Human Rights Issue Update: Mountains in the (CO2) Mist

Since the death of the climate bill, I’ve been thinking a lot about the global implications of this conclusion. Pretty much everyone can see how climate change is an environmental, economic and public health issue, but on a recent trip to China I was reminded that climate change also profoundly affects human rights.

To set some context, this is a photograph that I took during my trip. What looked at first like a romantic fog hovering around the Great Wall was more likely smog.  I had seen stories in the tabloids, but according to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing’s Twitter feed, the air quality readings in this neck of the woods on that particular day ranged from “Hazardous” to “Very Unhealthy.”

  • The well-documented environmental difficulties and China’s rapid industrial growth is not news. China is modernizing and growing at a pace unprecedented in contemporary history and in so doing, leaving a wake of damaging CO2 emissions.
  • On the other side of the coin, at last year’s Copenhagen Accord, China took a lot of heat because of this growth. But China claims that like industrialized nations before them, they have the “right to develop.” The U.N. General Assembly agrees, calling it an “inalienable human right.” It’s a tricky issue. China and other developing nations want their citizens to live comfortable, decent lifestyles like those here in the U.S. For a nation like ours with a disproportionately large carbon footprint, it’s difficult to begrudge any developing nation the right to develop. However, as China and scores of other developing nations continue to modernize, their growth is placing enormous strains on the environment.
  • Climate change is also likely to play a role in migration and displacement in coming years. Reports have estimated that up to 200 million people across the globe, could be forced to flee their homes by 2050. Americans can expect to be among the millions worldwide who will confront what the U.N. named a fundamental human right: access to fresh water.  Scientists predict that up to 70 percent of American counties will be affected by water shortages. A Princeton study has also forecasted that an influx of Mexicans will emigrate to the U.S. because of reduced farm productivity South of the Border, all due to climate change.
  • News from the last few days provide a flavor of some of the human rights dilemmas that the world will have to tackle if climate change isn’t seriously addressed. In Pakistan, the worst flooding in decades has left some 1.38 million acres of crop land and an estimated 252,000 homes destroyed, creating an epic food and refugee crisis. In North Korea, crops, houses and key infrastructure have been swept away by flood waters, leaving over half a million people homeless, jobless and foodless. In Chinaovertaxed reservoirs across the nation have left some drinking water supplies unsuitable for human consumption. In Russia, severe droughts and record heat have prompted export bans on wheat which will undoubtedly restrict access to food across the globe. — What do these nations facing climate induced human rights issues have in common? They are all part of the bloc of nations that are waiting for the U.S. to make the first move on climate change.

Human rights are a bipartisan concern that should get our legislators up in arms. If I had just one minute to give them a piece of my mind, I would simply have them absorb these inspiring words from JFK’s 1963 American University commencement speech. Looming human rights catastrophes can’t be ignored.

Get involved by contacting your elected officials and letting them know that the Climate bill also has important human rights implications. You can help the victims of the Pakistan flooding with a small $10 donation by texting “SWAT” to 50555.

Tell your friends!