Powerful decision-makers, from heads of state to oil company CEOs, want us to believe that the future of our planet is in our hands. They want us to believe that if we recycle enough or stop using single-use plastic, then we can stop the climate crisis and the human rights violations it entails.
They want us to believe that the solution lies in individual action, not an end to corporate greed.
This is simply untrue.
Today’s fossil fuel economy is powered and funded by companies and government officials who benefit from the current system. They are the ones who decide if we continue to extract and burn fossil fuels that result in children growing up with asthma and other respiratory illnesses in heavily polluted cities, or farmers losing their livelihoods because of drought or catastrophic rainfall.
But there is still cause for hope. Governments are legally obligated to rapidly reduce and phase out fossil-fuel emissions – failure to do so is a violation of some of our most fundamental human rights. Governments in countries that have contributed the most to climate change must take action first and make the biggest reductions.
These include our rights to health, food, housing, and even to life. If we work together and make enough noise, we can create a viable route to change.
It’s not too late to plant the seeds for a post-fossil fuel future.
The dramatic impacts of climate change have exposed with devastating clarity, how integral a healthy environment is to the enjoyment of all our other rights.Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International's Secretary General
Why is our leaders’ inaction on climate change a human rights issue?
Climate change is intimately linked with human rights because of its effect on not just the environment but our own well-being – and ultimately our survival.
World leaders – especially from higher income countries with the greatest historical responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions – are failing in their legal obligation to curb climate change and help us adapt to the change that has already occurred. If they don’t act quickly, the effects of a warming planet will continue to grow and worsen over time, creating ruin for current and future generations.
This is why the failure of our governments to act on the climate crisis, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, may well be the biggest intergenerational human rights violation in history.
Corporations are also responsible for respecting human rights. Yet many businesses, especially fossil fuel companies, are ducking their responsibilities to fatal effect by continuing to extract, process, sell and burn fossil fuels. They also spread disinformation about climate change and trumpet the few minor improvements they have made as evidence of their ‘green credentials’.
Climate change and the right to life
We all have the right to life, and to live in freedom and safety. But climate change threatens the life and safety of billions of people on this planet. The most obvious example is extreme weather-related events, such as storms, floods and wildfires.
But there are many other less visible ways that climate change threatens lives. The World Health Organization predicts that climate change will cause 250,000 deaths per year between 2030 and 2050.
Climate change and the right to health
We all have the right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), major health impacts of human-induced climate change will include;
- Greater risk of injury
- disease and death due to things like more intense heat waves and fires
- increased risk of undernutrition as a result of diminished food production
- increased risks of diseases from food water and vector-borne diseases
People, and particularly children, exposed to traumatic events such as natural disasters – exacerbated by climate change – can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders.
Extracting and burning fossil fuels also hurts us beyond the impact of climate. There is compelling scientific evidence that directly links exposure to air pollution to over 1.2 million deaths in 2020 alone. Burning fossil fuels and making petrochemicals not only produces air pollution, but the global heating that results makes air pollution worse.
Climate change and the right to housing
We all have a right to an adequate standard of living for ourselves and our families, including adequate housing.
But unless governments do more to help stop further climate change, extreme weather events such as floods and wildfires will continue to destroy people’s homes and leave them displaced. Drought can also lead to significant adverse changes in the environment while sea-level rises threaten the homes of millions of people around the world in low-lying territories.
People are already being displaced by climate change, for example in Tabasco, Mexico, where rising sea levels are wiping out entire communities.
Climate change and the rights to water and sanitation
We all have the right to safe water and to sanitation that ensures we stay healthy.
But continued inaction by governments and corporations has brought us to the point where melting snow and ice, reduced rainfall, higher temperatures and rising sea-levels threaten the quality and quantity of water resources. Already 785 million people do not have access to a source of water or sanitation that is likely to be safe. Climate change will make this worse.
What causes climate change?
- Burning fossil fuels
- Agriculture and deforestation
- Land-use change
The planet is warming more rapidly than ever due to a series of human-made factors.
The burning of fossil fuels for energy and transport – like so-called ‘natural gas’, oil and coal – emits toxic pollution which poisons our air and lungs and is responsible for more than 70 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. When carbon dioxide and methane are released into the air, they trap energy in our atmosphere, which makes the planet heat up.
The harmful effects of fossil-fuel emissions are deepening at an alarming rate. This is because our governments are not transitioning our economies away from a dependence on fossil fuels fast enough. While in many parts of the world there has been increased investment in renewable energy, fossil fuel use is not decreasing because total energy use keeps increasing.
Our governments – especially those in high income, high emitting countries – need to focus on transitioning away from fossil fuels and towards more sustainable, just energy solutions and on helping lower income countries to do so too.
Which industries contribute to climate change the most?
Almost all industries engage in the burning of fossil fuels, but some contribute to greenhouse gas emissions more than others. Unsurprisingly, the industry producing the most fossil-fuel emissions is the energy sector, which sells a product that by definition harms the climate.
The second largest polluter is the agriculture sector. Practices like industrial livestock farming, deforestation and land-use change not only contribute to greenhouse gas emissions in our air but also destroy our natural defence to increasing carbon dioxide levels. Forests and trees consume carbon-dioxide and play a huge role in the protection of our atmosphere, but they are regularly destroyed by intentional forest fires to clear land for commercial farming.
Who is most impacted by inaction on climate change?
Climate change will continue to harm all of us unless governments take action and seek help to do so if they need it. But its effects are much more pronounced for certain communities and groups, as well as those who are generally already disadvantaged and subject to discrimination. This includes, but is not limited to:
People in developing nations, especially coastal countries and small island states
Those in lower income countries, especially low-lying, small island states and less developed countries, will be and are already among those worst affected by climate change. People in these countries have contributed very little to greenhouse gas emissions, but their countries are among the most harmed.
