Climate and Human Rights

Is climate change a social issue? This is the second post in a series to look at the possible links between a social issue and climate change.

The climate justice movement seems to be gaining momentum, but its efficacy and future remain uncertain. At the end of 2007, a growing movement of NGOs and other activists connected human rights issues to climate change. Started by a small band of NGOs committed to environmental and development (and other) issues, the climate justice movement gained steam in 2011 in Durban, South Africa. Now, Scotland seems poised to make climate justice the basis of its negotiation stance at the UN Framework of Climate Change (should Scotland become an independent country, and require an independent foreign policy on the issue, that is). Venezuela will host the preparatory meetings to COP20, and already dubbed the meetings the “social pre-COP.”

At the heart of climate justice, like the links between gender and climate, is the recognition that climate change exacerbates inequalities. Those least responsible for climate change stand on the front lines and face its impacts. The global poor are unable to buy their way to a safer climate or purchase the means of adaptation. These marginalized groups are also more likely to encounter loss and damage associated with sudden and slow onset climate change. To some climate advocates, these realities inherently tie climate change to the notion of justice.

They point out that climate impacts will infringe other, established human rights. We are currently in the Water for Life Decade, a period devoted to raising awareness of the human right to water and sanitation, which the UN General Assembly officially recognized in 2010. Climate change could impede the realization of other rights key to poverty alleviation, such as the right to development. A report for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN OHCHR) also pointed to the vulnerability of the rights to food, health and adequate housing to climate change.

The UN OHCHR has adopted several resolutions stating that climate change poses a threat to the “effective enjoyment of human rights.” In 2008, María Francisca Ize-Charrin, Director, Research and Right to Development Division, UN OHCHR stated that “climate change violates the universal right of all peoples to live in a safe and sustainable environment.”

Legal human rights exist as consensus statements about the dignity of the human experience and respect for life. If states agree that there is a legal and moral imperative to address human rights, then, by extension, some argue there is a legal and moral imperative to address climate change.

Yet, it seems few argue a step further – that there is a human right to a safe and stable climate. Perhaps it is too politically sensitive. Recognition by states of a human right to a stable climate is a daunting and exhausting goal to achieve. If states approved this human right, then their inaction in the UNFCCC is even less defensible. Many could be reticent to open a new multilateral channel to reach agreement on climate change, even at a principled level. A human right to a safe climate could be politically infeasible at present.

A more moderate approach – as taken by NGOs and international organizations thus far – is to chalk the wheels on human rights that states have already recognized, and highlight the links between climate change and water, food, housing, and development.

What remains to be seen is if the justice lens can help break the impasse at the negotiations. States in the UNFCCC thus far have seemed rather unreceptive to moralistic language, and often prefer to work with those versed in the scientific and technical language of complex environmental issues. Arguing for climate justice could create a productive pressure on states to act and for societies to mobilize; it could also prove counterproductive if the bickering turns to moral issues rather than emission reductions.

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