“You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”Greta Thunberg
Climate change is at the forefront of much of the news that we read and watch. Yet for a long time, it has largely been reported as a phenomenon affecting solely the natural world and resources. Of course, it is. But civil society and states are beginning to acknowledge the devastating impact climate change has on humans and their fundamental rights, namely the rights to health, food, water, housing and life. Climate change is a human-caused issue, and the solution must thus come from humans.
During the 48th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, member states heeded these urgent calls, passing two resolutions: the first recognises the right to a clean, healthy, sustainable environment; the second established a special rapporteur (an independent human rights expert at the UN) to evaluate and address the impact of climate change on human rights. In what was an historic, emotional, and groundbreaking decision, 43 states voted in favour, zero voted against, and four abstained (Russia, India, China and Japan).
Human rights and climate change
The secretary general of Amnesty International, Kumi Naidoo, said that it was “abundantly clear that climate change is already having an impact on human rights”. This impact must not be underestimated. The World Health Organization predicts that an immense 13.7 million die every year from air pollution and chemicals. This year alone, the world has been both witness and victim to wildfires, floods, droughts, and fossil fuel pollution. On the latter, globally, fossil fuel pollution contributes to one in five premature deaths.
More specifically, climate change affects small islands like the Marshall Islands, where heavy rainfall, floods and storms are wiping out homes and livelihoods. In Madagascar, there has been no rainfall in four years and as a result people are either starving or have been displaced.
Climate change also disproportionately affects minority groups. For example, Amnesty International reported in the United States that houses of poorer communities of colour are more likely to be built near power plants, meaning that the air they breathe is toxic and thus a cause of respiratory illnesses.
What responsibilities do states have?
States and citizens operate on a duty-bearer and rights-holder relationship. This means that they are legally (and arguably morally) obliged to protect and respect citizen rights, such as to housing, high standards of health, food and water. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed that climate change is caused by anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. Thus, states have a duty to limit such emissions and find healthier alternatives.
As minority groups and people in vulnerable positions are more exposed to climate change, and will feel the worst impact of it, states and their representatives have a duty to devote “adequate resources to the realization of the economic, social and cultural rights of all persons, particularly those facing the greatest risks”.
Why were some states opposed?
Though not legally binding, the resolution and establishment of a special rapporteur means that countries will now be held responsible for their climate change failures and inaction.
Ironically, Britain, which is set to hold COP26 in Glasgow later this year, raised some criticisms of the resolution, with the UK mission suggesting that the right to a health environment lacked momentum because it was not written in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“Whilst we have legal concerns about recognising a right to a safe and healthy environment in this way, we continue to engage constructively with the main authors of this resolution at the Human Rights Council.”
Similarly, America is at risk of looking hypocritical. Though not currently a sitting member of the council, they participated in the debates and raised similar concerns to the UK. Their closing statement at the council was discouraging:
“The United States has consistently reiterated that there are no universally recognised human rights specifically related to the environment, and we do not believe there is a basis in international law to recognise the right to a clean, healthy, sustainable environment.”
This breaks from President Biden’s rhetoric on his commitment to lead the international fight against climate change.
China and Russia also opposed the resolution. Russia suggested that the resolution risked overloading the council’s agenda, and that the environment was not an issue covered by the Human Rights Council nor by international law. There were, as always, mentions of ‘sovereignty’ by states like Brazil about the natural resources of certain states.
The next step
There was a round of applause when the council passed the resolution. For years, civil society organisations, small island states, and human rights activists have pushed for the right to a health environment to be recognised. Now that it has been, David Boyd, special rapporteur on the environment, has said it should serve as a catalyst for more tangible, concrete legislation.
The world is one step closer to achieving the sustainable development goals. COP26 in November will provide states with another opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to combating climate change and respecting human rights.