Interrogating Human Rights and Climate Change - 8 September 2008
:: Written by Masimba Biriwasha
From North Alaska to the Pacific Islands, the phenomena of climate change is threatening the lives and livelihoods of people.
At first glance, human rights and climate change appear to be disconnected but as the world increasingly experiences climatic devastation, the human rights of people, particularly the poor and marginalized, will be adversely affected.
There is no doubt that climate change will have immense human consequences. Looking at climate change through the human rights lens reveals the extent of human suffering that is a product of our treatment of the environment.
According to a report published recently titled “Climate Change and Human Rights: A Rough Guide, 2008,” climate change is already undermining the realisation of a broad range of internationally protected human rights: rights to health and even life; rights to food, water, shelter and property; rights associated with livelihood and culture; with migration and resettlement; and with personal security in the event of conflict.
To make matters worse, the worst effects of climate change are likely to be felt by those individuals and groups whose rights protections are already precarious. The most dramatic impacts of climate change are expected to occur (and are already being experienced) in the world’s poorest countries, where rights protections too are often weak.
The report contends that there has been a mutual disinterest and silence on human rights viz-a-viz climate change mainly because the study of climate change began among meteorologists, became firmly entrenched in the physical sciences, and has only gradually – if inevitably – reached into the social sciences.
“The human rights framework reminds us that climate change is about suffering – about the human misery that results directly from the damage we are doing to nature. Many communities already feel the adverse effects of warming temperatures – yet so far few remedies are available to them. While we cannot say precisely who will be affected in future, or how severely, the signs are nevertheless clear,” says Mary Robinson president of Realizing Rights and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
As the devastation of climate change unravels across the world, many nation states will not be able to fulfill their human rights commitments.
“Attending to human rights also mean recognizing that as we take steps to address climate change, we must not do so at the cost of the most vulnerable. It is surely possible to repair our environment while still assuring our fellow human beings a path out of poverty and insecurity,” says Robinson.
There is need to ensure that good information exists – and that it is in the hands of those most affected – can enhance participation in efforts to prevent and manage climate change.
“Beyond that, we must design with care global and regional programmes that substitute fuels, preserve forests, apply new technologies, or redesign markets. At each step we must ask where the heaviest burden falls and whether it should be shared otherwise,” adds Robinson.
According to the report, nation states and affected communities must begin by understanding who is affected by climate change and in what way, so that appropriate policy and normative responses can be devised.
“A climate-justice agenda and a proper understanding of the development imbalances caused by climate change, will be critical to effectively infuse the climate change debate with human rights in a way that is equitable for the most climate-vulnerable groups,” states the report.