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The unequal impacts of climate change

While every society is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, this varies in severity across regions and communities.
© Amnesty International

One of the most distinguishing features of climate change is its impact on all human beings on planet Earth. However, while every society is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, this varies in severity across regions and communities and depends on socioeconomic and other local conditions. Differences in age, ethnicity, gender, geography and wealth can influence vulnerability to climate change impacts. Injustices like gender inequality, discrimination, marginalization and unequal distribution of resources among countries make certain individuals and groups more exposed to the impacts of climate change.

Vulnerable Geography

Certain geographies are particularly exposed to the impacts of climate change and factors like gender, poverty, age and ethnicity make certain people in the same geography more at risk from the climate crisis. Sea-level rises and coastal erosion, alongside extreme weather events, pose critical threats to the lives, livelihoods and cultures of coastal and island communities. Communities like the Torres Islanders in Australia, have recently complained about the impacts of state inaction on climate change on their human rights to life, health, culture, and adequate housing before the UN Human Rights Committee.

Equally, communities that depend on the land and/or forests for their livelihood and subsistence, are likely to be especially impacted by climate change. Extreme weather events, wildfires, droughts and floods can have devastating effects on these communities, their livelihoods and, consequently, on their human rights to life, health, food, water and adequate housing.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 30 million new disaster-related internal displacements were recorded in 2020 alone. Most disaster displacement linked to natural hazards and the impacts of climate change is internal, with those affected remaining within their national borders. However, displacement across borders also occurs and may be interrelated with situations of conflict or violence. People displaced by climate change are likely to suffer from multiple human rights violations, including their rights to health, life, food, water and sanitation, education, housing, culture, and development.

Gender

Women and girls, especially those facing intersecting forms of discrimination, commonly face higher risks and greater burdens from the impacts of climate change. Their unequal participation in decision-making processes and in labour markets further compounds inequalities. This often prevents women from fully contributing to climate-related planning, policy-making and implementation. Parties to the climate treaties have recognized the importance of involving women in international decision-making and in the development and implementation of national climate policies.

Wealth

The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights stated that “the greatest burden of climate change will fall on those living in poverty”. Wealthier people can afford to take adaptive measures that are out of reach for disadvantaged people who are therefore left to suffer the worst consequences of climate impacts. Climate change heightens existing social and economic inequalities, intensifies poverty and reverses progress towards improvement in well-being. Hundreds of millions will face food insecurity, forced migration, disease, and death. The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has cautioned that climate change threatens the future of human rights and risks undoing the last fifty years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction.

Age

Children and older people are especially affected by the negative impacts of climate change. Their rights are threatened by the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters, changing precipitation patterns, food and water shortages, and the increased transmission of communicable diseases. These impact the enjoyment of children’s and older people’s rights to health, life, food, water and sanitation, housing, culture, among others. A group of children from all over the world has recently complained about the impacts of their human rights of state inaction on climate change to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Ethnicity

Due to their often close relationship with the environment and with their traditional lands, Indigenous Peoples can live in areas particularly exposed to the adverse consequences of climate change. For the same reasons, Indigenous peoples are also particularly at risk to suffer human rights violations, caused by climate change response measures.

© Amnesty International
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Championing Change: Human Rights and the Climate Crisis

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