I bet you think of climate change as an environmental issue.

It’s mainly about the atmosphere and polar bears and carbon, right? Well, not really. I mean yes – it is about those things, but mainly it’s about human rights and politics. If that doesn’t make immediate sense to you, then this post is for you. Here’s why climate change is about human rights:

    • Responsibility for climate change, its impacts and the capacity to adapt to it are unequal
    • Climate change deepens every existing social inequality
    • Climate action has huge potential to enhance equality and human rights

Not convinced yet? Let’s explore each of those points…

Responsibility, impacts and capacity are uneven

Responsibility for climate change

The roots of climate change go back to the drawn of the Industrial Revolution, which kicked off in the UK in the late 1700s and quickly spread around North Western Europe and then the world. The discovery of coal, and later oil and gas, changed everything.

These three fossil fuels are fossilised organic matter from millions of years ago, hugely energy-dense, which release their pent up energy when burned. Being made from ancient dead plants and animals, they are full of carbon, and when burnt, that carbon goes into the atmosphere. The extra carbon acts like an insulating blanket, blocking heat from radiating out to space, making the Earth warmer. This is known as the “greenhouse effect” and is vital to life. Without it we’d be absolutely freezing, like a planet sized fridge-freezer. But when it comes to blankets, it’s not just ‘the more the better’ is it? You get too hot. And that’s what’s happening now.

Related: Understand Basic Climate Science With These 5 Beautifully Simple Videos

Europe and later the other rich nations were blazing it up for decades before poorer countries came on the fossil-burning scene, and by the time industrialization took off in the rest of the world (which is still ongoing) we had already chucked enough carbon into the sky to start changing the Earth’s entire climate. Until the 1960s the top emitters were all rich industrialized nations (with the UK at the top of that list for roughly a century after kicking off the Industrial Revolution). In the mid 20th century China and Russia joined the big boys of carbon pollution. Today China is the biggest emitter, but it’s important to remember that:

  • They have well over a billion people, roughly one seventh of the world’s population
  • They manufacture a large proportion of the world’s goods

If you put it in per person terms instead, the biggest emitters are all rich countries, with Australia and the USA topping the list.

See this 49 second visualisation of historical emissions around the world to get a sense of it. (and check out this epic interactive version on Carbon Brief).

The point is, over the last 200-odd years, the vast bulk of the carbon emissions have come from the rich countries – Europe, North America, Australia, Japan. Apart from Japan they happen to be Western and white.

Impacts of climate change

The impacts of climate change are also uneven across the globe, and across each country. The most severe climate impacts are expected across tropical regions – which happen to be in Africa, Asia and South America – as they are already hot and stormy. The more arid parts of Australia and USA will also be seriously affected by heatwaves, droughts, storms and wildfires. Low-lying and coastal areas will be worst hit by rising sea levels – there are small low-lying island states which are literally already disappearing under the sea. Most of the countries hit first and worst by climate change are poor, and all the poorest regions of the world are expected to have very severe impacts.

It’s worth noting that even at the catastrophic 4 degrees of warming that sees most of the world turn into a desert or a floodplain, the UK remains “habitable”. That doesn’t mean we’d get off scott-free, it would still see floods, droughts, sea level rise, water shortages and food prices rocketing. (And those impacts would be mostly borne by the British poor – who else?) But it would be an oasis of liveability compared to the rest of the world.

It’s also worth noting that even 2 degrees of warming, which politicians have agreed as the line in the sand, would still be an absolute disaster for Africa. Yeah, looks like the West is screwing over Africa yet again. Shameful.

The point is, the countries that have done the absolute least to cause climate change, and benefited the least from industrialization, are expected to be some of the hardest hit. If that isn’t injustice, I don’t know what is. But wait, there’s more…

Capacity to adapt to the impacts

The final in the trio of shit which is climate injustice, is the capacity to adapt.

This is where the stark differences in the most affected countries comes into play. Australia and the USA will both be badly hit, and are actually already seeing impacts, but the difference between them and the others is that they are rich countries. Their governments have budgets for public spending, they have emergency services, they have a welfare state (kind of – I’m looking at you America), they have strong institutions and infrastructure. These tools of survival mean that while impacts may be dire, the government has some capacity to respond and invest in adaptation.

Compare this to, for a random example, Chad. In land-locked northern Africa with a sizeable desert region and a non-desert arid region that runs the risk of becoming desert, they’re one of the many countries that will be seriously impacted, like USA and Australia. The difference in that Chad is one of the poorest and most corrupt in the world. Most people are subsistence herders and farmers, earning their livelihood directly from the land – meaning they’re incredibly sensitive to environmental change. And they don’t have stored wealth or a welfare state to fall back on. Also, they’re biggest export is crude oil, so when that’s no longer a viable industry they’ll likely be even poorer.

The problem for countries like Chad, is that they’re struggling as it is, so literally cannot afford to invest in adaptations for climate change. They simply don’t have the cash, can’t borrow on favourable terms, often don’t even have the policy freedom, they lack the institutions and infrastructure they need, in some cases officials are corrupt and there’s all too often political/religious/ethnic violence to contend with. What a shit-storm. And that’s before you add in the increased risk of actual storms.

