Climate Change: A Human Rights Issue

Climate Change is the most pressing issue of the 21stcentury and is at the epicentre of humanity’s concerns for the future as we face environmental crises on an unprecedented and alarming scale. Climate Change or the deleterious malformation of our Earth’s natural weather patterns pose intersectional challenges to the quality of human life and the prospect of peace and prosperity for future generations. Rising sea levels by over 19 cm in the last 10 years, the warming of oceans and melting ice-caps are but a few alarming environmental changes that are symptomatic of industrialization, deforestation, agri-business and increasing levels of greenhouse gases emitted by an ever-expanding world population.

Set up by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) produced by the burning of fossil fuels is a key instigator of the alarming impacts of climate change. Despite occurring naturally, the artificial acceleration of  GHGs to the highest recorded levels in 3 million years, is wreaking havoc on natural climate processes by trapping carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and driving up global temperatures. A temperature rise of 2°C would have a series of calamitous domino effects on other essential environmental systems on which we depend.  The IPCC’s 2013 findings in its Fifth Assessment Report were resolute that climate change is a real threat to human life caused by our unsustainable growth and consumption patterns.

This alarming evidence leads to a disconcerting reality. There is a threshold in which the deterioration of crucial ecosystems and climate patterns are irrecoverable and in which the effects will transcend and most likely compound for future generations.

As a response to the concerning findings and mounting scientific evidence of climate-related environmental dilapidation, the international community has turned to international law and cooperation to foster cumulative efforts to prevent a climate warming of more than 1.5°C. International cooperation has appeared in a variety of environmentally-focused instruments including the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 1995 Kyoto Protocol. Aimed to prevent dangerous human intervention in climate systems and to pursue binding emission reduction targets, the conventions were positive steps toward collective climate preservation. As of September this year, the Climate Summit is set to re-instigate collaborative discussion and negotiation between the private sector and civil society to increase and accelerate climate change commitments and the sequential execution of these targets.

Although the Summit is the most systematic attempt to address the largest obstacle to greenhouse gas reduction targets, heavy industry, there remains a legacy of hesitation or outright rejection of climate change concerns. Few countries, including Australia, make high confidence claims in their level of ambition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some of the largest greenhouse gas emitters, like the U.S., have in fact launched attacks on climate change advocates as ‘alarmists’. As of March this year, Trump rolled back environmental regulations, pulled out of the Paris climate accord and refused to sign a communiqué to prevent further melting in the Arctic if the agreement referenced ‘climate change’.

Historically, governments have approached climate issues ecologically and sporadically. More recently the government and collective action to address climate change have been more economically driven. Although this approach intends to promote sustainable growth without compromising levels of affluence, it fails to appreciate the urgency of climate degradation and prioritize the intersectional issues that will be exacerbated by diminishing resources, forced land migration and rising temperatures. An alternative method to promote a more urgent and systematic approach by governments to the effects of climate change would need to encompass the human rights dimension of climate change. This new approach would need to appreciate the necessity of drastic adaptive action to mitigate not only irreversible climate deterioration but protect inherent human rights including the right to life, right to adequate food, right to water, and human security.

A human rights-based approach would be a tripartite and practical adoption of legislative commitments to address climate change based on the maintenance of equitable access and exercise of basic human rights for all global citizens. Firstly,  Climate Change needs to be re-calibrated in international law as a Human Rights Issue. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) affirms individual rights and although not legally binding holds firm legitimacy in the international community. Climate Change, although positioned as an ecological or economic concern, has both direct and indirect impacts on the quality of human life. Either felt immediately or gradually, it is inarguable that limited access to sanitation and clean water after a catastrophic natural event or gradual deterioration of climate conditions would threaten individual’s access to water, shelter, and safety. As such, reformulating and repositioning climate change as a threat to the maintenance of basic human rights endowed in the UDHR, such as Article 3 ‘everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person’, is a primary and crucial step in focusing the government’s commitment to climate change goals as a central priority.

Although human rights instruments such as the UDHR impose obligations upon signatories it is critical that such obligations are ratified. Thus, the second component of a human rights-based approach to climate change would have to centre on a National Reflection of International Commitments. In this way, Australia would have to respect, protect and fulfil human rights obligations through climate conscientiousness domestic legislation.

One of the aridest continents in the world, Australia is but one of many countries that are highly vulnerable to water scarcity and coastal erosion from rising sea levels. What is more concerning is that the negative effects of climate change come bound up with a series of equity issues since its impacts will be felt more intensely by communities living in vulnerable locations. By re-calibrating climate change policy as centred on equality and equity, Australia would be required to take meaningful environmental steps to benefit the Australian community as a whole. These humanitarian and environmentalist policies could manifest in the purposeful construction of more resilient housing, improved disaster planning and sustainable methods of energy production.

The third element of a human rights-based approach to climate change would involve Comprehensive Overseas Adaptive Support. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu points out, the current ‘special’ and limited initiatives to foster ‘environmental projects’ in developing economies have done little to ameliorate a pattern of ‘adaptation apartheid’ whereby the world’s disadvantaged risk bearing the brunt of the environmental costs created by the world’s wealthy. A focus on overseas adaptation would not only seek greater equality with a focus on human rights but would also limit threats to human security posed by climate change. As found by the Fragile States Index, climate change’s stresses on natural resources can degrade a nation’s capacity to govern and claim legitimacy. In this way, climate change crises can easily manifest into geopolitical conflicts over scarce resources and human rights threats as proven by conflicts in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Currently, Australia contributes $7.5 million to developing economies for climate change purposes as part of its commitments in the UNFCCC. However, to systematically limit the possibility of climate-related political extremism accelerating into global security threats, Australia and its Western partners need to adopt poverty reduction strategies to improve the quality of life of global citizens. The long-term, collaborative environmental sponsorship strategies would encourage methods of ‘sustainable catch up’ rather than the current pattern of fossil-fuelled modernization which exacerbates cumulative global GHG levels and aggravates resource wars.

By humanizing the Climate issue, a human rights-based approach to climate change would concentrate on inclusion and equality. Thus, government policy would not only need to focus on transparency to improve the effectiveness of collaborative effort but would also hold greater accountability to their human rights and environmental commitments. Through re-identifying Climate Change as a Human Rights Issue, fostering a National Reflection of International Commitments and promoting Comprehensive Overseas Adaptive Support, a humanitarian approach to climate degradation provides sustainable methods of growth and global cooperation to secure the quality of life for global citizens and the future prospects for coming generations.

Abbey Dorian
Latest posts by Abbey Dorian (see all)