Climate Change and Human Rights


Climate change has been increasingly in focus in the
national policy agenda with the establishment of a number of government
departments at both the State and Federal level mandated to respond to climate
change. Despite these advances, climate change continues to be viewed primarily
through an ecological or economic lens, with the social and human rights
implications of climate change receiving little recognition.

Yet the human costs of climate change directly threaten internationally
accepted human rights: rights to life, to food, to a place to live and work. As
Kyung-wha Kang, the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated:

Global warming
and extreme weather conditions may have calamitous consequences for the human
rights of millions of people…ultimately climate change may affect the very
right to life of various individuals…[countries] have an obligation to prevent
and address some of the direst consequences that climate change may reap on
human rights. (1)

Indigenous communities in Australia are also significantly
affected by climate change, due to their close relationship with the
environment. Friends
of the Earth International
have predicted that northern Aboriginal
communities will bear the brunt of climate change, with more than 100,000
people facing serious health risks from malaria, dengue fever and heat stress,
as well as loss of food sources from floods, drought and more intense

Climate change and human rights are further intertwined because
of the potential of climate change to exacerbate existing threats to human rights.
The impact of climate change is that it increases
people’s vulnerability to poverty and social deprivation. Populations whose
rights are poorly protected are likely to be less equipped to adapt to climate
change effects.

These consequences mandate a response. Recognising this,
governments have been providing support for affected communities to adapt to
the impact of changing conditions. In one sense, adaptation measures are
already focused on protecting human rights, even if they are rarely articulated
in such terms. For example:

  • Ensuring that homes are resistant to extreme weather
    conditions protects the right to life;
  • Offering alternative water access when climate change has
    limited supply protects the right to water;
  • Offering health-related information and education and
    providing proper sanitation protects the right to health.

However, adaptation
measures themselves can have a detrimental impact on human rights and exacerbate
already existing social inequity. At the Equity
in Response to Climate Change Roundtable 2007
, Australia’s
peak environment and welfare groups highlighted that low-income and
disadvantaged people will not only be at the forefront of climate change
impacts, but also may be disproportionately affected by the adaptation measures
designed to minimise the risks associated with climate change. For example,
shifting energy sources to low carbon alternatives is likely to increase the use
of minimum energy performance standards for electrical appliances, cars and
buildings. Pricing carbon into energy means unit costs will rise. The most disadvantaged will struggle to
live with increased costs.

The challenge in the
climate change debate, therefore, is to find a way to equitably distribute
responsibilities and rights. What, then (if anything) does human rights
discourse offer governments when developing appropriate responses to the
impacts of climate change? This is a question that the Australian Human Rights
and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) considered in its Background Paper Human Rights
and Climate Change
. And the answer, it appears, is a lot.

In essence, a human
rights-based approach to climate change refocuses and re-centres the debate on
individuals and communities. By viewing climate change through a human rights
lens, the question is framed in different terms. Interpreting scientific
predictions become a matter of asking who: who
is likely to suffer what and why?

Image: Thomas Hawk

By focusing on
individuals as rights-holders, a human rights-based response places responsibility
on governments to allow participation and input from affected members of
society into the development of climate change policies. This means making
specific channels available for the participation of the poorest and most
marginalised groups in the community, with sensitivity to social and cultural
context. At a procedural level, this approach requires transparent and
decision-making, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.
For example, if it was necessary to forcibly relocate communities in
disaster or flood-prone areas, a human rights-based approach to such a policy would
require a thorough and proper consultation with the affected communities to ensure
that its impact was proportionate.

Beyond these procedural benefits, a human rights-based
approach would also guide policy makers on the substantive elements of
adaptation measures, by providing
core minimum human rights standards that guide decision-makers when weighing
competing demands on limited resources. The general comments of the United Nations
human rights treaty bodies are relevant here. To take one example, in
accordance with General
Comment 15
of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the
relocation of a community would have to ensure that the minimum requirement of
fresh water (currently calculated by the World Health Organisation at 7.5
litres per day) would be available to every adult and child. That water must be
physically and financially accessible to all, without discrimination on the
grounds of sex, age, or economic or social standing, and without threatening
personal security when the water is obtained.

The HREOC paper identifies
areas where a human rights-based approach can make a positive contribution to the
development of climate change responses. Specifically, it looks at domestic
adaptation measures, aid for overseas adaptation and disaster management. It
also examines what a human rights based approach to ‘climate change refugees’
would look like. Without providing immediate answers, the paper aims to provide
the tools for advancing policy in these areas as those policies evolve.

(1) Laura MacInnis ‘Climate change threatens human rights of
millions: UN.’ Reuters, 19 February 2008.


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