Q&A: A Human Rights Expert Hopes Covid-19, Climate Change and Racial Injustice Are a ‘Wake-Up Call’

But Philip Alston, a New York University law professor and former U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, fears “a sort of crisis fatigue.”

Philip Alston. Credit: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images
Philip Alston served as UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and filed assessments from more than a dozen countries from 2004 to 2010, and held the post of Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights from 2014 until this March. Credit: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images

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Philip Alston spent years at the United Nations confronting the vast societal injustices that have brought millions of demonstrators out into the streets of America since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25. 

Alston, 70, an Australian, served from 2004 to 2010 as Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and filed assessments from more than a dozen countries; and from 2014 until March held the post of Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. 

In the latter role, he warned last year in a harrowing report on the climate crisis that 120 million people could be forced into poverty by global warming by 2030 and wrote that “we risk a ‘climate apartheid’ scenario where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”

When The New York Times recently called in an editorial for an array of police reforms in response to Floyd’s death, Alston, now the John Norton Pomeroy professor of law at New York University, fired back in a letter to the editor, “Your diagnosis is right, but your prescriptions are way off.”

“The most important challenge is not to work out ways to make the police more accountable and responsive,” he wrote, “but to make the society less fundamentally racist in its structures and policies.”

In a recent interview, Alston assessed the protests for racial justice and ending police violence against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the current global case count at over 6.6 million, including over 1.8 million in the United States. At the same time, a record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season has created new fears of how areas struggling with the pandemic will also face extreme weather events accelerated by climate change. This transcript has been lightly edited: 

To start off, how do you see the issues of human rights and climate change as intersecting with the current Covid-19 pandemic? 

I think there are different ways of looking at it. The optimistic way is to see Covid-19 as a trial run for what’s on the way with climate change in the sense that it really is a crisis that has affected vast numbers of people that has shown up the importance of being prepared and the importance of listening to the warning signals, and the potential for totally disproportionate impact on different groups of the population—whether by gender, class, race and so on. Covid-19 could provide some sort of wake-up call to those of us who are pretending that climate change is going to be manageable and we don’t really need to do anything until it actually starts to hit ever more dramatically. 

A much more pessimistic way of looking at it is to wonder if Covid-19, followed by the George Floyd pandemic of racial violence and inequality, is going to lead to a sort of crisis fatigue. While many of us can be energized by the demonstrations that are going on now, because it’s a very dramatic show of solidarity and expressions of frustration and determination to take action, we have lurched from one crisis to another with extraordinary speed, and we are already seeing Covid-19 receding fairly significantly in our psyches. People have moved on in ways that are quite distressing and quite callous, and that will start to have consequences in the sense that it’s all just too much. There will be some sort of overload, feeling that we just can’t deal with these things, and the moment of hope and the moment of real awareness might pass without us being able to really agree on the sort of measures that are absolutely indispensable.


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As the various crises add up—once you take Covid-19, the economic depression that is on the way, [and] the economic crisis that that’s going to generate in terms of renewed pressures for austerity and budget-cutting and so on, add in the racial crisis, and then add on climate change—the scale of transformation that’s needed appears ever greater and ever deeper. 

The argument that I’ve made in terms of just George Floyd, is that it’s one thing to start saying, “Oh my God, we need to really focus on better procedures for monitoring the police, better accountability, better community relations.” That’s all true, but those sorts of proposals have been around for many decades. They’ve come and they’ve gone, and at the end of the day, the real problem with George Floyd is a deeply discriminatory society, where African Americans are discriminated against in every possible way at every opportunity, and you can’t expect in some ways the police to be acting completely differently from the rest—if you’ve got politicians who are consistently trying to disenfranchise black people, who are consistently ensuring that they’re discriminated against in a whole range of ways. Even the new environmental effort by the Trump administration announced [June 4] is essentially a racist measure—a carefully calibrated racist measure because the societies or the groups that are most hit by rolling back so-called environmental protections are the poor and the minorities. It’s not going to hit well-off white people; we are going to profit from it.

When you add all these things up together, I think we see that there is no alternative but to [make] really deep and fundamental transformations in the overall economic model, in the overall ways in which we relate as different races and classes, in the way in which politics is done. And without that—the next pandemic, the climate change crisis, which is going to be in the headlines again within weeks as the next round of weird weather disasters start to remind us that this is a steam train looming down on us—[it is] both a time of great opportunity [to start making these changes], but also [a time for] worrying whether we have the capacity to take on so much at the same time. 

Given your understanding of the relation between current calls for racial justice and the need for action on climate change, how do you believe governments should start the process of transformation? What are the first steps they can take?

As with everything, denial is the perfect recipe to ensure that you won’t start taking the right steps. If we don’t acknowledge the extent of climate change—even though the polls are improving in terms of a very significant percentage of the population expressing serious concern—to the extent that governmental action is premised on climate change being either hyped up or manageable, then we’re not going to be looking for the right solutions. I guess it’s the same even with George Floyd. That’s why I say that we have to acknowledge that a key part of the problem is us. It’s the structures that we have in place that we embrace every day. All of these policies have strong racial overtones and until we acknowledge that—as long as we pretend that these policies that have nothing to do with race, this is just economic management—then the quest for solutions is going to be very difficult to really generate. 

Earlier this year, you called the UK government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic “utterly hypocritical.” Can you expand on what motivated you to say this and do you think these same words apply to the U.S. government’s response?  

