With world leaders convening in Glasgow for the United Nations Climate Conference (COP26), the situation is dire. The climate crisis, from raging wildfires to scorching urban areas, drought-stricken farmlands to hurricane-battered coastlines, is inflicting a growing toll on lives and livelihoods worldwide. The gravity of the situation cannot be overstated, and unless governments act boldly and expeditiously to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the future could be unimaginably bleak.
In the years ahead, the consequences of rising sea levels and severe food shortages may displace hundreds of millions from their homes. Conflicts over increasingly scarce resources could multiply, fostering violence, extreme nationalism, xenophobia, and authoritarian rule. States' capacity to safeguard the rights of the most vulnerable populations could be severely strained, and in many regions, it could even crumble.
The potential to avert this dystopian future hinges largely on governments' efforts to protect people's rights today. Preserving the world's rainforests, which serve as vital carbon sinks, requires states to uphold the rights of Indigenous communities and local residents who are among the most passionate and effective stewards of these ecosystems.
Ending coal usage, which is responsible for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, necessitates that states halt coal mines and power plants that poison the air and water of local communities. This must be achieved through regulations that safeguard people's right to a healthy environment and by increasing the costs associated with coal relative to cleaner energy sources.
In order to ensure that elected officials and industry leaders heed the public's call for more ambitious climate action, governments must protect the rights of people everywhere, particularly the growing youth climate activist movement worldwide, allowing them to advocate for the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and safeguard vulnerable populations.
COP26 is anticipated to result in new commitments from the world's highest-emitting countries, but many pressing questions may remain unanswered. While governments may pledge to support efforts to combat deforestation, will they also restrict the import of agricultural commodities that drive deforestation in the world's largest rainforests? Some countries may promise to phase out international public finance for fossil fuels, but will they also put an end to domestic fossil fuel subsidies that undermine their emissions reduction initiatives? While billions may be pledged as "climate finance" to support developing countries' climate policies, will steps be taken to ensure that this support reaches the most at-risk populations?
As world leaders grapple with these challenges in Glasgow, they must recognize that the climate crisis is fundamentally a human rights crisis. The protection of human rights is a crucial component of advancing global efforts to combat climate change.