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Climate change and Human Rights

Climate change and Human Rights

Words by Jocelin Chan

This article is part of PULPCLIMATE week. CLICK HERE to join the facebook group. University of Sydney Students will be marching from Fischer Library at 10:00 AM on the 20th of September.

On the issue of climate change, the UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet has this to say: “The world has never seen a threat to human rights of this scope.” 

She is right. Climate change will not just affect weather patterns all around the world and make life inconvenient. Already, we are seeing the impact of climate change has on worsening human rights issues around the world. Hurricane Dorian, which swept through the Bahamas, devastated the islands on an unimaginable scale. The ferocity of the hurricane is blamed on climate change. The official death toll stands at 50, with 2500 people still missing. Those hardest hit were the poorer citizens, who lost their homes and work and will take much longer to rebuild their lives. 

Weather-related natural disasters are only on the increase. Only roughly 100 natural disasters were reported each year in the 1980s; since 2000, that total has risen to beyond 300. 

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Other low-lying island nations have expressed concern about their future. At the Pacific Islands Forum in August, Australia’s Pacific neighbours banded together to urge our Prime Minister to take climate change seriously and stop relying on coal. These islands face the prospect of losing their territories to rising sea levels. The rising water will rob citizens of farmable land and a reliable food supply, and force mass migration.

The world has looked on in horror at the recent fires in the Amazon Rainforest. The oft-parroted factoid that the Amazon produces 20% of the planet’s oxygen supply is false. But we can still see the forest’s destruction as part of a wider pattern in which forests are replaced by semi-arid land, thanks to climate change and deforestation. This also has repercussions on the rights of the Indigenous populations who had lived in and maintained the forest for so long. Their food and shelter are being destroyed.

40% of civil wars of the past six years have been linked to environmental degradation. As resources dwindle, land becomes less arable, and drinking water becomes less accessible, groups will struggle to lay claim over the means to survive. As always, the poor will bear the brunt of economic deprivation—but climate change will also lead to more poverty, simply because there will not be enough resources to share. 

The dearth of resources will result in worldwide political instability. The inevitable forced displacement of people escaping drowned homes or countries with nothing left to spare will not be accommodated for easily either. Western countries have become increasingly intolerant of immigrants, leading to a resurgence of far-right politics and inhumane detention centres. Already, the UN’s Human Rights Council has criticised Australia’s offshore detention programme, with little response from our government. If these attitudes towards refugees persist, then escaping from embattled nations will be the least of the struggles that climate refugees will face.

Meanwhile, activists who speak up about climate issues are routinely being targeted by climate-denying critics. The Queensland Labor government cracked down on climate activists. It banned climate activists from using “locking” devices but also, disturbingly, gave police more powers to search suspected protesters. They also waged a war of words against the protesters, calling them “extremists” and describing peaceful rallies as “dangerous”.

The sixteen-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has been also attacked by a deluge of deniers. Some have feigned concern for her, criticising her parents of “child abuse” and “pimp[ing] their kid out” to advocate for climate action. Others dropped the pretense, openly wishing for her death by drowning when she crossed the Atlantic on a zero-emissions voyage. More disgustingly, critics launched ableist abuse at her when they discovered that she was autistic.

What can we do about all this? Well, for starters, you can join the Climate Strike on 20 September. As Australians, we need to hold our climate-denying government accountable. Besides our obligations to meet emissions targets, we also have human rights concerns to uphold. By supporting climate action, we can mitigate the potential for climate change to hurt billions of people. We cannot let go of compassion for expediency. Let’s show our government how seriously we must safeguard the future of our planet and the rights of our fellow human beings. 

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