As the realities of climate change become ever more real – wildfires, droughts, extreme temperatures, flooding – the calls for a complete phase out of fossil fuels are more urgent than ever.
But climate change isn’t the only downside to humanity’s addiction to coal, gas and oil. Burning fossil fuels violates our rights.
Extracting fossil fuels damages precious land and the livelihoods of people who live on that land. When people peacefully protest fossil fuels, they can face attacks, arrests or at worst, death.
“The problem is not simply fossil fuel emissions. It’s fossil fuels, period.” Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General
Here are five things you need to know about the threat fossil fuels pose to our human rights.
1. How does climate change impact human rights?
Fossil fuels cause climate change which causes extreme destructive weather.
2023 saw record rainfall causing deadly flooding in Europe and China and record temperatures endured across Asia. There were enormous wildfires across swathes of North America and Europe. July 2023 was the hottest month ever recorded globally. Our oceans reached unprecedented high temperatures, bringing worrying shrinking of polar ice caps.
The fact that the use of fossil fuels is the primary cause of climate change has been settled science for decades. In turn we know that climate change makes destructive extreme weather much more likely and more harmful.
Climate change is already affecting the rights of millions of people, who may have lost their homes, be struggling to feed themselves and their families, have restricted access to clean water or be dealing with the health impact of extremely high temperatures. Many have lost their lives.
Climate change is affecting us all, however it disproportionately affects people who already face discrimination and marginalization. The people in countries which have contributed the least to climate change, are suffering the worst of its impacts.
In 2022 an important Loss and Damage Fund was agreed by the international community, to provide financial assistance and reparation to vulnerable countries and communities most impacted by the effects of climate change. But to be meaningful, the fund needs to be adequately funded and effectively and transparently operationalized with input and oversight by affected communities and civil society.
2. How does fossil fuels pollution impact human rights?
Fossil fuels pollution is bad for health.
The combustion of fossil fuels causes air pollution, which contributed to 1.2 million deaths in 2020 alone. Flaring and other processing activities also release toxic air pollutants that harm the health of workers and neighbouring communities.
As well as being used to produce energy, fossil fuels are also used to create plastics. The production of these plastics or petrochemicals can be incredibly harmful to the communities who live in the vicinity of factories. These communities are more likely to be racialized and low-income households. Petrochemical pollutants are known to increase risks to our health, including;
- Respiratory illness
- Adverse pregnancy outcomes
- Cardiovascular disease
- And certain cancers
Fossil fuels also produce toxic waste, which if not processed properly can have disastrous impacts for people’s health. For example, the infamous dumping of fossil fuel related toxic waste in Cote d’Ivoire by Trafigura, which resulted in tens of thousands of people suffering from nausea, headaches, breathing difficulties, stinging eyes and burning skin.
3. How do fossil fuels damage our water, land and livelihoods?
Fossil fuels damage water, land and ecosystems.
When oil is extracted and transported it can result in irreversible spills. These spills damage nearby ecosystems, destroying the biodiversity and means of subsistence of fenceline communities and contaminating drinking water.
Coal mining and fracking both generate toxic waste that are known to contaminate water.
Every year, hundreds of oil spills irreversibly devastate the Niger Delta, caused by old and poorly maintained pipelines or criminal activity such as oil theft. Mining operators are failing to clean these spills, allowing them to continue their devastating impact on the fields, forests and fisheries that the majority of the people in the region depend on for their food and livelihoods.
The fossil fuel process takes up a lot of space, from wells, pipelines and roads and facilities for processing and waste management. In many cases, people are forcibly evicted from their homes so companies can extract and produce fossil fuels.
Indigenous peoples are particularly and disproportionately affected by these land grabs, since most of the remaining fossil fuels are situated on their land. In most cases, the livelihoods and cultural identity of these communities are uniquely connected with their land and natural environment. These cultural connections are threatened by the continued use and extraction of fossil fuels.
4. How does misinformation about fossil fuels threaten our human rights?
Fossil fuels companies spread misinformation.
Fossil fuel companies have access to huge budgets and wield significant influence. At COP27 there were 636 registered fossil fuel lobbyists, almost twice as many as Indigenous Peoples delegates. A report from the NGO InfluenceMap found that in the three years following the Paris Agreement, the five largest publicly traded fossil fuel corporations, which includes ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP and Total, invested over one billion dollars in lobbying and branding.
Fossil fuel companies use their power to influence the debate on climate change and fossil fuels internationally, pushing disinformation campaigns advancing false or misleading climate solutions. For example, these companies are lobbying for dangerous and unproven technologies, like carbon capture.
They also want to present fossil gas as a ‘clean’ bridge fuel to renewable energy, despite emerging evidence that the climate damage caused by fossil gas may be on par with coal.
The inequality in power and funding for corporate interests versus non-profit interests creates a power imbalance that favours fossil fuel companies. This undermines access to information, meaningful participation in multilateral discussions and negotiations by affected populations, including their ability to secure remedy for communities most harmed by fossil fuel’s impacts.
5. How does the fossil fuel industry repress activists?
Human rights defenders who bravely oppose fossil fuels face repression and attacks.
States are failing to protect climate justice activists and environmental human rights defenders (HRDs) who oppose the use of fossil fuels. In some cases, governments even target these activists due to their work to phase out fossil fuels. especially when their activities clash with the state’s or corporations’ economic interests.
Climate and environmental defenders face continuous threats, attacks, smear campaigns, harassment and intimidation, which states too often fail to investigate, creating an environment of impunity. States also arrest and detain defenders who oppose fossil fuels. In some cases, fossil fuel companies target environmental HRDs through legal action to try and keep them quiet.
In Ecuador, members of the Amazonian Women collective received death threats, were attacked, had to leave their homes and were arrested because of their work to protect their ancestral land from the damages of fossil fuel extraction.
“They buried 50 explosives by night, and the people that did it knew that it was extremely dangerous. I had no other choice than to become a defender of human rights because petrol and oil companies violated the rights of my village and my people.” Patricia Gualinga
In South Africa, Fikile Ntshangase, a vocal opponent of a nearby open pit coal mine and its expanding operations, was shot six times and killed inside her home, allegedly by three hitmen known to police in the area.
Fossil fuels are bad for the climate and bad for human rights in general, which is why we need governments to commit to a fast, fair and full phase out of fossil fuels now.