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Human rights and climate change: a fresh perspective

Climate change has been considered under many lenses – economic, geopolitical, diplomatic and developmental. However, human rights are rarely considered. Instead, they are a peripheral concern for the…

The threat to human rights should be a central focus of climate change action. Flickr/The World Wants a Real Deal

Climate change has been considered under many lenses – economic, geopolitical, diplomatic and developmental. However, human rights are rarely considered. Instead, they are a peripheral concern for the diplomats, researchers and policy-makers working in the climate change field. This is a major oversight.

Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its Fifth Assessment Report, recognised it is now beyond doubt that the global climate system is warming as a result of greenhouse gas emissions.

How is climate change affecting the basic right of people to sustain their livelihoods across the planet?

Climate change may bring sea level rise, increasing extreme weather such as flooding and drought, unpredictable seasons, the increasing spread of both water and vector borne diseases, greater water shortages and rising concerns over food security.

All of these gravely threaten people’s human rights: access to safe and adequate food and water, and the rights to information, justice, security, and culture.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, along with the eight international and legally-binding human rights conventions, protect human rights.

For instance, the right to livelihoods and subsistence is enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in Article 25, which states that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services”. This makes clear that people should not be deprived of their livelihood.

In 2008 the United Nations Human Rights Council said climate change “poses an immediate and far-reaching threat to people and communities around the world”. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner began a study of the relationship between human rights and climate change, and in 2009 a subsequent resolution was adopted, stipulating that “climate change-related impacts have a range of implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of human rights”.

Climate change’s threat to human rights is recognised, but this has not yet been translated into global or local policy.

At the Cancun Conference of the Parties (to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) in 2010, the final documents called on member countries to respect and uphold human rights in all climate change-related policies and decisions. At the most recent Conference of the Parties (in Doha in late 2012), no in-roads were made in utilising the sentiments and language from the Cancun Agreements. This was a missed opportunity.

The impacts of climate change are set to undermine the protection of human rights, especially in countries where there is a very real concern over their long-term viability and sustainability. The human rights to survival, self-determination, culture and nationality therefore becomes an appropriate lens by which to understand and respond to the impacts of climate change.

Australia is a signatory to the major international human rights conventions. As such, it is obliged to protect the human rights of all people. Climate change is a key threat to the enjoyment of many of these human rights.

If the government here in Australia was to take the human rights implications of climate change seriously they would act with urgency at international negotiations to cut global emissions and encourage other countries to follow suit. National mitigation targets would be bold and implemented. The government would provide more finance to allow developing counties to adapt to climate change, prepare for extreme weather events and switch to low-carbon technologies and economies.

Australia would also have to make some important changes to domestic law. While Australia might be a signatory to the major international human rights instruments, we have only enacted some human rights norms. A number of human rights have yet to be enshrined into domestic law – many of which are under threat from the impacts of climate change. To date, climate change work has been concentrated at the global level – global economy, global solutions and global frameworks, with a focus on technical, economic, environmental and developmental aspects. Human rights should be placed at the centre of international climate change policy and discussions.

The global community has a moral and legal obligation to uphold and protect human rights. With climate change set to undermine such rights across the planet, it is time that such principles and foundations for life are placed at the centre of international climate change policy, and elsewhere.