The UN has published a new report detailing the dangers of climate change, with a particular focus on how it will shape the issue of poverty in the coming decades. It paints a grim picture for not just those suffering in the current day, but the millions upon millions that will be pushed into poverty as a result of a changing climate, which also has the potential to upend democracy and human rights.
The new report echoes the sentiments of past climate reports published by the UN, calling on governments to do more than the steps laid out in the Paris Agreement in order to limit warming to levels considered safe. These have highlighted the issues of climate refugees, diminishing natural resources and extreme weather events, but the latest puts the spotlight on inequality between rich and poor, and how global warming threatens to widen the divide.
"Even if current targets are met, tens of millions will be impoverished, leading to widespread displacement and hunger," said the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights and report author Philip Alston. "Climate change threatens to undo the last 50 years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction. It could push more than 120 million more people into poverty by 2030 and will have the most severe impact in poor countries, regions, and the places poor people live and work."
The report leans on figures from the World Bank and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change among others, and in part imagines a world a few decades down the track with 2° C (3.6° F) of warming above pre-industrial levels. It says this could see 100 to 400 million more people at risk of hunger and 1 to 2 billion without access to adequate water. Crop yields could drop by 30 percent by 2080, while malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress could cause an additional 250,000 deaths per year by 2030.
It also points out the discrepancies in carbon emissions coming from the poor, who will suffer the most, and the wealthy, who will suffer less. The 3.5 billion people making up the poorer half of the world's population are responsible for only 10 percent of these emissions, while the wealthiest 10 percent contribute half. Strikingly, a person in the richest one percent is responsible for 175 times more carbon emissions than somebody in the bottom 10 percent.
"Perversely, while people in poverty are responsible for just a fraction of global emissions, they will bear the brunt of climate change, and have the least capacity to protect themselves," Alston said. "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."
Equally important as the issues of food security, housing and water, the report says, is the threat to democracy and the rule of law. It says the anticipated mass migrations of people forced to either starve or move will "pose immense and unprecedented challenges to governance" and likely stimulate "nationalist, xenophobic, racist and other responses."
"In such a setting, civil and political rights will be highly vulnerable," Alston said. "Most human rights bodies have barely begun to grapple with what climate change portends for human rights, and it remains one on a long laundry list of 'issues', despite the extraordinarily short time to avoid catastrophic consequences. 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."
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