Climate Change: The Next Great Human Rights Challenge

1 Jul, 2019 | Blogs

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By Sam Alston

In an unprecedented high court case in October 2018, the Dutch government was forced to abandon plans to weaken its carbon reduction targets. The case, first of its kind, depended heavily on human rights law, particularly the right to life (article 2) and the right to a family life (article 8). Since at least 2005, climate change has been framed as a human rights issue by international organisations. However, it’s only been in the last two years that these cases have made it to the courts, and the Dutch case was the first time government carbon reduction targets had been mandated on human rights grounds. Given the high level of awareness of climate change since at least 1992, why has it taken until now to recognise the link between climate change and human rights?

Laying the framework

The last two years have seen a proliferation of human rights based actions when it comes to climate change: an attempt by the Pacific islands to get fair compensation for the destruction of their country,  the New York city action against oil firms, and the mention of human rights in the 2016 Paris Climate agreement and the  Geneva accord on climate action and human rights.  There is a multiplicity of sources laying out the connection between climate change and human rights including the  UN High Commissioner on Human rights’ submission to the 21st  Conference of the Parties, Mary Robinson Foundation for climate justice, and OpenGlobalRights guides.

It was not until the mid-2000s that climate change began to make itself unmissable on development and human rights agendas, promoting serious work and laying the theoretical groundwork that the Dutch legal case would depend on. This is especially critical for other current cases such as cases of children’s rights attempting to reach the supreme court in the USA, or an investigation by the Commission on Human Rights in the Philippines.

Assigning responsibility for climate change

Traditionally, human rights causes involve individuals who can be held responsible, or at the least a party that can provide redress, while the dominant discourse around climate change since the 1990s is that of collective responsibility. However, the focus has now moved to a boarder environmental justice narrative, of the earth being overexploited for the benefit of a few individuals representing  a small selection of the human population. This narrative has been fueled by the realisation that fossil fuel firms have  been systematically working to repress information and action on climate change[MH1] [SMA2] . Additionally, it has become clear that the costs of climate change will fall fastest and hardest on the poorest population,while global warming is predominantly caused by the richest firms, people and countries, many of whom, I would argue, have lined up their substantial resources to resist climate action.[MH3] 

The dynamic of vulnerable populations resisting the powerful give climate change a dynamic familiar to human rights struggles.

Climate change victims

Another vital shift that has enabled the framing of climate change as a human rights issue is that we now undeniably have victims, due to climate change. This has come about as a result of  extreme weather events, food insecurity, armed conflict or a host of other reasons.

Some of the cases mentioned above focused on the future impacts of climate change. Even these can now point to ongoing examples of what a substantially warmer planet means.

The climate justice and human rights narratives frame victims of environmental destruction against the forces of the powerful. This in turn allies Western environmentalists with indigenous groups and activists in the global South standing up to protect their livelihoods against mining and other environmental infringes. Human rights struggles are not just fought in the courtroom. Global Witness highlights the cost that many of the environmental defenders are paying, by way of example there were 200 deaths in 2016 alone.

The very stress of climate change endangers the social contract and resources upon which our framework of rights totters. The fight against climate change will not be successful unless it highlights the detrimental impact to people’s rights and works with other human rights struggles to build a better world. Human rights gains in other areas cannot be sustainable without substantial action on environmental issues. We can only hope that more entities seriously acknowledge their human rights obligations in this area.

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