Trends by Martin Khor
Monday, 27 February 2012
Human rights approach to climate change
UN Human Rights Council held a seminar last week to further clarify
how climate change affects human rights. The link between the two
issues is important to build a fair foundation for global action.
change is also a human rights issue, as indicated by the seminar organized
by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last week.
Bangladesh’s foreign minister Dr Dipu Moni described the devastation
caused by climate-linked disasters which threaten its people’s rights
to food, water, health and housing.
The Philippines is in an equally precarious situation. Its Commissioner
for Climate Change, Mary Lucille Sering, spoke of how many storms
and floods killed many hundreds of people last year and the country
has to spend or find US$8 billion to rebuild damaged areas and property.
The two-day meeting arose from a resolution of the Human Rights Council
last September reiterating concern on how climate change poses an
immediate threat to people and has adverse implications for the full
enjoyment of human rights. It called for a seminar to clarify the
A major question is how the interface between the climate issue and
human rights should be framed.
An attempt at this was made in my speech as part of the seminar’s
opening session, which used the following arguments.
Climate change is a complex and multidimensional crisis involving
environment, development and equity. It thus has to be addressed in
an integrated way, as a package.
The developing countries now take the climate issue seriously. Their
immediate need is to cope with climate-linked and natural disasters.
The number and severity of extreme weather events, such as heavy rainfall,
flooding, storms and hurricanes have risen in recent years, affecting
millions of people and causing damage worth hundreds of billions of
There is yet no adequate international system to assist countries
to cope with disasters when they happen and to help with rehabilitation
The developing countries have many difficulties and dilemmas. They
need to divert increasing resources to climate adaptation which includes
especially disaster preparedness and management, coping with extensive
damage, and reconstruction.
also need to deliver social and economic development, which is necessary
if their citizens are to realize their human rights to food, water,
health, and to development.
And they also need to contribute to the global mitigation effort,
by taking anti-emission measures such as conserving forests, phasing
in renewable energy and reforming industry and transport.
The developing countries face the dilemma of having to meet all these
competing needs and imperatives, while not having enough resources.
There is competition for scarce government funds, while private firms
need support if they are to switch successfully to low-emission production
Between 1850 and 2010, about 1,300 Giga-tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent
was emitted. Future emissions need to be limited to around 750 Gton
of emissions, if we are to have a reasonable chance of keeping global
temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. Or else a climate calamity
Since emissions are rising by 40 Gton a year, the carbon space in
the atmosphere will be used up within two decades, at the current
level and rate of growth of emissions.
In this critical situation, a human rights approach using climate
justice as a principle should recognize the following points.
First, the developed countries should take the lead because of historical
responsibility (they contributed most of the emissions in the atmosphere),
their higher income, and their technological capability.
They should therefore lead in mitigation efforts and also transfer
finance and technology in adequate amounts to the South, in line
with their commitments in the UN Climate Convention.
Second, the developing countries have to upgrade their efforts to
cope with effects of climate change through adaptation measures, disaster
management and post-disaster reconstruction.
They also have to strive for social and economic development, support
their people to meet their rights to food, housing and development,
and at the same time attempt to switch to a low-emission production
Thirdly, the developing countries will not be able to undertake their
multiple tasks by themselves. Concrete mechanisms need to be set
up for providing adequate funds and environmentally sound technology
to developing countries. The amounts needed run into many hundreds
of billions of dollars annually, according to estimates by the UN
and the World Bank.
Fourth, a global deal needs to be negotiated at the UN Climate Convention
that takes these multiple dimensions into account.
framework should be based on the Convention’s principle of environment
ambition to minimize climate change, and the principle of equity in
sharing the efforts to be made by countries and in supporting developing
countries through finance and technology.
As the market left to itself cannot solve the problem, both developed
and developing countries need to institute big changes in economic
policies, technology and lifestyles.
Such major changes require coordination and cooperation at the global
level, that are based on solidarity, equity, justice and respect for
If this orderly and fair transition does not take place, then there
will be drastic climate change which itself will bring about economic
and social changes that are chaotic, disorderly, and based on coercion
rather than cooperation.
In this nightmare world, each country and each person will fight only
for their own narrow interests, in a mad scramble for survival where
the rich and powerful have the advantage and the weak and poor will
be pushed aside.
Thus it is important that those involved in protecting human rights
join forces with those fighting for justice in climate change, so
that the first scenario of cooperation and solidarity wins over the
second scenario of climate chaos and the law of the jungle.