New old publication: Human Rights in a Changing Climate

FIAN International has now published the English translation of a report by me and others that was originally published by FIAN Germany in 2009. The report analyses the impacts of climate change on the implementation of human rights, particularly the rights to food and water, and examines what states’ obligations arise out of international climate change and human rights treaties, in order to determine what states’ national and international human rights obligations are with regard to climate policy.

So what on Earth does climate change have to do with human rights? What many people do not know is that human rights are not only about freedom of speech and such but also about things like access to food, water, sanitation, housing, education etc. These are all laid down as human rights in the United Nations General Assembly’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and in more detail in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) of 1966.

Human rights impose three basic layers of obligations on governments:

  • The obligation to respect, requiring States to refrain from undertaking measures which curtail the enjoyment of human rights, such as violent evictions.
  • The obligation to protect, requiring States to prevent other actors such as corporations and individuals from abusing human rights.
  • The obligation to fulfil, requiring States to take positive action to achieve the full realization of human rights. For instance, States have a duty to facilitate people’s access to water and livelihood resources. If an individual or a group of people is not able to realize their rights to adequate food and water due to causes beyond their control the State is obliged to take immediate action to correct the situation.
Further human rights obligations of States include, among other things:
  • The obligation to make every effort to the maximum of available resources, either individually or through collaboration with other States, to achieve the full realization of the rights recognized in the ICESCR.
  • The obligation to act promptly and expeditiously, using available resources efficiently, in undertaking specific and purposeful measures to ensure the enjoyment of human rights.
  • The obligation to guarantee, regardless of the extent of available resources, that the rights to food and water can be exercised without discrimination, i.e. prohibition of discrimination. In addition, special consideration must be given to the needs of the vulnerable and disadvantaged.
  • The obligation to guarantee access to at least minimum levels of food and water to all people under State jurisdiction.
  • The obligation to facilitate participation in the political decision-making process of those people whose rights are affected by the adopted policies.

Climate change is caused by human activities and poses substantial challenges for the realization of economic, social and cultural human rights, such as the human rights to food and water. The predominantly negative impacts of climate change on global crop yields and the availability of potable water are already visible and the situation will deteriorate further in the future. Climate change is therefore a human rights issue.

This linkage has been recognised in resolutions adopted by the UN Human Rights Council as well as in the decisions taken at the Cancún climate conference in December 2010. The Cancún Agreements recognise that “the adverse effects of climate change have a range of direct and indirect implications for the effective enjoyment of human rights” and emphasise that “Parties should, in all climate change-related actions, fully respect human rights.” However, the Cancún Agreements do not spell out what this is supposed to mean.

The report argues that there are four basic interlinkages between climate change and human rights:

  • States are obliged to promptly undertake measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so as to prevent further negative impacts of climate change on human rights. In addition, international human rights law requires States to focus on those who are most vulnerable to human rights abuses. Thus, international climate change law must mandate and realize emission reductions of a magnitude that is adequate to protect the rights of those who are most vulnerable, such as the inhabitants of small island states. This means that climate policy should guarantee the future existence of small island states in order to facilitate the full enjoyment of human rights of their inhabitants. According to the current state of climate science this means that global temperature increase should not exceed 1.5°C. To achieve this, global emissions would have to peak in the next few years and then be reduced to the extent that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are stabilized below 350 ppm.
  • The need for drastic emission reductions prompts fundamental questions about distributive justice, given that hundreds of millions of people in developing countries are still affected by hunger, poverty and lack of access to proper sanitation – i.e. their human rights are not being realized. Although it is unlikely that their basic needs, and hence their human rights, can be fulfilled without an expansion of their energy consumption, it is unsustainable to satisfy their growing energy demand by using fossil energy sources. It is therefore essential for developing countries to shift to a low-carbon development pathway. Most States in the Global South will not be able to achieve this by themselves. According to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities stipulated in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and to the obligation to co-operate internationally recognized in the ICESCR it is the duty of industrialized countries to take the lead in the reduction of emissions, as well as to assist developing countries to reduce their emissions through financial assistance and the transfer of low-carbon technologies.
  • The specific mechanisms and measures to reduce emissions must also be compatible with human rights. In accordance with their obligation to respect and protect, States must ensure that measures such as the expansion of agro-fuels, the construction of dams or the utilization of forests as carbon stores do not curtail or infringe the enjoyment of human rights of people both within and beyond their national territories. Measures to protect the environment must not deprive people of their means of existence; rather they must recognize and respect the rights of indigenous people and local communities to land and other resources. When affected by such measures, these groups should be fully and effectively involved in all levels of decision-making.
  • In addition to minimizing the impacts of climate change, States must protect people living on their territories from the impacts that cannot be avoided and ensure the realization of minimum essential levels of the rights recognized in the ICESCR. Each State must therefore conduct studies on the regional impacts of climate change and take appropriate measures to tackle these impacts, with special attention to the most vulnerable segments of the population. Furthermore, States are obliged to ensure access to information on short-term and long-term climatic changes to all people through measures including the establishment of an early-warning system, and facilitate the participation of citizens in the formulation of adaptation measures. Given the severe impacts of climate change on many developing countries, and the fact that the costs of adaptation greatly exceed their financial means, they depend on international co-operation to fulfil their human rights obligations. Here as well the ICESCR’s obligation to international co-operation and the UNFCCC’s principle of common but differentiated responsibilities obliges industrialized countries to help developing countries protect their citizens from the impacts of climate change.
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