There Can Be No Climate Justice Without Human Rights

There Can Be No Climate Justice Without Human Rights

Ultimately, the big fight against climate change cannot be only about multilateral negotiations, technocratic interventions, climate finance, carbon markets or lifestyle changes alone. Under international human rights law, states have an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil human rights for all people

Shailendra YashwantUpdated: Monday, December 18, 2023, 01:46 AM IST
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There Can Be No Climate Justice Without Human Rights | Wikipedia

Last week, Sultan Al Jaber, the head of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and President of COP28, the annual UN climate conference in Dubai, UAE, was able to rally government ministers representing nearly 200 countries to agree to “transition away from fossil fuels” and begin “decarbonisation of national economies” at a pace suitable to their respective circumstances as soon as possible.

The official reaction to the outcome of COP28 , aka “UAE Consensus”, varies from “Wow, an oil company CEO signalled the end of fossil fuels” to “Damn, did we just get conned again?” So, for the German climate envoy, Jennifer Morgan, it was a “historic decision and an unmistakable signal”, while for Tina Stege, the climate envoy of the Marshall Islands, the so-called historic decision was “a litany of loopholes that did not advance us beyond the status quo”. Both are well-intentioned reactions; however, for the rich countries, it is about protecting and advancing their economies, while for the poor and developing nations, it is increasingly about survival.

These two sets of reactions reveal the enormous divide that defines the three-decade-old United Nations-led climate negotiations convened expressly to help the world solve and survive the climate change crisis. The consensus-driven process is so painstakingly slow that glaciers are melting faster than the ability of the countries to find the guts and gumption to agree and act quickly and fairly and not propagate the status quo. Outside of the small world of climate negotiations, the process is mostly treated with ridicule and outcomes dismissed as'salad of words’, ‘empty promises’ and ‘blind optimism” that have no bearing on the reality of the climate crisis.

Ironically, even as the gathering at COP28 celebrated the agreement on setting up a Loss and Damage Funding Facility, a deadly cyclone (Michaung) and a leaky oil facility (CPCL) — a classic case of cause (fossil fuel) combining with effect (climate change) — orchestrated yet another dance of destruction (oil spill) in Ennore, Tamil Nadu, in what may just be the final blow for the fishermen, the original residents, and the rich biodiversity of the creeks and shorelines around Chennai in India. The fishermen have been opposing the expansion of an ill-sited petrochemical industrial complex for decades now; they don’t need climate science explained to them as they try to survive the realities of climate change combined with the clear and present dangers of oil and gas.

The main criticism against the climate movement in general and the COP process specifically is that the climate crisis is framed as a problem that, while real and serious, is best handled through the careful and deliberate work of scientific, political and economic elites, an approach that has been adopted by governments, businesses, consultants and think tanks. However, for civil society, rights activists and community organisers, this approach neglects concerns about values, identity and culture, which are central to mass action and the social movement mobilisation needed to survive the multiple natural crises of our times.

It is also about finding a seat at the table for the voices from the frontlines of climate disasters to be heard, to infuse a sense of urgency, a reordering of priorities, and a redistribution of resources to give everyone alive one last fair chance. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) puts it succinctly: how vulnerable you are to the impacts of climate change depends on how poor you are, your status in society, and the legacies of colonialism.

Nearly half of the global population — between 3.3 and 3.6 billion people — live in areas highly vulnerable to climate change. Over 2 billion people — one-third of the global population — are poor or near-poor and face persistent threats to their livelihoods, including from climate change. Estimates indicate that by 2030, more than 100 million people could fall back into extreme poverty due to climate change, while over 200 million people could be displaced due to more frequent and severe climatic disasters.

Ultimately, the big fight against climate change cannot be only about multilateral negotiations, technocratic interventions, climate finance, carbon markets or lifestyle changes alone. Under international human rights law, states have an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil human rights for all people. This includes an obligation to protect people from foreseeable harm. The harms caused by climate change are not just foreseeable, they are ever present and overwhelming. Ask the fishing communities opposing the expansion of petrochemical complexes in their creeks and mangroves, find out about the struggles of villagers opposing coal mines in their forests and hills, and understand the fears of ancient tribes opposing dam-building in the mountains. Without human rights there can be no climate justice.

Shailendra Yashwant is an independent environmental photojournalist and climate communications consultant

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