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After years of foot-dragging on climate change, the US has finally taken a first step to start becoming a leader on addressing the crisis – something it could have done sooner. 

On Monday, US President Barack Obama drew a line in the sand on climate change, circumventing an obstructionist congress and making his priorities clear. The Environmental Protection Agency announced new regulations that will require a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions for industry in the United States. Not only will this go toward helping to reduce carbon emissions globally, it also places the US in a position it should have been in a long time ago: a leader in addressing this dire environmental and human rights crisis. Following this announcement, China, the biggest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, indicated that it would limit carbon emissions as well.

Today is World Environment Day, and these announcements couldn’t have come sooner. In March the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report that detailed the massive scale of devastation that climate change is and will wreak on our planet and people if nothing is done to cut emissions. Among the negative effects of climate change discussed in the report are threats to basic human rights: the rights to health, food, water, and security. Mass migration and climate refugees – people who are forced to flee their homes for reasons like rising water levels or loss of farmable land – are also predicted to increase, which has serious implications for human rights.

It’s easy to get depressed working on the nexus of human rights and the environment, as it always seems like things are getting worse. In February, Global Witness published a report documenting an uptick in the killing of the world’s environmental human rights defenders. Human Rights Watch research in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe has shown that government inaction and corruption prevents people from accessing safe drinking water. Our work in China found that the government harassed people seeking to understand how acute and chronic lead poisoning was affecting hundreds of thousands.

The world has an overwhelming task in trying to address the climate crisis, and it’s going to take a lot more advocacy and action to make real and consistent change. And it’s good to see the US taking active steps in the right direction. That is something to celebrate.

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