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Human rights and the climate crisis: an urgent call for action

If a change in climate conditions mean that humans can no longer live in a particular area or even on this planet, then something has to change. The impact of global warming is already causing a steady deterioration to living conditions which is impacting the human rights of some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. 

Climate change has a knock on effect. Excesses of heat and then moisture have given rise to successive locust plagues destroying crops in Eastern Africa, India and parts of the Middle East. Record temperatures in the Americas, Europe and Australia are causing heat stroke deaths and catastrophic fires, while energy use spikes as those that have air conditioners have to use them constantly. Mass droughts in Colombia, floods and landslides causing displacement in Vietnam, and a lack of access to traditional food sources in Canada for Indigenous people are just a few of the recent climate related problems. 

In depth research, articles and reports are being published yearly, documenting concerning developments in the climate, it is alarming, yet unsurprising that global governments are doing very little to target this generation’s greatest concern. As a result, human rights law is becoming an increasingly popular approach to hold companies and governments accountable for their climate failures.

Ecocide – working towards a definition

An expert team of international lawyers has recently revealed a new legal definition; “ecocide”, which they are hoping will be adopted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). 

The lawyers explained ecocide as:

unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts”

If adopted, ecocide would then stand among genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression as acts that can be prosecuted at the ICC. 

The global use of the term ecocide would finally allow world leaders and corporations to be prosecuted for the destruction of the world’s ecosystems as well as deter future environmental negligence. The lawyers hope for the ICC to endorse the new legal term which would be a landmark moment in the fight for environmental accountability. 

To allow for the global prosecution of those who commit ecocide, any of the ICC’s 123 member states can suggest it as an amendment to their court’s charter, also known as the Rome Statute. If the court’s annual assembly decides to pass the amendment, member states must have a two-thirds majority to adopt the draft law before it can be ratified and enforced in each member’s own national jurisdiction. A cohesive and legally applicable definition has been long overdue yet it is a vital step in building the basis of global environmental accountability. 

Global and human rights impacts

UN independent human rights experts have long called on the UN to formally recognise that being able to live in a reasonable climate that allows for a healthy life is considered a basic human right. On 21 June 2021, over 200 civil society and Indigenous Peoples groups sent a letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council, calling on them to set up a new mandate for a Special Rapporteur on human rights and climate change. The environment must be sustainable for human life to be sustainable. Research has shown that the environmental crisis causes over nine million premature deaths every year, therefore experts believe that “the UN can be a catalyst for ambitious action by recognising that everyone, everywhere, has the right to live in a healthy environment”.

António Guterres, UN secretary-general has commented on the current climate situation: 

“Our degradation of the natural world is destroying the very food, water and resources needed to survive, and already undermining the well-being of 3.2 billion people – or 40 percent of humanity.” 

He went on to say: 

“Overfishing is causing an annual loss of almost $90 billion in net benefits – which also heightens the vulnerability of women, who are vital to the survival of small-scale fishing businesses.”

This raises an important distinction between who is most affected by climate change. While it is a global issue impacting every single person on earth, there are vulnerable groups who are suffering disproportionately. Those born in less wealthy countries, those that cannot move easily to places that will provide them with better protection, those whose businesses rely on work along coastal regions or the irrigation of farmland are examples of such groups. These are professions heavily reliant on the climate, which is becoming increasingly unpredictable, leaving these groups with the prospects of an unstable life, with very few alternatives.

Having safe drinking water, shelter, a liveable climate, the possibility to grow crops and cultivate the land are basic human rights under threat, and these are issues which will only continue to be exacerbated over time. 

Steve Trent of the Environmental Justice Foundation, commented that climate change, 

“…is the unpredictable ingredient that, when added to existing social, economic, and political tensions, has the potential to ignite violence and conflict with disastrous consequences”. 

Economic impact

Yet, even those countries that have managed to evade their environmental responsibility so far will experience economic suffering due to climate change. According to climate research, the economies of richer countries will shrink twice as much as they did during the COVID-19 crisis if they continue to fail in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. Research carried out by Oxfam and the Swiss Re Institute revealed that the G7 countries: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, will lose 8.5% of GDP per year within 30 years if the temperature rises even by 2.6 degrees Celsius.

