CLIMATE CHANGE AND HUMAN RIGHTS
By Jasmin Ansar and Roger Sparks, Jan 4, 2023Climate change and human rights are inextricably linked. Since the 1800s, humans have burned fossil fuels (mainly coal, oil, and gas) that release greenhouse gasses (GHG), such as carbon dioxide and methane, into the earth’s atmosphere. These gasses act as a chemical blanket that traps heat in the upper layers of the atmosphere, leading to global warming, shifts in weather patterns, rising sea levels, floods, severe storms, droughts, and wildfires. Already we see some of the adverse effects of climate change on human welfare: homes destroyed, lives lost, people displaced, crops damaged, and habitats ruined. These disasters are harbingers of an alarming future for humans if we continue burning fossil fuels.
Unchecked through time, increases in global average temperatures will lead to dramatic changes in weather patterns around the world with devastating impacts on the environment, biodiversity, and the welfare of all living creatures, particularly humans. If we do not do enough, these impacts will be extreme. It is essential for the health of the planet and all living creatures that we stem the accumulation of GHG in the atmosphere and move to a less polluting way of life.
If people alive today believe that future generations of humans have a right to “life, liberty, and security of person”, then the present generation has an obligation to act in ways that sustain a natural environment that preserves those rights. The human rights maxim that “everyone has the right to a safe and healthy environment and sustainable access to resources, such as land, shelter, food, water, and air” should apply with equal force to present and future generations of humans.
Future generations are not here yet. They have no voice, except through us, in making decisions today that will affect their welfare. They rely on us to make wise choices on their behalf and pass on to them an earth that will support their pursuit of happiness. This imperative has become even stronger of late. We now have a highly-developed scientific understanding of the effects of atmospheric GHG, and we have the technological know-how to reduce GHG emissions by shifting to renewable resources (e.g., solar, wind, and hydro), and other strategies. Further, we can make this shift without undo sacrifice to our own generation’s standard of living.
It has become abundantly clear that climate change has adverse effects on the health and welfare of many humans living today, particularly the most vulnerable. The current human cost of climate change is distributed unequally across the globe, with many low-income communities and people of color disproportionately affected. This inequality represents an acute inequity since these communities are not the prime consumers of fossil fuels and are not responsible for the vast majority of GHG accumulation in the atmosphere. Acknowledging this appalling historical injustice, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted Resolution 48/13 in October 2021. This was the first UN resolution to recognize the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right.
Those fighting to protect human rights by preserving the climate face many political obstacles, but progress is being made. On July 28, 2022, the HRC resolution was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and passed as Resolution A/76/L.75, which formally recognizes the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right. Importantly, the resolution extends the right to everyone on the planet. Advocates for protecting the earth and securing environmental justice now have an internationally recognized standard for the rights they are asserting. The resolution provides critically needed legitimacy and potential legal recourse for those defending these rights.
Another recent step in the right direction was taken at the November 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27). Attending countries agreed to establish a fund to provide “loss and damage” payments to vulnerable countries that bear the brunt of climate disasters. Most of these countries have minimal carbon footprints and they are much poorer and thus do not have the resources to deal with the devastating climate damages in their countries. The “loss and damage” payments will provide some reparations for this inequity. While these developments are welcome first steps, we should temper our enthusiasm, for these resolutions are “words” that have not yet been translated into “actions.” Therein lies the next big challenge for humanity in trying to protect human rights from being trampled by climate change: turning words into actions with outcomes that address the climate injustices and move us to a more sustainable way of life.
United Nations, What is Climate Change? https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/what-is-climate-change
The Stern Revies, The Economics of Climate Change, https://www.lse.ac.uk/granthaminstitute/publication/the-economics-of-climate-change-the-stern-review/
Fankhauser, S., Smith, S.M., Allen, M. et al.The meaning of net zero and how to get it right. Nat. Clim. Chang. 12, 15–21 (2022) https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-021-01245-w
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2022,https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg3/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGIII_SPM.pdf
https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Issues/ClimateChange/COP21.pdf takes you to Understanding Human Rights and Climate Change, Submission of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
Professor John Roemer, The Ethics of Climate Change. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvl7g4C7Uco
 Jasmin Ansar is the Senior Climate Researcher at The Climate Center in California. Roger Sparks is a Professor of Economics at Northeastern University and a board member of KHREF