Global warming and climate change present humankind with one of the greatest challenges in the history of our species. While there is now broad acknowledgment of this fact, for those of us in the world’s most developed countries, our awareness is often abstracted: we see climate change as just an environmental problem that will somehow be solved, or our view is shaped by the kind of horrific disasters that make for sensational headlines and gripping news footage. Then we forget all about it until the next disaster flashes across our screens.
What should not be overlooked is that the effects of climate change are cumulative. They do not always take the form of extreme natural disasters. Climate change is already having a profoundly adverse impact on poorer communities around the world, as they experience, for example, a heavy rainfall that destroys a farmer’s entire crop during the normally dry season. The people most affected - women, children, and the most vulnerable - are the least responsible for causing climate change, and also the least able to cope.
A human rights perspective
Putting aside the worst-case scenarios of a much hotter world, we need to face the present reality that climate change is already disproportionately affecting the daily lives of hundreds of millions of people in a way that jeopardises their fundamental human rights.
I have become increasingly aware of this during my years travelling to many of the world’s poorest and most underdeveloped countries, where I have seen how climate change is threatening food supplies and sabotaging development goals.
Climate change is an issue of both human rights and fundamental justice. Developing countries’ fossil-fuel consumption is undermining the life chances of very poor people, and, unlike those of us in developed nations, those people are largely helpless in response to the climate shocks of severe droughts, catastrophic storms and floods. They don’t have insurance, and their governments don’t have the means to provide climate adaptation strategies.
Considering climate change from a human rights and justice perspective compels us to recognise our own responsibility to support poorer populations in their efforts to adapt and become resilient. It lends greater urgency to the need for a true partnership of nations to limit global warming.
A fair and equitable approach
Fortunately, this human rights perspective is increasingly being embraced. The UN Human Rights Council first recognised the impact of climate change on human rights in 2008, and last year appointed John Knox, an American academic, as its first independent expert on human rights and the environment.
More recently, the UN High-Level Panel charged with advising the Secretary-General on an agenda for global development beyond 2015, the original target date for the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, released its report, “A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development”. The report clearly links human rights and development, as well as development and the environment.
The climate agenda must be achieved by 2015. This agenda can only be truly effective if it is seen to be fair and equitable, recognising the legitimate development aspirations of developing countries and supporting the transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy.
Developing countries will not embrace an agenda that does not recognise climate change’s disproportionate impact on them. Climate change jeopardises food and water security, limits access to resources, and exacerbates the effects of poverty. Poorer countries thus end up being more affected.
In order to achieve the climate agenda, we need to focus on the poor and most vulnerable, and recognise the importance of a rights-based approach. People’s rights must be protected. We must make sure nobody is left behind.
We must act now, or the world we pass on to our children and grandchildren will be almost unimaginably troubled. What will they think of us? We have the awareness, the knowledge, and the expertise to do something about climate change. Let us not be accused of failing to act, while there was still time.