Human rights and climate wrongs

Sixty years ago today, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This Declaration has helped us combat torture, discrimination and hunger. And now, this venerable document should guide us in the fight against one of the greatest challenges ever to face humankind: climate change.

As representatives from around the world are sitting at the negotiating table for the UN Conference on Climate Change, poor people are already coping with the impacts of global warming. From increasing droughts to increasing floods, from lower agricultural productivity to more frequent and severe storms, many rightly fear that things will only get worse. Their human rights – to security, health, and sustainable livelihoods – are increasingly being threatened by changes to the earth’s climate.   

Indeed, the poorest who contributed the least to the problem of climate change are now bearing the brunt of the impacts.  Ninety-seven percent of all natural disaster-related deaths already take place in developing countries. In South Asia, the 17 million people who live on sandbanks in Bangladesh’s river basins could be homeless by 2030 as increasing Himalayan melt water floods their homes. In Niger, changing rainfall patterns are contributing to increased desertification which, for the Tuareg and Wodaabe people, has caused massive losses in livestock and food insecurity.  But as an important new report by the International Council on Human Rights Policy on the links between climate change and human rights makes clear, the negative impacts on people of changes in climate do not always involve horrific headlines and images of hurricanes, floods or refugee camps. More commonly, they will be cumulative and unspectacular. Those who are already poor and vulnerable are and will continue to be disproportionately affected. Incrementally, land will become too dry to till, crops will wither, rising sea levels will undermine coastal dwellings and spoil freshwater, livelihoods will vanish.  

Carbon emissions from industrialized countries have human and environmental consequences. As a result, global warming has already begun to affect the fulfillment of human rights, and to the extent that polluting greenhouse gases continue to be released by large industrial countries, the basic human rights of millions of the world’s poorest people to life, security, food, health and shelter will continue to be violated. A human rights lens reminds us that there are reasons beyond economics and enlightened self-interest for states to act on climate change.

The principles of human rights provide a strong foundation for policy making and these principles must be put at the heart of a global deal to tackle global climate change. Urgently cutting emissions must be done in order to respect and protect human rights from being violated by the future impacts of climate change, while supporting the poorest communities to adapt to already occurring climate impacts is the only remedy for those whose human rights have already been violated.

As we mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is worth remembering that climate change violates the Declaration’s affirmation that “everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which [their] rights and freedoms…can be realized.” We must now grasp the opportunity to create the kind of international order that the framers of the UDHR dreamed of – even in a radically changed global context they never imagined.

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