The UN Human Rights Council will hear a new report on Friday highlighting the role of fossil fuel companies and governments in deepening a humanitarian crisis. Photo credit: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images
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By Dana Drugmand

A United Nations human rights expert has called for a new report to serve as a stirring wake-up call for transformative change in the global response to the climate crisis, and warns that basic human rights, democracy, and the rule of law are at risk. 

“Climate change threatens truly catastrophic consequences across much of the globe and the human rights of vast numbers of people will be among the casualties,” Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, wrote in the introduction of a new report released Tuesday. His report also highlights the role of national governments and fossil fuel companies in impeding action on climate change. The result is a “full-blown crisis” that cannot be solved by conventional means. 

“Business as usual is a response that invites disaster,” Alston wrote. 

The report, which will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Friday, explains that climate impacts directly threaten human rights to water, food, shelter, health and life. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide face drought, water scarcity, starvation, food insecurity, displacement, disease and death.  

“We have reached a point where the best-case outcome is widespread death and suffering by the end of this century, and the worst-case puts humanity on the brink of extinction,” Alston notes. 

Alston said fossil fuel corporations and governments that subsidize them bear the brunt of the blame. 

“Fossil fuel companies are the main driver of climate change: in 2015, the fossil fuel industry and its products accounted for 91 percent of global industrial greenhouse emissions and 70 percent of all human-made emissions,” the report said. “The industry has known for decades about their responsibility for rising CO2 levels and the likelihood that the rise would lead to catastrophic climate change…However, the industry took no action to change its business model.” 

The report cited research showing 100 companies accounted for 71 percent of global carbon emissions between 1988 and 2015. It also highlighted industry efforts to block climate action including successful campaigns to “convince the public of significant uncertainties in climate science, defeat the Kyoto protocol, and put an end to further initiatives.”  

National governments have largely been complicit, the report said. They have accelerated fossil fuel exploitation, heavily subsidized the fossil fuel industry, and the Trump administration is “actively silencing and obfuscating climate science.” 

Communities and citizens, including young people, are turning to the courts in a push to hold governments and polluting corporations accountable. In the U.S., nearly a dozen cities, counties, and one state have sued major fossil fuel companies over climate damage and associated costs.  A group of 21 young people has brought a constitutional lawsuit  against the U.S. government and a similar case has recently been filed in Canada. Climate lawsuits against governments based on human rights violations have also emerged in Europe. The Philippines Commission on Human Rights will soon release the results of an investigation into the human rights consequences resulting from the business activities of 47 fossil fuel corporations. That investigation could set the stage for future litigation. 

Alston’s report said these lawsuits are important, specifically referencing legal wins by the Urgenda Foundation forcing the Dutch government to reduce emissions and an Australian case in which a court blocked a proposed coal mine on climate grounds.  

Climate litigation grounded in human rights is likely to continue as harms worsen and science can play a key role in clarifying responsibility, said Sébastien Duyck, an attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law and co-facilitator of the Human Rights and Climate Change Working Group

“Scientific breakthroughs—for instance when it comes to causation and attribution—also create an enabling environment in which courts can adjudicate climate-related cases based on well established legal doctrines,” Duyck told Climate Liability News. 

Alston also recognized the need for climate scientists to guide recommendations and legal standards. And while he points to the recent wave of climate lawsuits as a positive development, he says that “litigation is only one small part of an overall strategy.” 

Alston argues that a bottom-up approach is necessary and references activism like the youth school strikes, the Extinction Rebellion actions in London and activism around the proposed Green New Deal in the U.S.  

“The real driving force for progress can only come from community mobilization,” his report said. “Without it, the natural complacency of governmental elites and vested interests of financial elites will continue sleep-walking towards catastrophe.”

Alston further calls out the inadequate response of the existing human rights regime to the climate crisis. His report concludes with a call for the human rights community to wake up and move beyond standard procedures and “ticking boxes.” 

“I am hoping that the human rights movement will not only put this much higher on its agenda now but that they will also start a major effort to work together with environmental and climate change groups. The two of them combined need to use all of their options, including litigation, but in general focused much more on community activism and mobilization,” Alston told Climate Liability News via email. 

“The reality of climate change is in the back of people’s minds but they, like their governments, find it easier to be in denial,” he added. “That has to change.” 

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