A Climate Crisis: Global Warming And The Future Of Human Rights

We have reached a time where it has become impossible to deny the existence of global warming. In the past century, planet earth has seen a rise in the global surface temperature of 0.9 degrees Celsius. This has lead to the last 35 years being some of the hottest ever- between 2010 and 2016, the world saw five of the warmest years on record. Through use of orbiting satellites, NASA has reported a 95% probability that these extreme temperatures are a result of human activity, through increased levels of greenhouse gas emissions. They have reported results of these warming trends in the form of ice sheets melting at a rate of 127 billion tones per year, as well as warming oceans, glacial retreat, decreased snow cover, rising sea levels, ocean acidification and other extreme weather invents including hurricanes and droughts. The CSIRO reports that 1300 independent scientific experts from around the globe have been able to confirm that the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, have increased the atmospheric levels carbon dioxide, as well as clearing of land for agriculture and industry.

States all over the globe have come to the realization that now is a crucial time to act on climate change. The United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC) created a 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which reaffirms the importance of achieving a sustainable development.

The devastating effects of global warming on the environment have the potential to directly and devastatingly impact on the human rights of people all over the world. Extreme weather events and natural disasters leading to desertification and droughts will inevitably lead to water shortages for vast areas, as well as the spread of tropical and vector-borne diseases. Other adverse impacts of climate change effect human rights such as the right to life, water, sanitation, food, health, housing and self-determination. These negative effects disproportionately impact people who are already part of disadvantages communities, whether it be due to geography, poverty, age, disability and ethnicity; devastatingly, the groups in society who have typically contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions. Communities based in coastal or arctic areas, as well as arid land or other delicate communities are part of those who are most greatly effected.

Clearly, climate change is a human rights issue which will require international cooperation if humanity has any intention toward equality and survival. The 2015 Geneva Pledge for Human Rights in Climate Action is an indication of this- with over 30 signatories, countries who sign on pledge to facilitate the sharing of best practices and knowledge at a multi-national level. “International cooperation” on global warming looks like financial, technological and capacity building support to realize “low carbon, climate resilient and sustainable development, whilst also rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions”, reports the Human Rights Council. Ultimately, in order to ensure a rights based approach to climate change, we need to call for both accountability and transparency of all signatories the world over.

The Paris Agreement, facilitated by the United Nationals Framework Convention on Climate Change, was a decision made by all nations involved to prevent the overall global temperature from rising by 1.5 degrees Celsius or more. Other similar agreements have been made, wherein State’s have signed a commitment to obligations and responsibilities towards reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel contributions. The OHCHR submission, “Understanding Human Rights and Climate Change” created in November 2015, was intended to mitigate climate change and to prevent its negative human rights impacts.  It was developed in order to ensure international cooperation, and to “mobilize maximum available resources for sustainable, human rights based development”. Whilst all of these international conventions and frameworks have been integral in beginning a conversation to begin the combat of global warming, it is simply not enough. With science suggesting there is less than ten years remaining before the point of no return, there needs to be more tangible action on climate change at a global level- and fast.

The way to ensure a real difference to humanity’s impact on global warming, is through a series of commitments made by nations all over the world, with tangible accountability. States need not only commit to targets themselves, but call out others who are not holding up their end of the deal- all other economic deals aside. Aside from governments, other non-government organizations and individual businesses need also recognize the impact they are making to climate change, and seek to set their own targets for reduction. Although commercial businesses and industrial corporations are not as accountable to the public as the government, the development of an emissions reduction registry of sorts, where companies sign on to become accountable for their own reduction goals, would enable a sense of public understanding, as well as culpability. These deals also need to ensure they do not focus on emissions reduction alone- they also need to prioritize those at risk of having their human rights violated by climate change, and include these people in a process that both serves their needs and the needs of the earth.

An example of policy leading the way in emissions reduction is the Green New Deal, introduced into the US House of Representatives. Introduced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the deal aims towards “a new, sustainable economy that is environmentally sound, economically viable and socially responsible”, and aims to resolve issues of global warming by combining quick action to get to 100% renewable energy in the US by 2030, and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. These environmental goals goes hand in hand with a Bill of Rights which enshrine the right to access healthcare, guarantee of a job with a living wage, free college education and affordable housing. The deal ambitiously aims to simultaneously “revive the economy, turn the tide on climate change and make wars for oil obsolete”, reports the Guardian. With some of the world’s largest industrial polluting nations agreeing that a two degree rise in global surface temperature would have catastrophic results for the earth, it appears that the Green New Deal has a captive audience. It is estimated that the technology exists to achieve 100% clean energy by 2030- all that is needed now is the will and commitment of big businesses and the general public.

Although not all nations have Green New Deal legislation, what we need to see in the world today is the creation of a coalition of not only nation-states, but non-government organizations, businesses and individuals who come together to discover how they might be able to do what is within their means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ensure human rights are maintained in the process. The Climate Change Alliance in the United States is an example of an organization who are making local versions of the Green New Deal a reality within communities, centering on cultural knowledge and empowering rights holders in the process. Whilst passing legislation on emission reduction is of high priority, in order to create a legally enshrined global Green New Deal, there would need to be a facelift of many existing multilateral institutions. The United Nations conference on Trade and Development agrees, systems of accountability for reduction goals need to be implemented, with tangible consequences and sanctions for failure to comply. However, the world needs to act faster than the passage of legislation allows- before time runs out.

The general public of the world need to understand that they are in a position to demand change; there are already examples surfacing all over the world of people calling out governments for their lack of responsibility. In 2017 alone, there were more than 650 cases against authors over the world filed for environmental injustice. An example of this is the Columbian case of Pena and Others vs Government of Columbia, in which 25 young people sued the government for failing to honor its commitment to tackling climate change. In order to have a real impact on climate change before the looming deadline, global citizens need to ask their governments, businesses and other organizations to make commitments, and they must hold them accountable to this. But we cannot simply rely on government bodies, and wait for change to happen; we must also make our own reductions commitments and strive towards these; both for our rights and for the rights of others.