Projections based on the UK’s current climate policies state that the UK economy will lose 6.5% per year by 2050. If the goals of the Paris climate agreement are met, this number would shrink to a 2.4% loss. However, the potential 2.6 degrees Celsius rise in temperature would affect Australia, South Korea, and India much more drastically. Australia would have a loss of 12.5% of output, South Korea would almost lose a tenth of its economic potential, and India’s economy would shrink by a quarter. The human impacts of a shrinking economy are already prevalent. It is clear to see how such drastic losses in the economies of major world powers would have significant impacts on the living standards of its citizens.

Climate refugees

The issue of migration and conflict is already prevalent in current politics, and when combining it with the struggle for land and occupation, it becomes evident that climate change will create a further rift between those that live in a country in which they can escape their environmental responsibility and those who do not.

There has already been a rising number of people displaced as a result of climate change. So-called ‘climate refugees’ have had to resettle in Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, due to the rising sea level. Research has shown that in Africa, Asia and Latin America, temporary and permanent migration is already being used as a form of risk management related to the variability of rainfall as well as food insecurity; both side effects of climate change. And while most climate related migration currently remains within national borders, this is likely to escalate in the future. 

In fact, experts have predicted that the number of refugees migrating within the European Union will triple by the end of the century as a result of climate-related migration. A report published by the World Bank Group in 2018 estimated that the climate impacts on sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and South Asia are likely to result in the displacement of over 140 million people before 2050.

So far, a reasonable solution has not been found to alleviate the issues of climate refugees. Recommendations often support an occupational transition towards sectors that are not climate dependent. While it is possible to set up schemes that prioritise education and vocational training for those whose work is impacted by climate change, these are not permanent solutions. States cannot wait for the moment climate related migration starts, to attempt to solve it; preparations must start now. The first step towards this would be to formally give climate-displaced people a refugee status.

Attempted progress

The fight to alleviate problems caused by global warming is not an equal one because there is no equal responsibility. The richest G20 countries account for almost 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions and only 7 have submitted targets to the UN aiming to reduce those emissions by 2030. Targets set up by countries are insufficient to keep the temperature increase below 1.5 degrees. 

The G7 countries recently met in Cornwall to discuss their climate targets, and once again have failed to channel $100bn a year to poor nations coping with an increasing climate, a promise that has been made several times over. The meeting finalised an agreement to protect 30% of land and oceans by 2030, as well as a promise that the G7 countries would commit to achieving net zero carbon emissions by no later than 2050, and to halve their collective emissions by 2030.

Furthermore, an offer of up to $2bn a year was made to help emerging economies to turn away from coal. This is an important step because it is impossible to save the environment without global cooperation. It must be a worldwide approach for significant changes to be made. Yet the targets made at the G7 summit leave much to be desired, and many activists have criticised the targets for not doing enough. Chiara Liguori, Amnesty International’s Human Rights and Environment Policy Advisor, commented on the targets: 

“The unambitious climate plans submitted by G7 members represent a violation of the human rights of billions of people. These are not administrative failures, they are a devastating, mass-scale assault on human rights,”.

It is difficult not to agree; the protection of the planet requires swift and major change, not gradual improvements. Those countries that have contributed most to climate change in terms of using fossil fuels, burning greenhouse gasses, and deforestation, are the ones that must take a stronger stance to protect the environment. 

By continuing to gently dance around the problem, members of the G7 are actively choosing death and displacement. There is no time to be cautious around this issue. There are too many occasions where governments choose temporary economic growth over basic human rights and the future of the planet. Chiara Liguori put it best when she stated: “We can have human rights or fossil fuels – we can’t have both”.

Protecting the environment is in our own self interest, and is the only way to prevent future generations from suffering from the consequences of our actions. And while it is vital to continue to decarbonise the economy and to protect our oceans and forests, governments must pay attention to the human impacts of climate change. Alongside climate policies they must reduce poverty and prioritise sustainability when improving housing and the labour market. Most importantly, change and innovation must happen now. Governments can no longer rely on future developments to solve a current issue that will leave us with no future at all.


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