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Science Can Ease Human Rights Effects of Climate Change

Scientific research can inform policies aimed at addressing the needs of communities displaced by climate change, something that is already happening in the United States and around the world, according to experts at a 25-26 July meeting of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition.

Research provides vital tools to identify and shape response plans to mitigate, and, in some cases, prevent, the effects of climate change on impacted communities and the human rights of local people, said participating speakers. Since 2009, the Coalition has brought together scientific and engineering organizations that recognize a role for scientists and engineers in addressing human rights issues.  

The focus of the July meeting held at AAAS headquarters was on the human rights implications of climate change, including a session on the role of scientific evidence in addressing the effects of climate change.

Climate change is expected to displace and prompt the resettlement of many communities around the the world, particularly those most vulnerable to sea level rise and weather events spurred by climate change, said Michael Cernea of the International Network on Displacement and Resettlement.

Compulsory displacement — when people are ordered to leave their communities against their will — is among the most complex social problems, Cernea said.

Human Rights Coalition Meeting Panel


From left: Colin Kelley of Columbia University, Michael Cernea of the International Network on Displacement and Resettlement, and Roni Neff of Johns Hopkins University. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

“It entails, for large numbers of people, loss of their fundamental life-supporting resources,” he said. “It’s a problem that already knocks on our door. It’s not 50 years [away].”

Displacement is a “reliable barometer of the scale of human needs around the globe,” said Colin Kelley, a climate scientist with Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society and the Center for Climate and Security, citing a May 2016 United Nations-backed report. Among the nearly 28 million people in 120 countries displaced by conflict, violence, and disasters, 19 million were displaced by natural calamities, Kelley noted.

To help predict the risk of displacement, researchers have developed a model to identify risk factors for displacement, including food insecurity, and diminished natural resources, Cernea said. Climate science can be applied to understand, mitigate, and make communities more resilient against the detrimental effects of climate change to help them avoid displacement, Kelley said.

One project at the nexus of climate science and food security is FoodSECuRE, a World Food Program fund that uses climate forecasts to identify areas more prepared to withstand climate-related “shocks” before they happen. Scientists use tools like the Climate Predictability Tool to construct and validate seasonal climate forecast models and create forecasts, for instance, able to predict drought or tropical cyclones in the Philippines, Kelley said.

“This gives you early warning for resource allocation,” he said.

Funding for exposed areas is unlocked, and allocated to respond to an emergency, and to build back up resilience after an event, he said.

Another project of the International Research Institute is the Enhancing National Climate Service Initiative, or ENACTS, which works to improve the availability of, and access to, climate data to inform national policymaking. ENACTS is expected to have a significant impact in Africa, where many people depend on rain-fed agriculture, and “where reliable climate information is crucial,” Kelley said.

Displacements are not limited to developing countries, the speakers stressed.

The Louisiana Gulf Coast’s Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, for example, has already seen all but a fraction of its land disappear due to sea level rise. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated funds to relocate the entire community. The tribe is just one of many indigenous communities impacted or threatened by the effects of climate change. (For more information, see the video above.)

Robert Bullard, a sociologist and the dean of the Barbara Jordan, Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, pointed to numerous current and future examples of the disruptive effects of climate change in the United States – and the inequity represented by those most likely to be harmed. “Climate change will exacerbate existing inequalities and worsen vulnerabilities of marginalized populations,” Bullard said, noting the multitude of threats that poor communities and communities of color face.

Robert Bullard


Robert Bullard of Texas Southern University | Andrea Korte/AAAS

Climate change is also expected to increase heat-related deaths, Bullard said. Blacks are 52% more likely than whites to live in urban heat islands where the effects of high temperatures are already felt more keenly, with Asians 32% and Hispanics 21% more likely than whites to live in heat islands.

“Breathing clean air is a fundamental human right,” said Bullard, but climate change is expected to double the number of cities that do not meet air quality standards. “Climate-induced air quality poses a special risk to children, particularly poor children,” who are more likely to live in areas that do not meet clean air standards, he said. Black, Hispanic, and Asian children are also more likely than their white counterparts to live in areas exposed to air pollution, Bullard said.

To address these concerns, the speakers advocated using science to inform policy at all levels. Bullard noted that a delegation of students from historically black colleges and universities engaged international leaders at the COP21 climate summit in Paris in 2015, while panelist Roni Neff with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future is working with local decision-makers to ensure that Baltimore residents will be able to provide food for themselves when the food supply is diminished by events connected to climate change, such as drought.

[Associated image: Louisiana Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness licensed and modified under CC BY-SA 2.0]