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'World Has Never Seen a Threat to Human Rights of This Scope,' UN Rights Chief Says of Climate Emergency

"The window of opportunity for action may be closing—but there is still time to act."

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, listens to the meeting introduction before delivering opening remarks while hosting a debate on key human rights issues in the country at ICS—Instituto de Ciências Sociais da Universidade de Lisboa on April 29, 2019 in Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo: Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

"We are burning up our future—literally," the United Nations human rights chief said Monday, as she called the climate crisis a "rapidly growing and global threat to human rights."

In fact, said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, "The world has never seen a threat to human rights of this scope."

Bachelet's warning came in her remarks to the Human Rights Council on the opening day of the body's September session in Geneva.

No corner of the globe is untouched by the impacts of the warming planet, said Bachelet, noting that the crisis is already worsening hunger, conflict, and extreme weather. Among the current manifestations are the burning of the Amazon rain forest, the full impact of which "may never be known."

While the fires' impact may "catastrophic" on "humanity as a whole," their worst effects, Bachelet said, "are suffered by the women, men, and children who live in these areas—among them, many indigenous peoples."

The high commissioner also pointed to Hurricane Dorian, which devastated the Bahamas last week. The storm "accelerated with unprecedented speed over an ocean warmed by climate shifts, becoming one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes ever to hit land," she said, and took "a terrible toll on human life." But worse could be yet to come for the Bahamas and other Caribbean nations, she said, as rising sea levels may submerge portions of the countries and unleash "an inestimable loss for humanity."

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Laying out some of the impacts of the crisis, she said:

WHO expects climate change to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050—from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress alone. In many nations, chaotic weather patterns and other manifestations of our environmental emergency are already reversing major development gains; exacerbating conflict, displacement and social tension; hampering economic growth; and shaping increasingly harsh inequalities.

Environmental human rights defenders are performing "a great service... to humanity," said Bachelet, yet they face violence and abuse, particularly in Latin America. One activist she noted by name was Swedish teen Greta Thunberg. Bachelet said she was "disheartened" by the verbal abuse levied at Thunberg and other young activists, "who galvanize support for prevention of the harm their generation may bear."

"The demands made by environmental defenders and activists are compelling," Bachelet added, "and we should respect, protect, and fulfill their rights."

Bachelet stressed the urgency of climate action, saying, "The window of opportunity for action may be closing—but there is still time to act." She pointed to the U.N.'s Climate Action Summit later this month as a moment when states should commit to "the strongest possible action to prevent climate change, and to promote the resilience and rights of your people in dealing with environmental harm."

"Effective action on climate requires bringing the uncommitted and unconvinced into a shared, just, and truly international effort," said Bachelet. "Human rights can help galvanize that movement."

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