What we’ve seen in the United Kingdom, in the United States, and in Australia—which happens to be the other country that I know particularly well because that’s where I come from—is a long-standing set of policies designed to diminish the claims of people who are poor for forms of social protection. So [we’ve seen] miserly benefits, ever more punitive forms of conditionality, and a whole range of measures to try to make life miserable for people who are really in trouble. But once the Covid-19 crisis hit, the shock was that it affected the average person. It affected people who have been working for years and years, people who never had to worry about access to health care, people who had their children in decent schools. And so each of the governments I mentioned reacted by saying, “My God, this is intolerable. We have to make large amounts of money available to enable these people just to live minimally adequate lives.” 

In Australia, basic unemployment benefits were doubled essentially after the government had spent 10 years refusing to increase them at all and insisting that people could live on that amount of money. But as soon as it’s people who were closely connected to the government, its supporters, then the total inadequacy of those benefits was acknowledged. And in the United Kingdom, where you’ve had 10 years of austerity inflicting more and more pain on millions of people—getting close to one-third of all children growing up in poverty—the government was suddenly able to say, “Well, we simply have to spend billions and billions of pounds additionally,” which doesn’t undo all of the damage done by so-called austerity. That is not able to be undone. 

Can you elaborate on what a “climate apartheid” scenario will look like and whether you are already seeing signs of it now in the time of Covid-19?  

I think climate apartheid is a very real phenomenon. It obviously harks back to the system in South Africa, where you had “whites,” “coloreds,” and “blacks.” The society protected the whites in every possible way; they had a full range of rights [and] government services lavishly designed to protect them. But if you were in either a colored or the black population, you were effectively excluded. And I think that’s what we’re going to see much more of with climate change, where the well-off are able to protect themselves. First of all, they have many more options: they have insurance, and they will be protected by the government—they will get bailouts, they will get forms of support. Whereas [with] poorer people, who will make up a much bigger percentage than just the 15 or 20% of people who live in definable poverty, you’re going to see that they will not get support, they will not be able to flee. There’s going to be massive population displacement—the figures there are truly stunning in terms of the hundreds of millions of people who are likely to be affected, both internationally and internally. 

So we’re going to see even in the United States, there are going to be places that will become much less habitable. They will become too hot, they’ll become too subject to wildfires, too subject to flooding [and] to hurricanes. And so, there will be huge displacement, even in the United States. 

I think it’s true that we’ve seen some of it with Covid-19—the ability of the wealthy to clear out. This is not just in New York City and the Hamptons, but in all developed countries. We’re seeing the wealthy able to move away from the epicenters, away from the problem areas, and just sit it out. At the same time, we come up with these mantras that you should shelter in place, that you should keep a distance, and that you should wash your hands. And yet, those prescriptions are completely irrelevant to vast numbers of people who don’t have access to running water or clean water, can’t wash their hands, cannot socially distance because they live on top of one another and cannot shelter in place, because there’s no food in the pantry. 

And so, we’re seeing again a sort of class divide playing out pretty dramatically, and I think climate change is going to see that on a very large scale. 

Last week, Britain proposed postponing the 26th annual Conference of the Parties until November 2021. What do you make of this announcement and do you think it’s the right decision? 

On the one hand, it’s clear that the Glasgow meeting this year couldn’t have gone ahead because of Covid-19, because a lot of planning is required and so on. But when we look at the global warming timetable, to casually defer the next significant step for over a full year has to be seen as a pretty tragic, hard choice. And I think the risk is that everything is simply going to be delayed for a year, whereas there should be at least interim pressures to try to get the world to focus on the urgency of the crisis. 

It’s very depressing, I think, that every now and then we become aware of the urgency of these things, and then our minds wander. It’s a sort of community-wide attention deficit disorder. 

As an Australian, I particularly remember the scenes of the horrendous bushfires, as we call them, that engulfed a large part of the total area of the biggest state and the most prosperous state in Australia. Instead of saying, “That cannot be allowed to recur. We need to take urgent action,” even in Australia, the debate is moving very slowly. The government is very reluctant, and yet those same fires are going to be back, the same headlines are going to return—the fires in California, the flooding in many different places. And yet, we’re treating climate change as just another issue to be factored into our overall set of agenda items. I think that’s a huge mistake. 

Finally, what do you think is the most important takeaway from this pandemic moving forward to protect communities and safeguard our democracies knowing that we will likely face more public health emergencies, extreme weather events, and other crises in the future, as well as recognizing how these crises may intersect with police violence, racial bias in policing, and the ongoing movement for racial justice?

I think one of the things that was said when Covid-19 first emerged was, “We are all in this together,” which was a sense that everyone is equally threatened by it and that the only way that I can be safe, is if you are safe. You can’t just isolate yourself. 

The problem, of course, is that we’ve seen that that’s not actually true—that people can live in a bubble. They can’t be completely protected, but their chances of calamity vary enormously according to their color, according to their gender, according to their class in particular—their income levels. I think the only real way forward is to start exploring what it means to say, “We’re all in it together,” because we are actually. Even though temporarily the wealthy can escape, it’s not going to lead to a strong society. It’s not going to lead to a cohesive society. It certainly isn’t going to succeed in responding to climate change. It’s a sort of bunker mentality where actually, the wealthy can get enough food supplies [and] entertainment backlog that they can simply hide themselves away from the rest and move away from one good climate to another. 

But ultimately, that’s not going to work as the society around us is destroyed. And so I think [we’ll see] some nascent sense of solidarity—not out of altruism, because that hasn’t worked, but out of pure self-interest that if we don’t pull together on this, it really is going to have disastrous consequences for all of us.

And the apartheid-type scenarios are really only temporary. They’re not sustainable in the real long term. They’re going to come back to haunt us as the wealthy become ever more isolated, ever more out of touch and ever more dependent on a broader society that is going to hell because they won’t take the necessary steps.