World

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

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

And Canada is no exception, experts warn. 

The report was written by Philip Alston, who is the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. It was released on June 25 and is to be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council this week.

In the report, Alston not only emphasizes that global warming can potentially wipe out the basic rights of millions of people 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, an 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.”

Hundreds of millions of people are already susceptible to water stress, lower crop yields and heat waves. According to the report, 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 (repair) 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. This leads to fewer animals to hunt and fewer avenues of transport because rivers can no longer provide safe transport and runways 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 he adds “there is little doubt that companies will play a role.”

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

“The (fossil fuel) industry has known for decades about their responsibility for rising CO2 levels and the likelihood that the rise would lead to catastrophic climate change,” the report reads. “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.


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

That’s not to say that all the private sector remains blind to the implications of climate change and is attempting to 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 to 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.”

Adds Burch, “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.” Co-operation between the private sector and government is imperative to successfully mitgating global warming, she explains, but in the end, that job falls on governments more than corporations. 

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

It contradicts the arguments by various governments that climate action would threaten economic growth and harm citizens’ way of life, by stating that the World Bank believes that a low-carbon economy won’t slow economic growth. “Renewable energy will create jobs,” the report states, 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,” Dalby says. 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,” Burch says. “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 for nature-based solutions and enhanced biodiversity that 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, says Dalby, as international courts are increasingly trying to hold those responsible for using fossil fuels to pay compensation for the damage. “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.”

Show More

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Close