December 14, 2023

How the Human Rights Movement Can Help Tackle Climate Change

Originally published by Article 3 in their digital collection “The Next 25: A Collection of Essays on the Future of Human Rights.

Climate change is the planet’s greatest existential challenge. It is also a human rights emergency.

While Big Oil knew decades ago about the catastrophic consequences of our reliance on fossil fuels, the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) couldn’t have imagined the climate crisis we now face. Around the world, warming temperatures, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events are wreaking havoc on communities – spurring floods, famines, heat waves, and wildfires that have left thousands dead and harmed millions more. Those most responsible for the crisis are best situated to weather the effects, while its impacts are disproportionately felt by people in the Global South.

Activists worldwide are fighting back against climate change, including through exposure of government and corporate responsibility, public protests, and legal action to seek accountability, justice, and compensation. Such activism is critical given the general failure of governments to adequately address the crisis. Despite the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015, states have largely continued to do business as usual – approving new oil and gas projects, allowing continued deforestation, and failing to deliver on pledges of assistance to the Global South for mitigation and adaptation.

The simple truth is that the pace of climate change is far outpacing governments’ ambitions and actions to address it. Vulnerable communities, including Indigenous Peoples, minority groups, drought-stricken farmers, female-headed households, and the urban poor, are paying the price.

As we mark the UDHR’s 75th anniversary, we in the human rights and climate movements need to ask ourselves how we can support efforts to confront this threat and secure humanity’s future.

Fortunately, international law is always evolving, and can be adapted and expanded to protect basic rights in a rapidly warming world. To avert global catastrophe, these changes will have to happen quickly, then be incorporated into national laws, regulations, and policies. To address the crisis, we will also have to apply the revolutionary principle established by the UDHR, but rarely practiced: “universality.”

Universality is critical because climate change is the quintessential transnational issue. Emissions from anywhere affect people everywhere. The fossil fuel industry and big greenhouse gas emitters – such as the United States, European Union, China, Russia, and India – are responsible for killing, displacing, and causing other serious harms to people, particularly the poor, including in countries with little or no responsibility for the problem.

A key foundation for an evolving international legal system would be to agree on a global “foreseeable harm” standard to hold governments and corporations accountable for the damages caused by climate change. Just as tort law requires compensation for foreseeable harms, so too should a new international framework on climate change. To act as a deterrent, violations should carry significant financial penalties.

States should bring the foreseeable harm standard to life at the national level through laws that require full oversight over supply chains. This means no more acceptance of claims that companies didn’t know about the deforestation caused by agribusiness, for example. Sustainability and due diligence should be legally required, not part of voluntary industry pacts. We are making progress on this: Due diligence laws passed or under consideration by the EU and many countries will, if implemented, be an important step forward. This should become the norm and part of international agreements. If governments can establish rules for money laundering and global trade, why not create rules for corporate responsibility for global warming?

The Duarte case pending before the European Court of Human Rights could set an important precedent in this arena. In the case, six young Portuguese citizens have accused 32 governments of taking insufficient action to mitigate climate change and therefore, violating their fundamental human rights.

If the court rules in their favor, it would establish a precedent for holding states liable for foreseeable climate harms.

The protection of the rights of future generations should be placed at the heart of legal developments. Both the International Court of Justice and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights are due to provide guidance on state obligations about climate change, which could be a major step forward in clarifying those obligations.

International criminal law also needs to evolve to address the climate crisis. To hold the worst abusers individually accountable and deter further harms, governments should agree to add the crime of ecocide to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. An expert panel has already proposed defining 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.” The next step is to codify ecocide into international law.

New legal agreements are needed to address the reality that millions of people are moving within and across borders because of the climate crisis. Existing international law concerning the rights of people on the move fails to adequately account for those who have fled their homes due to the impact of climate change. Meanwhile, right-wing and xenophobic political parties and politicians are framing migrants in an overwhelmingly negative light, and traffickers and smugglers have turned displacement into a deadly multi-billion-dollar industry. Legal protection must be expanded to cover individuals who have fled due to the climate crisis alongside those fleeing conflict and persecution. Governments should also establish genuine “safe and legal pathways” to seek protection and a safe future for all refugees and displaced persons.

Just as important as the “right to move” is the “right to stay” in one’s own home and community. Protecting this right requires things like enforcing the requirements of “free, prior, and informed consent” (FPIC) for Indigenous Peoples, protecting climate activists and forest defenders, and making serious efforts at climate adaptation that will protect livelihoods.

Perhaps of greatest importance to poor countries – and to the wider principle of equity – is to create a binding legal framework for climate finance (grants, not loans), adaptation efforts (including technology transfers), and contributions to the loss and damage facility established at COP 27 in 2022 in Egypt. Voluntary pledges will not suffice, as wealthy countries have long promised little and provided even less.

Article 25 of the UDHR 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, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond [their] control.”

It is hard to think of anything more beyond the control of vulnerable people than climate change. Members of both the human rights and climate movements and the international legal community must take urgent action to evolve international law and practice to ensure the rights outlined in the UDHR 75 years ago are fully protected against this unprecedented threat.

Photo Credit: Climate protest. Photo by: Ronan Furuta via Unsplash (Unsplash license).

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