accumulate yet more money you don’t need, to “keep score” as Trump puts it?

  10. RickV

    Yes, human rights and Democracy are threatened. No Democracy has yet voted to reduce its living standards in peace time e.g. the Yellow Vests in France. The best hope I can see is for a Pearl Harbor type event, such as a hurricane leveling Miami or New York, to galvanize the population.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      If Miami or New York City got leveled by a Category 6 hurricane, the Red Zonians would orgasmacumjaculate themselves in writhing fits of schadenfreudian ecstasy.

      If a Category 6 hurricane were to level ( i.e. raze every structure smoothly to the ground) a major Red Zonian city like Dallas or Houston or Oklahoma City or maybe all three in sequence, then the Red Zonians might become educated and decide to permit some global de-warming action to be taken.

    2. lordkoos

      The yellow vest people probably wouldn’t be as angry if sacrifices were being equally shared, but it’s so obvious that they are not.

  11. Temporarily Sane

    Why is the U.N. not willing to say, “The survival of large numbers of the poor and even one-time middle class is at stake, and climate migrants won’t be well received unless they are rich”? The language used to describe the severity of what faces populations who will be hit early and hard by climate change is bloodless. Perhaps the text comes off as forceful to consumer of NGO-speak, but to mere mortals, it reads as anodyne.

    Unfortunately many mere mortals that I’ve met are terrifed of being exposed to anything that is “too negative”. I can’t prove it scientifically but in my experience the culture of enforced optimism and the expectation of a cheery disposition seems to be getting more intense as the severity of the issues facing the world increases. Why the UN can’t call a spade a spade is a mystery though…it’s not like their virtual switchboard would light up with urgent calls to action if that’s what they’re worried about

    Expanding on that a bit, there are a lot of people out there who react to any mention of even relatively minor political issues with “ugh politics”. The only exception in some circles is the ritual complaining about Trump (and only Trump) and pretending that the world was just fine until he came along and messed it all up. However, any broadening of the discussion is strictly verboten.

    The media and social media companies shape “reality” for a depressingly large number of people. If it isn’t on TV or doesn’t show up in their Facebook news feed it didn’t happen and if someone presents an opinion or argument that hasn’t been pre-chewed for them by their media of choice, that person must be a victim of “fake news” or perhaps even a fascist sympathizer. I was pretty shocked when people who I thought knew better turned into mindless automatons who take their cues from the mainstream news and their favorite celebrities. The power of the media and the gatekeepers that control the limits of acceptable debate is immense. Even the degraded post Web 2.0/iPhone era internet still provides a wealth of credible and accurate information but that hasn’t made people any smarter or wiser. They simply reject out of hand anything that threatens to upset their world view which, these days, is often linked to some sort of tribal identity.

    1. Tyronius

      You are spot on the money here. This is why Black Swan events hold so much power to break through the standard predigested narrative and get people’s attention- even though most of the time those who are paying attention see these events coming.

      The fun part is dreaming up what that Black Swan event might be?

  12. The Rev Kev

    Having just finished a book on the Thirty Years War, I would say that that human rights will be more simplified in a survival situation caused from climate change as in-

    -The right not to be killed out of hand.
    -The right not to be taken in slavery including for sexual purposes for females.
    -The right not to have your home and village burned down.
    -The right not to have all your food stores seized leaving you to starve.

    Stuff gets pretty bad when the only real rights that a person has are those listed above.

    1. Ian Perkins

      If the neolibs get their way, all of those rights will be qualified with “if you have enough money”. A perfect free market in lives.

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