HUMAN RIGHTS OBLIGATIONS TO TACKLE CLIMATE CHANGE

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Given that climate change is severely affecting the full enjoyment of most human rights, it is of utmost importance for governments to comply with their human rights obligations while embracing environmental and climate policies to achieve sustainable development. This does not only entail procedural, substantive and vulnerable groups obligations but most importantly the duty of international cooperation in order to enhance the nexus between human rights protection and climate change action.

 

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             Climate change’s implications for human rights

 Human survival crucially depends on the environment and the more the latter gets degraded, the more human flourishing is severely undermined. Not surprisingly, the deleterious effects of climate change have a direct impact on human beings’ ability to successfully meet their basic needs, thus impairing their broad enjoyment of human rights. This has been mostly recognised by the UN Human Rights Council which – in its Resolution 7/23 – expresses concern that “climate change poses an immediate and far-reaching threat to people and communities around the world and has implications for the full enjoyment of human rights”. Indeed, we cannot avoid addressing climate change if not from a human rights perspective.

More precisely, climate change firstly generates impacts on ecosystems and natural resources. The reduction in water supplies is already evident in the driest subtropical regions and it does not only imply a more intense competition for water among sectors (agriculture, ecosystems, human settlements, energy etc.) but also an increased frequency of droughts. The main drivers behind it are reduced rainfalls, higher temperatures, sea level rise, aspects which all lead also to the degradation of water resources. In addition, climate change is predicted to increase the extinction risk for many species, the tree death, the frequency of coastal flooding and the food insecurity. Indeed, while some regions have experienced a modest increase in productivity thanks to recent warming trends, changes in rainfall precipitation and the occurrence of extreme events have impacted food production. As a result, the right to water and sanitation, the right to health, the right to life, the right to food, the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to housing are severely affected.[1]

Secondly, climate change also entails consequences on physical infrastructures and human settlements in both urban and rural areas, affecting numerous economic sectors such as energy, transport, agriculture, fisheries, electricity systems and tourism. By doing so, it will have severe implications on human health, livelihoods, incomes and migration patterns, thus undermining the enjoyment of the above-mentioned rights.

Thirdly, by directly affecting peoples’ livelihoods through the destruction of natural resources, climate hazards can indirectly exacerbate other stressors such as household-level disturbances, political instability and violent conflict, thus perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty, deprivation and inequality. Furthermore, it also causes negative health effects and a greater risk of injury, under-nutrition and vector-borne diseases (ex. malaria). Overall, all these impacts demonstrate that climate change can threaten human security, compromise cultural identity and increase displacement. Indeed, beyond the already outlined rights, it also affects the right to nationality, the right to mobility, the right to development and the right to self-determination.

 Human rights obligations relating to climate change

Given the potential side-effects of adaptation and mitigation measures to amplify existing imbalances and injustices primarily exacerbated by climate change, it is of utmost importance for governments to integrate human rights considerations while embracing environmental and climate policies to achieve sustainable development. For these programmes to be consistent with the human rights system, states have to comply with their human rights obligations stemming from the international treaties they have ratified. However, there is growing consensus that most of the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights do represent customary international law and are, therefore, binding on all states regardless of their treaty ratification.

To begin with, the human rights obligations relating to climate change firstly stem from states’ obligations to protect the enjoyment of human rights from environmental harm and they apply also to the mitigation and adaptation measures. Specifically, since climate change represents an environmental harm which is at odds with human rights provisions, governments shall comply with their procedural, substantive and vulnerable groups-related obligations even in this context.[2]

With regards to the procedural obligations, states are already complying with their duty to assess and provide information about climate change mostly through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its expert assessments on climate change, the vulnerability of socioeconomic and natural systems, and options for mitigation and adaptation measures. Moreover, states are required to facilitate informed public participation in decision-making related to climate policies, thus not only protecting people against human rights abuses but also promoting development policies which are more sustainable. This implies that the rights of freedom of expression and association must be safeguarded also for those individuals who oppose projects designed to mitigate or adapt to climate change. Most importantly, states should provide effective remedies for human rights violations arising from climate-related actions by, for example, providing monetary compensation for violations of the right of free expression in connection with climate-related projects.[3]

Secondly, states have to adopt a legal and institutional framework to protect against, and respond to, climate change’s adverse impacts which may interfere with the enjoyment of human rights. This is true regardless of whether the state has contributed to those effects since it has the overall obligation to protect human rights from harms caused by third parties. This implies (1) adaptation obligations to protect people against climate change effects (ex. through early-warning systems and risk notification), (2) mitigation obligations to regulate the sources of GHG emissions (ex. many UN independent experts consider that to protect human rights it is necessary to keep global warming below 2°C), (3) international cooperation obligations (ex. to participate in international negotiations for global climate agreements that do not adversely affect human rights or to fund adaptation measures in vulnerable countries), (4) transboundary mitigation obligations to mitigate the effect of their activities on the human rights of people outside their jurisdiction (“no harm” rule), (5) the obligation to ensure that mitigation and adaptation measures do not contribute to human rights violations (ex. hampering biofuels projects’ impacts on food security).[4]       

Thirdly, states have obligations to take actions to protect certain vulnerable groups (such as women, children and indigenous people) who most suffer from climate change’s effects (applying the principle of non-discrimination). It entails that, procedurally speaking, states should ensure that the most vulnerable and marginalized ones are informed about the effects of climate actions, that they are able to take part in decision-making and that they have access to remedies for violations of their rights. In addition, substantively speaking, states should protect the most vulnerable while both adopting and implementing climate-response actions, such as adaptation and mitigation measures.

Overall, it is worth stressing that while those environmental harms whose causes and effects are within the jurisdiction of one state have to be addressed by that state, climate change is quite impossible to be addressed if not through international action. Indeed, given the impossibility to disentangle the complex causal relationship linking emissions from a particular country to a specific effect, states currently address climate change as a global problem which requires a global response and thus international cooperation. This approach firstly emerged from the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1998 and it is strongly in line with the UN Charter art.56 whereby “all Members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in co-operation with the Organization for the achievement of the purposes set forth in article 55”, which is to promote “the universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all”. As a proof, it is only through the concrete implementation of the landmark international climate agreements, as the most recent 2015 Paris Agreement, that the nexus between human rights protection and climate action can be strengthened.

Notes

[1] UNEP (2015), Climate Change and Human Rights, UNON, Nairobi

[2] OHCHR (2009), Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Relationship Between Climate Change and Human Rights, A/HRC/10/61 

[3] Knox J. (2016), Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Issue of Human Rights Obligations Relating to the Enjoyment of a Safe, Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment, A/HRC/31/52

[4] UNEP (2015), Climate Change and Human Rights, UNON, Nairobi

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