Last month’s gathering of world governments in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt for COP 27 appeared as though it was headed toward the same fate that has befallen so many climate convenings before it — a flashy event attended by dignitaries flown in on private jets that would ultimately conclude devoid of any meaningful progress on addressing the climate crisis and the challenges faced by those who stand to suffer most from it.
That is, until the final hours — extending a day past the planned end date — when Simon Stiell, UN Climate Change Executive Secretary, announced a breakthrough agreement to establish a “loss and damage” fund that will provide payments to economically vulnerable countries that stand to be hit the hardest by climate change.
The agreement represents a significant step forward for the climate justice movement not only because major, actionable outcomes are so rare among gatherings of nations with myriad competing interests, but also because it acknowledges the reality that threats to human rights are central among the many challenges wrought by a warming planet.
While much of the international conversation at high-profile climate gatherings has, understandably, focused on actions governments must take to prevent a rise in global temperatures, less attention has been given to addressing the very real and very imminent human rights challenges climate change poses. As global temperatures rise, those who stand to lose the most are often those who already have the least.
We must confront the fact that climate change represents a humanitarian crisis and a significant threat to human rights across the globe — particularly in the Global South. We must also acknowledge that national governing bodies alone will not be able to address these challenges.
Already, we witness humanitarian crises caused by climate change in every corner of the world. Warmer temperatures are drying out soils and water sources, and changing weather patterns are wreaking havoc on crops in parts of Africa and South Asia. In East Africa, sustained droughts have caused food and water shortages affecting millions of people. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia has experienced torrential rains and flooding that has destroyed staple crops like rice, corn and vegetables and has made harvests more difficult for farmers to predict.
The destruction of natural resources due to climate change is causing concerning humanitarian outcomes like mass displacement and migration, worsening armed conflicts and an exacerbation of existing inequities.
Climate migration is already well underway. More than 33 million people have been displaced due to flooding in Pakistan alone. Some Sherpa communities in Nepal are migrating away from areas where they say landslides and avalanches have grown more common, severing their cultural and spiritual connection to lands where they have existed for hundreds of years. Changes in weather patterns have caused invasive worms and insects to flourish in places where natural predators do not exist, throwing ecosystems out of balance and threatening crops and livestock. Here, in the Rocky Mountains, warming winters have enabled the spread of the mountain pine beetle, which has ravaged forests and created tinder-like conditions for devastating wildfires.
In countries experiencing armed conflicts, infrastructural support to adapt to climate change is often weak or nonexistent, adding to the threats people there already face. And across the world, women, indigenous people and people living with disabilities are among the most vulnerable to the harmful impacts of climate change.
The humanitarian challenges posed by the climate crisis demand urgent solutions that must be guided by the populations most vulnerable to its impacts. From Dec. 1-4, the University of Colorado Boulder held some of the world’s foremost human rights, scientific, political, educational, cultural and industry leaders at the inaugural Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit in partnership with United Nations Human Rights to address the interconnectedness of human rights and climate change.
The summit elevated the voices of those most vulnerable to climate change and seeks to create specific and actionable commitments that national governments, municipalities, corporations and educational institutions can make to mitigate the detrimental impact of climate change on human rights. The commitments that emerge from this summit will be announced next fall at COP 28 in Dubai.
While industrialized nations race to reduce emissions and slow global temperature rise, right here, among some of the brightest minds in the climate justice movement, and right now, while we can still make a plan to act, are the place and time to confront the difficult humanitarian issues on the horizon.
Philip DiStefano, of Boulder, is chancellor of the University of Colorado Boulder and host of the UN Human Rights sponsored Right Here Right Now Global Climate Summit.