Philip Alston on Inequality and Climate Change

A recent UN report warns that climate change will bring grave consequences for human rights and democracy. Philip Alston, the author of the report, speaks to Lyndsey Jefferson about the links between climate change and poverty and what solutions are needed to address the climate crisis.

Interview Published 26 September 2019 Updated 6 October 2020 3 minute READ

Philip Alston

UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights

A boy sits on an abandoned boat on what is left of Lake Atescatempa, which has dried up due to drought and high temperatures, in Atescatempa, Guatemala on 5 May 2017.

A boy sits on an abandoned boat on what is left of Lake Atescatempa, which has dried up due to drought and high temperatures, in Atescatempa, Guatemala on 5 May 2017.

Your report warns that poor people will bear the brunt of climate change and that 120 million more people could be pushed into poverty by 2030, arguing this could potentially undo the last 50 years of progress in development. Why are poorer parts of the world especially vulnerable to extreme weather caused by climate change?

Well, I think it’s a combination of factors. Global geography means that a lot of developing countries are particularly susceptible to global warming, in other words to extreme temperatures that become normal and the associated flooding that is linked to that.

Estimates are that the total damage done by climate change could fall 75 per cent on developing countries. Within these countries, the poor are much more vulnerable in the sense that they don’t have the same protections. They can’t afford to live in more secure locations. They don’t use building materials that have a chance of withstanding extreme weather. They don’t have the same forms of assistance, of insurance, of government support, and so on.

So even though nominally both rich and poor are vulnerable to climate change, the actual consequences for people who are not well off are much more dramatic.

You cite the activism of Greta Thunberg, the Youth for Climate strikes worldwide and Extinction Rebellion as positive developments in countering the climate crisis. This activism seems to echo the environmental movement in the 1970s. Do you think acts of civil disobedience have caused a turning point in the climate movement, and if so, what makes this time different?

I think that most observers agree that only direct action by ordinary people is going to really make a difference. We have seen dramatic inaction on the part of all the big fossil fuel companies that are contributing the lion’s share of global warming and their allies in government who are not prepared to jeopardize any of the taxes or other revenues that they get. So, it’s only going to be through a massive popular demand for change that things are going to happen.

The downside is that because this popular demand for change will, ideally, pose a real threat to the elites, there will be a lot of pressure to crack down. We will see not so much focus on the climate emergency but on the ‘law and order’ emergency. And that will lead to a very repressive policies designed to prevent, punish or at least restrict the sort of demonstrations that we’re starting to see around the world.


Students demonstrate for climate action in front of the city hall in Hamburg, Germany on 18 January 2019. Photo: Getty Images.

Students demonstrate for climate action in front of the city hall in Hamburg, Germany on 18 January 2019. Photo: Getty Images.

You’re critical of world leaders and the UN itself for their inaction on climate change. You also say that the Paris Agreement has been ineffective. But what would you say to those who feel that incremental steps are important in pushing governments towards confronting the problem?

I would say that they will simply arrive too late and the train will have long left the station.

It’s widely accepted that we have about another decade before the levels of change that will come about will make life extremely difficult in many parts of the world.

I was in the south of France in late June rather briefly, but I happened to be there on the hottest day ever recorded in France. People were all off the streets and the heat was really unbearable. The prospect that this is going to become increasingly common is horrendous for those who have to work in such conditions and can’t simply escape into air-conditioned comfort. So, I think incremental steps are simply not going to work.

Democracy and liberal values, your report warns, are also in danger as governments will struggle to cope with the growing levels of inequality and discontent that climate change will cause. As access to resources such as food, water, land and housing are threatened, it says, the poor and vulnerable will suffer the most and nationalist sentiments will continue to rise. What types of policies do you think need to be enacted to ensure economic and social inequalities are not exacerbated by climate change?

Well, the sort of policies going under the general rubric of a ‘Green New Deal’ seek to emphasize the need for basic economic and social transformation of a structural kind that will inevitably involve significant governmental intervention to first of all stop the $5–6 trillion of subsidies to fossil fuel industries every year.

If that money is withdrawn, it will obviously need to be used for other purposes in order to stimulate sustainable and green forms of production and innovation. Any such restructuring will have to focus on achieving a greater degree of equality within societies. So, I think it is all part of a package deal which of course highlights the extent of the resistance that must be anticipated to any of these proposals.

Finally, you warn against an overreliance on the private sector to address extreme weather conditions and argue that governments need to do more, both individually and collectively. Is there a danger of backlash as government environmental policy directly affects people’s day-to-day lives, as we saw with the gilets jaunes movement in France?

Yes, there is certainly a danger of backlash. There will of course be backlash by the affected vested interests and they will try to stir up broader discontent.

But it’s also true that the average person who is the greatest potential victim of climate change will be quite unhappy at having to make deep, basic changes. So, it’s going to be extremely important that those changes be introduced in ways that are fair, equitable and consultative.

People should know why something is being done instead of simply a government announcing that no longer will this particular service be available. Governments are going to have to become much more engaged and much more prepared to explain to people why certain options are being taken.

Of course, we don’t generally see that even in democratic countries. We are simply told that a government has made a decision among various policy options and that’s it. But I think there is, as you say, because of the backlash, going to be a much greater premium on more detailed explanations of why decisions have been taken.