So, many of the countries most effected by climate change are not only the ones who’ve done the least to cause it and reap the benefits of carbon-heavy industry, they’re also the least capable of adapting to it.

Climate change deepens existing inequality

The second key reason why climate change is about human rights, is because due to the uneven nature of its cause, impacts and adaptability, it tends to deepen existing inequalities.

I have already alluded to the raced nature of climate change. Zoomed out, it looks awfully like a case of white people screwing over everyone else. Sorry to be so blunt, but it’s true. As discussed above, the (mostly) white rich nations have by far the most historical responsibility for causing climate change, have benefited the most from carbon-heavy industrialization, and yet it is the mostly black, Asian and Latino countries that will see the most catastrophic climate impacts, despite being poorer and less able to cope with them. Pretty damn racist, when you put it like that.

But there’s more: obviously many countries are now very multicultural, so race is relevant within countries, too. Case in point of course is the USA: due to the history of racism, black and Latino people are more likely to live in polluted areas and less likely to be protected by the state. Remember Hurricane Katrina. A much higher proportion of the people who were stranded, lost their home or lost their lives happened to be black. Also, sometimes crisis can push people into crime. It’s well known that American police and courts are massively harsher to black criminals than white.

Of course, you could say it’s not really a case of race, but class. That’s kind of true, although you can’t ignore the reality that people of colour tend to be poorer on average. (I wonder why that is? Hmm… *Cough* history of massive racism *cough*). The two are entwined. Anyway, arguably the clearest reason climate change is political is because it’s all about class and power. Like usual, the poor are most at risk simply because they are poor so don’t have the required capacity to adapt. They also have less political power so governments are prone to policymaking that serves the richer classes instead. Whenever a crisis hits, it’s usually the poor who bear the brunt of it.

Climate change can also deepen gender inequality. This isn’t too relevant in the West, but many poor and rural societies have a very gendered division of labour that sees women doing work that is hit by climate change first and worst. For example, women may be gathering water, growing vegetables and gathering firewood, while men of the community are travelling to do paid work in the city or working on an industrial cash-crop farm. In these cases women will have their work more badly hit. Depending on how much understanding of climate change there is in the community, they could potentially be blamed for their lower yields and be seen as less capable, leading to a loss of power and worse prejudice against them. Also existing issues like women having less access to land, less legal rights and social inequality could see single and widowed women finding it harder to cope with climate impacts.

Basically, without a huge concerted effort to ‘level the playing field’, climate impacts are likely to deepen existing inequalities.

Climate action has huge potential to enhance equality and human rights

Lastly, climate change is political because it doesn’t necessarily need to deepen inequalities; it has the potential to do the opposite. The movements for climate justice and environmental justice are about healing deep wounds of injustice and oppression via environmental action. Climate action can, if done right, be a powerful force for making a society more equal and advancing human rights. It can be a catalyst for positive social change.

Take my native UK as an example. A climate strategy could include bringing high-tech green industries to the North of England that has never recovered from the deindustrialization of the 1980s; it could see parks, urban farms and green spaces bought to inner city areas; it could see run-down coastal towns becoming hubs for off-shore wind and marine energy; it could see struggling farms reinvigorated with an increased demand for local food and extra income streams from ecotourism and renewable energy; it could see public transport improve and also become more affordable. Such schemes wouldn’t only lower carbon emissions, they’d also create millions of good jobs, spread wealth more equally across the country, improve public health, regenerate poor neighbourhoods and improve quality of life for everyone – especially those on lower incomes.

Also look at the global scale. Climate action has the potential to reduce the sickeningly-enormous gap in living standards, wealth and power between the rich and poor nations via transfers of money and tech. Such actions would not be charity. They would be a good start to paying off the huge debt of injustice discussed earlier. We’re already seeing a glimpse of this: there is an agreement for rich countries to send $100 billion a year in climate funding to poorer countries. Unfortunately this hasn’t been done yet, but it has been signed into the Paris Agreement as a key target. Concerted climate action has the potential to make the world a much fairer place. This is what the climate justice movement is all about.

Sooner or later, we will be moving to a post-carbon world. It could be one in which the rich huddle in their guarded air-conditioned mansions while starving environmental refugees clamour at the gates. Or it could be a brighter more beautiful world, one where we deal with the impacts of climate change with solidarity, cooperation and compassion. What that would look like is uncertain, there are so many possibilities. Personally I see a world of egalitarian high-density high-tech globally-connected eco-cities surrounded by newly planted forests.

So, climate change is about way more than carbon. It’s about who lives and dies, who survives and thrives, who has power and who is powerless. Change is coming whether we like it or not, but that change can be harnessed in dramatically different ways. And what determines what path we take, is politics.


Featured image: People being rescued after being stranded by Hurricane Katrina. (US Navy / Public Domain).