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Equality and human rights must be at the heart of discussions on climate change

Equality and human rights must be at the heart of discussions on climate change

Credit: Alamy

Baroness Kishwer Falkner

Baroness Kishwer Falkner | Equality and Human Rights Commission

4 min read Partner content

We can no longer ignore the equality and human rights implications of climate change.

Climate change is the biggest crisis facing the global population today.

Its consequences threaten devastation, from rising sea levels to more frequent and more intense weather events, wildfires and droughts – there is not a country or sector of society that will not feel the bite of a changing planet.

The eyes of the world are on Glasgow COP26 and on what many people are calling our last chance to take meaningful action on climate change. The implications for equality and human rights must be part of the discussion.

Climate change is already hitting some groups harder than others. Around the world we know that women, children, disabled people and older people have been particularly affected. If we don’t take decisive action now, this will only get worse.

In the UK, the short-term impact will be less immediate. However, four million British children already live in households that struggle to afford enough fruit, vegetables, fish and other healthy foods to meet nutrition guidelines. Climate change is likely to disrupt the supply chain and make this worse.

The UK has also struggled with poor air quality for years and the UK Government has been accused of not moving fast enough to meet targets and protect people’s health. As we have tragically seen in the case of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah in south London, air quality already adversely affects the health of children in urban areas. We also know that it can worsen respiratory conditions that are common for older people, such as asthma, and can increase the risk of heart attacks. There have been a number of initiatives to help reduce air pollution over the last few years, and the transition to net zero emissions and the efforts to phase-out petrol-fuelled vehicles is a key opportunity to improve public health.

As parts of the world become warmer we will start to see more migration away from the ‘hot zones’, where the effects of climate change will be felt the most. Older and disabled people are less mobile and more reliant on access to medical supplies, so will be less likely to be able to uproot their lives and move to safer locations.

Extreme heat can also increase the risk of illness and death among older adults and disabled people, particularly those with chronic health conditions. They are more vulnerable to the effects of extreme flooding and wildfires as they have a high risk of both physical and mental health impacts of evacuation, including interruption to medication and the challenges involved with transporting patients with their necessary medication and equipment.

Disabled and older people are more likely to be left behind or abandoned in evacuation in disasters due to a lack of preparation and planning. As the implications of climate change become more severe, it is vital that the needs of protected groups are at the heart of plans to manage, reduce and respond to risks and disasters.

As we move towards our net zero emissions target, changes to the workforce, technological advances, infrastructure projects and adaptations to our homes must progress with an understanding of the needs of everyone in society and a commitment to a just transition. For example, we have heard that some public charging points for electric vehicles are inaccessible for disabled people. Electric cars are one of many new technologies that are vital to the fight against climate change and they must be accessible to everyone.

The needs of older and disabled people have always been crucial to our work and, as the increasing grip of climate change exacerbates inequalities between groups, we will continue to do all we can to promote and protect their rights.

We have long called for equality and human rights to be at the heart of decision making and that is no different for policies or legislation relating to climate change. The implications for equality and human rights must be a part of the vital discussion taking place in Glasgow. We cannot afford for the progress that we have made in this country to be reversed, and by bringing it into the core of all future planning, we can build a stronger and fairer future.

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