Climate Wrongs and Human Rights

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Climate change will undermine human rights on a massive scale

The following is the Executive Summary of Climate Wrongs and Human Rights, published this week by aid group Oxfam International. The report will be submitted to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which is now reviewing the relationship between international human rights and climate change.

Putting people at the heart of climate-change policy


In failing to tackle climate change with urgency, rich countries are effectively violating the human rights of millions of the world’s poorest people. Continued excessive greenhouse-gas emissions primarily from industrialised nations are – with scientific certainty – creating floods, droughts, hurricanes, sea-level rise, and seasonal unpredictability.

The result is failed harvests, disappearing islands, destroyed homes, water scarcity, and deepening health crises, which are undermining millions of peoples’ rights to life, security, food, water, health, shelter, and culture.

Such rights violations could never truly be remedied in courts of law. Human-rights principles must be put at the heart of international climate-change policy making now, in order to stop this irreversible damage to humanity’s future.

‘Within an international community based upon the rule of law and universal values of equality, human rights and dignity, it is surely wrong for small, vulnerable communities to suffer because of the actions of other more powerful resource-rich countries, actions over which they have no control, and little or no protection.’ – President Gayoom, Republic of the Maldives

‘Human rights law is relevant because climate change causes human rights violations. But a human rights lens can also be helpful in approaching and managing climate change.’ – Mary Robinson, President, Realising Rights

Climate change is set to undermine human rights on a massive scale. International human-rights law states that, ‘In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.’ But – as the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has documented in detail – rich countries’ continued excessive greenhouse-gas emissions are depriving millions of people of the very water, soil, and land on which they subsist.

Oxfam International believes that realising human rights is essential to lift people out of poverty and injustice. Our staff and local partners work with communities in over 100 countries, and are increasingly witnessing the devastating effects of more frequent and severe climatic events on poor people’s prospects for development.

According to the IPCC, climate change could halve yields from rain-fed crops in parts of Africa as early as 2020, and put 50 million more people worldwide at risk of hunger. Almost half a million people today live on islands that are threatened with extinction by sea-level rise. And up to one billion people could face water shortages in Asia by the 2050s due to melted glaciers. These kinds of impacts, in turn, are likely to lead to mass migration across borders, and increasing conflict over scarce resources.

Rich countries’ emissions are effectively violating the rights of millions of the world’s poorest people. Twenty-three rich countries – including the USA, western Europe, Canada, Australia, and Japan – are home to just 14 per cent of the world’s population, but have produced 60 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions since 1850; and they still produce 40 per cent of annual carbon emissions today.

In 1992, these countries committed to return their annual emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. Instead, by 2005 they had allowed their collective emissions to rise more than ten per cent above 1990 levels – with increases exceeding 15 per cent in Canada, Greece, Ireland, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, and the USA. Their collective failure to act has raised the scientific risk – and the political risk – of global warming exceeding the critical threshold of 2ºC.

Economics – which influences many current climate-policy debates – approaches decision-making by weighing up competing costs and benefits. But in a global context, how can the financial costs of cutting emissions in the richest countries be compared with the human costs of climate change for the world’s poorest people? The implications of such a trade-off are appalling. Human-rights principles provide an alternative to the assumption that everything – from carbon to malnutrition – can be priced, compared, and traded. Human rights are a fundamental moral claim each person has to life’s essentials – such as food, water, shelter, and security – no matter how much or how little money or power they have.

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drawn up in 1948, its authors could not have imagined the complex global interconnectedness that climate change would create. Human-rights laws and institutions now need to evolve fast to rise to this unprecedented challenge, if they are to provide a means of stopping human rights worldwide from being further undermined by rich countries’ excessive greenhouse-gas emissions.

Sixty years on from the Universal Declaration, this paper sets out a new vision for a rights-centred approach to climate-change policies. It uses the norms and principles of human rights to guide national and international climate policy making now.

Based on these principles, Oxfam calls for urgent action on the following human-rights hotspots:

  • Rich countries must lead now in cutting global emissions to keep global warming well below 2°C. Global emissions must fall at least 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050, with rich countries delivering domestic cuts of at least 25–40 per cent by 2020.
  • Rich countries must provide the finance needed for international adaptation. They have so far delivered only $92m to the fund set up for the least-developed countries – less than what people in the USA spend on sun-tan lotion in one month. Innovative financing is urgently needed to raise at least $50bn per year.
  • Rich countries must provide the finance needed for low-carbon technologies in developing countries. Over 20 years, their contributions to multilateral climate funds for technology transfer have been on average $437m annually: western Europeans spent ten times that much buying vacuum cleaners last year. Commitment to a new scale of financing must be delivered in the post-2012 regime.
  • Rich countries must halt their biofuel policies which are undermining poor people’s right to food, and leading to land and labour rights violations. Developing-country governments must likewise protect poor people’s rights through domestic regulation of biofuel production.
  • Developing countries must focus their adaptation strategies on the most vulnerable people by putting poor communities at the heart of planning, addressing women’s needs and interests, and providing social-protection schemes.
  • Developing countries must have ownership in managing international adaptation funds and, in turn, must be accountable to vulnerable communities for how the finance is spent.
  • Companies must call on governments to act with far greater urgency in cutting global emissions, and must not lobby to block effective regulation.
  • Companies must take significant steps to cut their global emissions in line with keeping global warming well below 2°C.
  • Companies must ensure that their mitigation or adaptation projects do not undermine people’s rights, either due to the technologies used, or due to implementing them without consulting affected communities.
  • Companies that source and sell globally can go much further in building communities’ climate resilience through their own supply-chain operations.

The ongoing climate negotiations – from Bali in 2007 to Copenhagen at the end of 2009 – are the best available chance for achieving the international co-operation needed to prevent dangerous climate change and to enable communities to adapt. That is why human rights must be placed at the heart of their deliberations. Indeed the impacts of climate change on the rights of the world’s most vulnerable people will be the critical test of whether these negotiations succeed.