/ 30 May 2024

In the face of climate change, extreme heat is a human rights crisis

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Workers carry ice blocks on a hand cart in New Delhi on May 30, 2024, amid an ongoing heatwave. Temperature readings in the city rose into the high 40s Celsius on May 29, with power usage in the city, where the population is estimated at more than 30 million, surging to a record high. (Photo by Money SHARMA / AFP)

With temperatures now regularly exceeding 40°C in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Aprdous Hossein struggles to cope. 

“I feel very bad this year because of the heat,” the 74-year-old said. “I am feeling very sick because I am too hot. I cannot cool.”

Her account is captured in a new report by Climate Rights International, a climate and human rights monitoring and advocacy nonprofit that examines the effect and risks of extreme heat through a human rights lens. 

People around the world, both old and young, are at risk of experiencing heat-related harms, while governments and businesses are failing to meet their obligations under international human rights law to protect citizens from rising temperatures and extreme heat events caused by climate change

“The acceleration of global warming has resulted in rising temperatures and an unprecedented frequency, intensity, and duration of heatwaves worldwide, creating a human rights crisis that all levels of governments, companies and others with responsibility for the health and welfare of human beings must take urgent steps to address,” it said.

Last week, schools had to close in New Delhi and other parts of northern India when temperatures almost reached 50°C. 

“Extreme heat is killing hundreds of thousands of people every year, closing schools, and worsening food and water insecurity,” said Linda Lakhdhir, the legal director at Climate Rights International. “Governments and companies must act now to protect individuals from the devastating consequences of rising heat, which are only going to get worse as climate change intensifies.” 

Hottest year on record

The World Meteorological Organisation has confirmed that 2023 was the hottest year on record. “This record marks an unfortunate trend of rising global averages, as the last nine years have been the hottest ever recorded; and each of those years experienced global averages more than 1°C  above the pre-industrial level,” said the report.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said with confidence that human-induced climate change is the main driver of the increase in average temperatures in recent history. Human-induced climate change also plays a major role in heatwaves. 

The World Weather Attribution (WWA) initiative has determined that many heatwaves in recent history were made much more likely by climate change. The heatwave that devastated much of Asia in April 2023, causing deaths, admissions to hospitals and school closures, was made 30 times more likely by climate change. 

A deadly heatwave in the Sahel and Western Africa in March and April 2024 “would not have occurred” in the absence of human-induced climate change, the WWA found, while the searing heat wave in western North America in June 2022 would have been “virtually impossible” without it.

Rising heat and human rights

Extreme heat and extreme heat events threaten a range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water, education, and a healthy environment, the report said. 

Those most at risk include children, women, older people, those with disabilities, those living in poverty, outdoor workers and already marginalised populations.

Some groups, including chronically ill people and those on certain medications, can be biologically more susceptible to the effect of extreme heat than others. Other groups, such as women, incarcerated people, migrants, people living in poverty, and people living in social isolation, can be more vulnerable to the impacts of extreme heat because of social factors.

Outdoor workers and those working in factories or other indoor spaces not designed for heat are also at increased risk because of their comparatively high levels of exposure to elevated temperatures. The International Labor Organisation recently estimated that at least 2.1 billion workers each year are exposed to excessive heat, resulting in millions of occupational injuries and nearly 19 000 deaths.

“Sometimes I feel like my whole body is shaking and I also feel dizzy when I perform physical labour like washing cars,” Muhammad Yusuf, who washes cars in Karachi, told Climate Rights International. “I also get tired easily, but I have to work because if I don’t, I won’t earn a living.”

People living in cities also face the increased risk of exposure to high temperature extremes, in part from the urban heat island effect, wherein some areas of cities absorb and retain heat more than surrounding areas because of concentrations of pavement, buildings and other urban features. 

Researchers have documented more than 6°C differences between some urban neighbourhoods and surrounding rural areas in both high and low-income countries. The report cited a study that assessed data from more than 13 000 cities around the world and found that urban heat exposure increased nearly 200% between 1983 and 2016.

By 2050, 68% of the global population is expected to live in urban areas. “As the urban population increases, so too will the number of people exposed to increased risk of high temperature extremes.”

Heat weighs heaviest on the poor

Across all groups, heat will weigh the heaviest on the poorest populations with the least resources to adapt. 

Heat exposure over the past decade was more than 40% higher in countries in the lowest-quartile by income compared to the highest-quartile. “People in these low-income countries will face greater challenges adapting to rising temperatures than those in high-income countries, in part from unequal access to cooling.” 

The nine countries with the largest number of people at high heat-related risk because of  inadequate access to cooling are India, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Mozambique, Sudan and Brazil.

“The intersecting climate and human rights crises are going to become progressively more challenging. Global temperatures are likely to continue to surge — fuelled by record levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, deforestation, and periodic and naturally occurring El Niño events,” the report said.

Studies and models project that average global temperatures will reach or exceed 1.5°C of warming much more rapidly than initially predicted and that levels of warming will probably be much higher than 1.5ºC if countries do not increase — and implement — their commitments under the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Without urgent and effective action, significant areas of the world are “likely to become simply uninhabitable, resulting in widespread mortality, large-scale human migration, or both”, the report said.

The failure to act on climate change also poses existential risks to future generations. By 2100, temperatures could rise to the point that just going outside for a few hours in some parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia will exceed the “upper limit for survivability, even with idealised conditions of perfect health, total inactivity, full shade, absence of clothing, and unlimited drinking water”, according to a 2020 study in Science Advances.

Heat action plans

There is a growing body of knowledge regarding the steps that can be taken by governments  — national, regional and local — by employers, and by those running care homes, schools, prisons and other institutional settings to reduce the risks posed by extreme heat to people. “Yet many remain woefully unprepared, and failure to act will have devastating consequences for those they should be protecting.”

National and local governments should adopt and implement heat action plans to guide heatwave preparation and emergency response. “As part of any heat action plan, governments should establish a designated chief heat officer to coordinate heat-related risk reduction and management efforts across government agencies and ensure proper funding of their activities.   

“Governments should, too, invest in and maintain effective heat early warning systems. Such warning systems must be devised to reach populations most at risk.” 

To protect workers, all governments should enact legally binding heat stress standards for indoor and outdoor workers based on actual weather conditions, consistent with international best practice standards, and “companies should protect workers from heat even in the absence of laws requiring them to do so”. 

While improved access to cooling is essential, increasing the number of air conditioners, most of which currently run on fossil fuels, raises its own climate concerns. A range of passive cooling strategies that governments and companies can invest in include roofs that reflect heat, increasing green areas and tree cover in urban areas, ventilation corridors, and use of permeable or light covered pavements. “Where active cooling is feasible, it is critical to shift to sustainable cooling from clean energy.”  

Companies should establish and enforce strict policies to protect all workers against heat stress, and conduct due diligence in their own operations and their supply chains to determine whether employees are at risk of violation of their human rights because of extreme heat and take action to mitigate any risks they identify. 

“Addressing heat shouldn’t be seen as just a policy choice that can wait until governments and businesses get around to it or decide to invest in it,” Lakhdhir added.

“Protection from heat is a human right that creates legal responsibilities for governments and businesses.”