By Professors Sara Seck and Meinhard Doelle, and Killam Post Doctoral Fellow, Lisa Benjamin.
On June 25th, 2019, the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, released a report on climate change and poverty. This much-anticipated report offers an opportunity to focus on an often neglected aspect of climate change, the disproportionate, devastating impact of unmitigated climate change on those living in poverty. While heatwaves in Europe have attracted attention, it is the existing climate-induced impacts on vulnerable communities in the Global South which are often overlooked. The water crisis in India and ongoing migration crises are just recent examples of what is to come.
The report starts out with some shocking statistics. It estimates that hundreds of millions of people will face food insecurity, forced migration, disease and death. The report classifies the human rights impacts of climate change as an emergency without precedent, and emphasizes that the scale of the emergency very much depends on the level of effort the global community puts into mitigation. The difference between a 1.5-degree and a 2-degree increase above pre-industrial levels is estimated to expose an additional 457 million people to climate related risks, including risks related to sea level rise, flooding, droughts, forest fires, damage to ecosystems, food production, and the availability of drinking water.
A 2-degree world would put an additional 100-400 million people at risk of hunger, and 1-2 billion may not have access to adequate water. 140 million people in the poorest parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America could be displaced by climate change by 2050. Already, in 2017, more people were displaced by disasters than by conflict, with most of the displacement affecting those living in poverty in developing countries.
Of course, current mitigation commitments are likely to result in an approximately 3-degree or higher world. Unfortunately, the report does not offer the same level of detail of the human impacts resulting from the path the world is currently on, either based on commitments under the Paris Agreement, or based on current policies. While this is understandable given the commitment of the global community in the Paris Agreement to collectively work toward “well below 2 degrees”, current nationally determined commitments (or NDCs) leave a significant gap, and many countries are not yet on target to meet their existing NDC commitments.
The scale of the overall impact, even at 1.5 degrees, is unprecedented, and the report estimates that developing countries will bear 75-80 percent of the costs and impacts. In short, climate change will exacerbate existing poverty and inequality, between developed and developing countries, but also within countries. The higher the global impact, the worse the plight of the world’s poor. The report details incidents of loss and damage, or effects which exceed the adaptive capacity of communities and states, with the impacts of loss and damage being more drastic in the Global South. The authors of this blog have researched the legal and policy implications of climate-induced loss and damage, with two of the authors editing a Research Handbook on Loss and Damage along with existing work on the topic.
Of course, the inequity of this disproportionate impact is exacerbated by the fact that those in poverty have to date and will continue to contribute the least to the problem. The poorest half of the global population is responsible for only 10% of global GHG emissions, and a person in the top 1% (which includes most middle-class citizens in developed countries) is on average responsible for 175 times more emissions than a person in the bottom 10%. In short, the problem is created by the world’s affluent (many of whom do not consider themselves to be affluent), and it disproportionately affects the world’s poor. These urgent issues of climate justice have been a constant refrain by many vulnerable, developing countries during the climate negotiations, with particularly difficult negotiations around loss and damage. The report paints in stark language the unjust position of those in the Global South watching as developed countries grew rich by burning an irresponsible amount of fossil fuels, and the failure of treaty bodies to determine the responsibility of wealthier countries to provide financial and technical assistance to developing countries for climate action.
Having set the stage with a troubling account of the expected impact of climate change on the most vulnerable, the report proceeds to take stock of the human rights community to date. The report covers efforts by the Human Rights Council, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Human Rights Committee, regional human rights bodies, reports from a variety of other Special Rapporteurs, and civil society. The inevitable conclusion is that awareness of the scale of the crisis is low, and that actions have been inadequate, including by key human rights NGOs Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, although there are signs of change.
Not well covered in the report are actions by state actors and the business community, though the inadequacy of actions to date are pointed out. The report points to the persistence of government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and the failure to take effective steps to fundamentally transform the global economy as the most obvious signs that governments and the business community are failing to tackle the issue. The report also points out the shameful history of many in the fossil fuel industry of denying the science of climate change and thereby delaying action, and also warns of the dangers of climate-induced privatization of natural resources in the future which may exacerbate negative impacts for those living in poverty.
