The UN special rapporteur on human rights and extreme poverty, Philip Alston, published an extraordinary report some months ago. He starts with stating the obvious: climate change will have devastating consequences on poor people. They will suffer from food insecurity, forced migration, diseases and death. Climate change is indeed a threat to their human rights.
No matter how accurate this reasoning is, it also carries some risks. Because the inevitable answer to this concern is to take special care of people living in poverty, to take measures to somewhat protect them, to compensate them for unavoidable losses, to help them to find new homes and livelihoods.
This thinking reveals first of all that the philosophy behind it is one of adaptation. It is not about mitigating the risks, even less is it about system change, in order to avoid the risks. This is neoliberal thinking, exposed long ago by the World Bank: you cannot avoid risks, you mainly have to develop the resilience of people so they can adapt and cope with risks when they actually occur.
The second problem with this reasoning is that it takes the attention away from the real polluters. As Philip Alston writes in his report, the richest 1 % of people pollute 175 times more than the 10 % poorest! It obviously is them we need to focus on. This is the only way we can reduce or stop the negative consequences for poor people.
Climate change is not a problem that requires protection of vulnerable people, it is a dangerous development that requires the rich, and most of all the biggest corporations to stop their CO2 emissions. Or in simple words: it does not help to stop using plastic straws, we have to stop their production.
Fortunately, Philip Alston understands the implications of his report. Caring for the poor is necessary but is not enough, we need a broader human rights framework. He repeatedly warns for the climate consequences of neoliberal policies, such as the privatisations and the private-public partnerships (PPP). He warns for an over-reliance on the private sector and for the risk of ‘climate apartheid’. Climate change, he states, will decimate the global economy. While climate change is an unconscionable assault on the poor, there is an urgent need for economic changes. It is a market failure and it would be a mistake to trust the private sector to make voluntary efforts. The real danger is that human rights may be wiped away in order to protect the polluters!
This brings me to another conclusion. For sure, we have to preserve human rights, but why not start with human rights? If climate justice and environmental justice go hand in hand, as is now (almost) mainstream thinking, there are two ways to look at this link: from the perspective of climate change or from the perspective of social justice.
Starting with climate change, the measures to take are those mentioned in the report: help the poor to adapt, to develop their resilience, to protect human rights.
But starting with social justice and economic and social rights, one immediately sees these cannot be enough. If one wants to help people living in poverty, to protect their livelihoods, they need land and clean water on their farms. If one wants to protect their health, one needs clean air and one has to stop using toxic pesticides. If governments want to promote decent housing, one can built well insulated new houses.
In other words, starting with the social justice agenda, one immediately arrives at all policy measures needed to protect the environment.
And one can be all the more efficient. Counting on moral preaching and prohibition measures does not have success, understandably. Promising people real material well-being, better health and better housing may be all the more effective.
The resources are available, through taxes or through bonds. What are we waiting for? Matter of speaking, we can kill two birds with one stone, but then, we do not have to kill the birds, do we?