The climate crisis is destroying the human rights of those least responsible for it
The UN must urgently appoint a special rapporteur on climate change and human rights to galvanise action on the biggest threat to fundamental freedoms
Last modified on Thu 30 Sep 2021 07.21 EDT
Climate breakdown is making a mockery of human rights.
Start with the most fundamental right of all: the right to life, liberty and security. Two million people have died as a result of a five-fold increase in weather-related disasters in our lifetimes. And given that 90% of these deaths have occurred in developing countries, which have contributed the least to global heating, the climate crisis is also making a mockery of the notion that we are all born equal – as the UN Declaration of Human Rights and numerous national constitutions assert.
Next, consider other fundamental freedoms, such as the right to work, to an education, to own property. These too are being undermined by the climate emergency. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, estimates that 21.5 million people are displaced by climate change-related disasters every year – more than twice the number of those forced to flee conflict or violence.
Rights that most of us take for granted – the right to nationhood, for example – could soon be denied to citizens of island nations if rising sea levels continue unchecked.
The climate crisis is setting back the clock on human progress. More than 2 billion people live in countries with high exposure to climate-related hazards. Their capacity to recover when disaster strikes is limited. And when those affected are refugees and displaced populations, the impact is simply heartbreaking. When flooding and landslides struck the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh this summer, thousands of people relived the nightmare of losing everything and being displaced yet again.
We believe it’s time to train the spotlight on the impact our climate emergency is having on human rights. It may sound obvious, but it is not happening.
Take the reality of climate refugees. At present, neither they nor environmental migrants nor environmentally displaced people are recognised by the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. They are not entitled to even the minimum protection accorded under international human rights law. This must change.
Consider also the rights of younger generations who will come of age during the current climate emergency, and the rights of those who have yet to be born. As Greta Thunberg reminds us, should they be denied their fundamental human rights because of our failure to act on climate breakdown?
The rights of climate refugees, of young people and of future generations are now being tested through the courts. Climate litigation is increasing. At the last count, there were more than 1,800 cases outstanding in dozens of countries around the world, rich and poor.
The supreme court of the Netherlands has mandated emissions cuts on both the government and Royal Dutch Shell. Families from the EU, Kenya and Fiji are taking the European parliament and the Council of the EU to court in an attempt to enforce more ambitious climate-change mitigation targets. In Pakistan, the supreme court has upheld the right of Punjab to protect its water-stressed areas against further industrial development, specifically citing climate change and the rights of unborn generations in its ruling.
“The tragedy is that tomorrow’s generations aren’t here to challenge this pillaging of their inheritance. This court should be mindful that its decisions also adjudicate upon the rights of the future generations of this country,” Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah said in his summing up.
But lawsuits are a slow and piecemeal way of enforcing human rights. More importantly, they don’t work in countries with weak legal systems or where human rights are not respected.
We will not win the battle against the climate emergency one lawsuit at a time.
This is just one of the reasons why the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), a group of 48 nations on the frontlines of climate breakdown, which is supported by the Global Center on Adaptation, has been backing a motion for a new UN special rapporteur on climate change and human rights since 2019. We are asking the UN Human Rights Council, whose mission it is to protect human rights, to create this new position.
Only this month, Michelle Bachelet, a former President of Chile and current head of the Human Rights Council, called the “triple planetary crises” of climate change, pollution and nature loss “the greatest challenge to human rights of our era.”
We agree, and it is why we believe climate threats to human rights deserve a higher priority within the UN.
The new special rapporteur would have a mandate to protect people from the worst impacts of the climate crisis. He or she will have their work cut out. Sea levels are rising, sea ice is retreating, glaciers are melting and rainfall patterns have become more unpredictable. Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and more intense. The UNHCR predicts that the number of climate refugees and displaced people could reach 200 million a year by 2050 – nearly double the number today.
The special rapporteur will have a duty to witness the impact of climate breakdown on human rights first-hand, visiting countries affected by climate disasters and galvanizing action across the family of UN organizations and the wider public sphere.
There is no time to lose. The longer we delay action to support people who are vulnerable to climate breakdown, the worse the consequences are likely to be, making responses even more complex and costly.
The UN’s top scientists warned in August that even if we were to succeed in reining in emissions, we still face many decades of climate disruption because of the greenhouse gases that are already trapped in the atmosphere.
This decision to appoint a UN special envoy on climate and human rights is long overdue. The UN Human Rights Council, currently in session, could take this decision now. This is precisely what the CVF has called for in its manifesto for Cop26. By doing so, the Council would demonstrate that UN bodies can take decisive climate measures, a much-needed positive impulse for the Glasgow summit on which our planet’s fate hinges. That move is also the international community’s strongest signal it is prepared to staunch the climate emergency’s hemorrhaging of human rights. We sincerely hope it will.
Patrick Verkooijen is CEO of the Global Center on Adaptation, AK Abdul Momen is the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh that is presiding the Climate Vulnerable Forum