However, the report fails to mention the significant role of state owned corporations and nation states in the fossil fuel industry. Richard Heede’s groundbreaking report notes that of 914 billion of CO2 equivalent emitted by 90 oil, coal, natural gas and cement producers, roughly one third was emitted by investor-owned companies, and the remaining two-third by state-owned entities and nation states. While it is clear that developed countries are largely responsible for historic emissions, some of the major emitters listed in Heede’s report are located in the Global South, including in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, India, Venezuela, Mexico, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, and Algeria. This activity accumulated vast wealth for these industries and countries (or at least their governments), but has contributed to devastating climate-induced impacts for others in the Global South.
The report also points to the gaps in transnational environmental governance, with states agreeing to binding international agreements on investor protection and trade, but no correlative enforceability of commitments to reduce carbon emissions. The same can be said in the transnational corporate governance sphere, with no binding international legal obligations currently imposed on companies to reduce emissions. However, the report fails to mention important Human Rights Council developments on business responsibilities for human rights or to consider how these developments apply to climate-induced harms.
The Alston report proceeds on the assumption that states have obligations under international human rights law, but that businesses, including fossil fuel companies, do not, absent state regulation. This is contrary to the OHCHR’s own Key Messages on Climate Change and Human Rights, developed as a submission to the Paris Agreement negotiations, which states in part that ‘businesses are also duty-bearers’ and that businesses must ‘be accountable for their own climate impacts’ . The OHCHR’s position is consistent with that adopted by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in its 2018 statement on climate change which expressly notes that ‘Corporate entities are expected to respect Covenant rights regardless of whether domestic laws exist or are fully enforced in practice’ . These claims are not surprising, as they reflect the endorsement by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights , the implications of which are also noted in the 2016 Report on Climate Change produced by the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment [see here at para 66].
Various non-UN initiatives have attempted to grapple with the implications of the business responsibilities for human rights for climate change harms, including the International Bar Association’s 2014 Report on Climate Justice , the 2015 Oslo Principles and the 2018 Principles on Climate Obligations of Enterprises , although none are entirely consistent with the business responsibility to respect human rights under the Guiding Principles [see here and here]. Other initiatives such as the recommendations of the Task Force for Financial Disclosures on Climate Change are also gaining traction. Notably, some corporate actors have taken significant actions to reduce their emissions consistent with an acceptance of their social responsibility, and the activities of some of these largest actors can fill temporal and governance gaps under the Paris Agreement, whether or not more transformative global climate regulations are agreed upon.
The report does point to signs of hope, such as the decoupling of economic growth from GHG emissions in 23 countries while reducing poverty faster than other countries. This has been achieved through a combination of green subsidies, carbon pricing, and regulation driving a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The report also details some of the ongoing climate litigation activity against both governments and companies, but misses some important cases in Global South which are driving climate ambition in those countries, and which are also allocating innovative legal rights to natural resources such as rivers.
The report concludes with some recommendations on how to move forward with decarbonization in a manner that is more attentive to the connection between climate change and poverty. It is here that the report fails to impress, as while the report calls for radical, transformative changes it does little more than repeat the need to decarbonize while ensuring a just transition. A key question may be whether international human rights law already provides underutilized and frequently overlooked tools that could be called upon to harness state and non-state actors to take effective climate action both to reduce GHG emissions and to remedy climate harms. It is crucial that all Special Rapporteurs take seriously the independent responsibilities of businesses, as organs of society, and not inadvertently propagate the message that business conduct that contributes to the violation of human rights including climate harms is somehow acceptable in the absence of state regulation. The report rightly points out that urgent action is needed by governments, businesses as well as the human rights community, but it is now time to move from outlining the risks to crafting and implementing global solutions which benefit the most vulnerable.