While some countries are especially vulnerable to climate change due to geography – such as small island states – it is no accident that lower-income countries experience the most loss and damage. This is due not only to their exposure to climate-related disasters, but also to the lasting consequences of colonialism, and its legacy of unequal distribution of resources among countries. These power differentials are enabled by present-day racism and neo-colonial attitudes.
Lower-income countries lack the money to adapt to the adverse effects of climate change. And yet those with the necessary resources, like corporations and governments from higher-income countries, regularly ignore their legal responsibilities and obligations to address these harms.
Despite this profound power imbalance, many governments and activists in lower income countries are fighting back. For example, a campaign run by the government of Vanuatu and students from the small Pacific Island nation resulted in a historic vote at the UN, which strengthened the calls to consider inaction on climate change an issue of international justice.
Communities suffering from environmental racism
The effects of climate change and fossil fuel-related pollution also run along racial lines and other types of social hierarchies.
For example, in North America, poorer communities of colour are often forced to breathe toxic air because their neighbourhoods are more likely to be situated next to power plants, petrochemical facilities and refineries. They experience markedly higher rates of respiratory illnesses and cancers. African Americans are three times more likely to die of airborne pollution than the overall US population.
Marginalized women and girls
Women and girls are often confined to roles and jobs that make them more reliant on natural resources. Because they face barriers in accessing financial or technical resources or are denied land ownership, they are less able to adapt to climate change. This means that they are more at risk from the impacts of climate-related events as they are less able to protect themselves against it and will find it harder to recover.
Children and young people are already suffering due to their specific metabolism, physiology and developmental needs. This means, for example, that forced displacement experienced by communities (which impacts a whole range of rights from water, sanitation and food to adequate housing, health, education and development) is likely to be particularly harmful to children.
Case Study: Pakistan
In 2023, Amnesty released research that highlighted the struggles of people living in poverty in some of the hottest cities in the world, including Lahore and Jacobabad in Pakistan.
Pakistan is on the front lines of the climate crisis, as demonstrated by a series of extreme heatwaves that are wreaking havoc on human rights. And while the impact of extreme heat is felt by everyone, some are much worse off because of their socio-economic status.
If we take a break there is no daily wage… because of poverty, we have to work no matter the weatherA tractor driver in Jacobabad where temperatures reached 52°C/125.6°F
What is climate justice?
Climate change needs to be seen as an issue of injustice, similar to how we think about other human rights violations. It is the result of a small group of powerful people taking actions that inflict harm on another group of people: the rest of us. The people who suffer the most are those who are already marginalized, such as people in lower-income countries and those who experience discrimination in higher-income countries.
That’s why you’ve probably heard a lot of activists and social movements using the phrase climate justice, which uses a human-centric lens to talk about policies to bring about change in a fair and equitable way.
A climate justice approach looks at the root causes of the climate crisis and how climate change builds on and magnifies inequalities. It calls on powerful institutions to address these imbalances and injustices, and to lay the groundwork for a future that does not replicate the discrimination of the present and the past.
A movement for climate justice centres itself on the demands, experience and knowledge of groups and communities most affected by the climate crisis.
It calls on all of us to recognize our own privilege in the way we campaign and mobilize for a just and equitable future.
Gender, racial, class, ethnic, disability and intergenerational justice are essential to truly achieving climate justice.
Case Study: Australia
In many parts of the world, Indigenous Peoples are leading the charge for climate justice. This is because of the unique threat that climate change poses to their lands and way of life.
For example, two leaders of the Guda Maluyligal Nation are taking the Australian government to court to demand action to prevent the further destruction of sacred cultural sites and their islands’ infrastructure.
Unless urgent action is taken, many Torres Strait Islanders will be forced to leave their homes as large areas become uninhabitable. This would be devastating for the communities.
Demand that the Australian government reduce carbon emissions and protect the rights of First Nations communities.
Why is the energy transition important?
The rapid transition from a fossil fuel-based energy system to a renewable energy infrastructure is essential if greenhouse gas emissions are to be reduced globally by 43% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050, compared to 2019 levels.
It’s essential that governments drive the shift to renewable energy sources and proven technologies with genuine solutions that sacrifice neither the planet nor people. They must not make it the problem of future generations. Governments must legally require companies to respect human rights during the energy transition.
Years of unregulated industry practices mean that the adverse side of the battery boom, for example, is being felt by communities living on mineral-rich lands such as those in the ‘Lithium Triangle’ of Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia and the cobalt-mining region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
End forced evictions in Kolwezi, DRC
How is Amnesty holding leaders accountable and push for an end to fossil fuels?
Powerful decision-makers need to put people before profit and bring about a full and fast end to fossil fuel use.
True justice will include an end to the destruction of the planet, but also compensation and support to those whose lives have been most affected.
Governments and company CEOs are violating our human rights when they choose to continue destroying the environment. This is not just a question of goodwill, but a legal obligation that applies to all governments and corporations. The movement to phase out fossil fuel production and use should be carried out fairly, which is why high-income countries who have emitted the most historically carry a heavier burden for delivering climate justice. These countries should provide money to lower income states so all parties can meet their emission reduction targets.
We’re seeking justice for the impacts of climate change. We collect evidence and research to demand those in positions of genuine power take effective action and to strengthen the legal case against them.
And perhaps most importantly, we campaign with people like you who can help us make enough noise so that it’s clear that inaction on climate change will not go unnoticed.