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UN warns of ‘climate apartheid’ between the world’s rich and poor

 On July 1, 2016, an Iñupiat girl Amaia, 11, stands on a ice floe on a shore of the Arctic Ocean in Barrow, Alaska. The anomalous melting of the Arctic ice is one of the many effects of global warming that has a serious impact on the life of humans and wildlife.
On July 1, 2016, an Iñupiat girl Amaia, 11, stands on a ice floe on a shore of the Arctic Ocean in Barrow, Alaska. The anomalous melting of the Arctic ice is one of the many effects of global warming that has a serious impact on the life of humans and wildlife. - CNW Group/UNICEF Canada

A chilling new UN report warns that continued inaction on climate change could put the world in imminent danger of a “climate apartheid”, threatening the very survival of global human rights — especially those of the world’s most vulnerable.

And Canada is no exception, warn local experts.

The report, written by Philip Alston who is the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, not only emphasizes that global warming can potentially wipe out the basic rights of millions to food, water and housing in a mere decade, but also highlights the chasm between the level of impact felt by the poor and the rich.

Climate apartheid is a “fiery term”, says Sarah Burch, associate professor of geography at the University of Waterloo. “It highlights the power differential that climate change really exacerbates … that people with greater financial resources or more power in a community are better able to respond to the impact.”

“Ironically, the people with the least amount of resources are those with the smallest carbon footprint overall. There’s a deep injustice that characterizes the climate question.”

According to the report, which was released on June 25 and will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council this week, hundreds of millions of people are already susceptible to water stress, lower crop yields and heat waves. Developing countries, particularly, will absorb an estimated 75 to 80 percent of the financial costs and other impacts of climate change. The World Bank estimates that without immediate action, 120 million more people could be pushed into poverty by 2030.

People in poverty are especially at risk of losing their homes as flooding and landslides can “weaken already degraded settlements — especially for people living in unplanned or unserviced settlements.”

Simon Dalby, a professor at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, agrees, “Poor people, who frequently live on flood plains, in the least desirable pieces of real estate, actually have the least resources to deal with their vulnerabilities, especially if they are tenants and dependent on their landlords to [fix] the buildings” while the rich can pay to have their properties landscaped and downpipes fixed.

Dalby says that the Canadian Arctic, in particular, is no stranger to the dangers of eroding coastlines and melting permafrost. Subsequently, this leads to fewer animals to hunt and less avenues of transport as rivers can no longer provide reliable road transport and runways as they did during winter, he explained.

Forest-fires in the south and flooding in parts of Eastern Canada also point to examples of climate change impacts, he adds, that disproportionately affect the poor.

Alston also cautions against an overreliance on the private sector to implement solutions to climate change, although “there is little doubt that companies will play a role.”

Fossil fuel corporations in particular have either barred progress to battling climate change and private corporations in general have added to the social inequality by providing solutions that cater to the wealthy, whilst leaving the poor behind.

“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,” reads the report. “However the industry took no action to change its business model” and “also embarked on an ambitious campaign to prevent meaningful change and thwart the imposition of binding emissions commitments.”

Furthermore, “an over-reliance on the private sector could lead to a climate apartheid scenario in which the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict, while the rest of the world is left to suffer,” according to the report.

That’s not to say that all of the private sector are still blind to the implications of climate change and thwart global progress; rather it depends on the agenda of the industry, according to Dalby. The financial sector, for one, is beginning to respond, albeit slowly, to the repercussions of extreme weather events and push for policies that include comprehensive climate risk analysis. “The insurance sector, in particular is realizing that it’s having to make big payouts for floods in Calgary, Ottawa and Quebec,” he explains. “They’re starting to see this is part of the bottom line.”

“Until private sector business models are shifted so that a social and environmental benefits are put ahead of profit, you won’t see the scale and depth of change required to tackle climate change,” says Burch. Co-operation between the private sector and government is imperative to successfully bringing down global warming, she explains, but in the end, that job belongs to governments more so than corporations.

The report sharply criticizes global authorities for either ignoring the issue at hand or taking “short-sighted steps in the wrong direction,” pointing to President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro as authoritarian examples who, despite ringing alarm bells, still opt for fossil fuel emissions and mining.

It contradicts the arguments by various governments that climate action would threaten economic growth and harm citizen’s way of life, by stating that the World Bank believes that a low-carbon economy won’t slow down economic growth. “Renewable energy will create jobs” and a climate-adaptive economy would mitigate the costs of healthcare and environment degradation, increase food and water security and reduce poverty and inequality.

The response to climate change by Canadian governments, both provincial and federal has been mixed. On one hand, “municipalities and cities are waking up and realizing that we are much more vulnerable to extreme weather than we recently though and starting adaptation planning,” says Dalby. Yet, he adds, provinces such as Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta have followed in the footsteps of the U.S. with further emphasis on a fossil fuel-based future.

“We are still lacking in significant, fast paced steep decarbonization and adaptation and both are crucial,” says Burch. “While I appreciate the importance of banning single-use plastics and the conversation around ocean health, that is in the grand scheme of things not particularly central to decarbonizing our economy.”

Burch suggests looking at Sweden and the Netherlands to pursue nature-based solutions and enhance biodiversity which can act as a carbon sink. “It’s the pace of change that’s the problem,” she says.

Canada also needs to take a hard look at its potential liabilities globally, as international courts are increasingly trying to hold those responsible for using fossil fuels and pay compensation for the damage, says Dalby. “One of the ways of heading that off is for Canadians to ramp down our use of fossil fuels while simultaneously adding substantial contributions to green growth funds and relief funds to the UN and other global organizations.”

“People don’t see that our actions actually have consequences for people in other parts of the world and that therefore, our policy actually has human rights implications.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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