ODVV interview: States are not taking the human rights impacts of climate change seriously
ODVV interview: States are not taking the human...
Our world is getting warmer, and it is almost entirely triggered by human activity. It is not a hoax, myth or a conspiracy theory, as some politicians tend to suggest. The atmospheric gases known as “greenhouse gases” are largely responsible for the greenhouse effect, which is one of the chief drivers of global warming. Global greenhouse gas emissions have soared at a rate of roughly 2 percent annually since 1970.
In 2015, 195 countries and the European Union subscribed to a comprehensive agreement aiming to keep the global warming levels at well below 2°C, and ideally above 1.5°C. The agreement is believed to be the first genuine global commitment to address the climate dilemma. Climate change disrupts human life in myriad ways and erodes the natural resources available to human beings. Some of the impacts of this universal predicament are already being felt: the increase in the number and intensity of storms, oceans rising and becoming more acidic, massive wildfires raging across the globe from Siberia to Australia and lengthy drought episodes driving people away from their homes.
That said, the undeniable reality of climate change, as affirmed by the United Nations, is undermining the effective enjoyment of a variety of human rights including those to life, water, sanitation, food, health, housing, self-determination, culture and development, and climate scholars say the world governments are not taking these effects seriously. Political leaders are dragging their feet to act on what represents the humanity’s most pressing challenge, and they are only the numbers surrounding the sustainability of our planet that are getting worse: since 1965, only 20 companies, mostly oil and petrochemical firms, have contributed to 35 percent of all global carbon dioxide and methane emissions.
Dr. Christina Voigt is a professor of law at the University of Oslo, Norway and a noted expert in international environmental law. A legal advisor of the government of Norway, Dr. Voigt is the chair of the Climate Change Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Commission on Environmental Law. She has written several books and journal articles on climate change and environmental law.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has arranged an interview with Dr. Christina Voigt to discuss the human rights implications of global warming, the role of international organizations and governments in addressing climate change, the effects of climate change on the economies of rural communities and the challenges faced by climate migrants. The following is the text of the interview.
Q: Environmental organizations and experts warn that children, the elderly, citizens with limited accessibility and mobility and marginalized communities are those who are hit hardest by the consequences of climate change. Can you tell us what those impacts are? How is it possible to build up the resilience of vulnerable communities against the impacts of extreme weather conditions?
A: These are usually groups in a society which are most vulnerable and exposed to the impacts of climate events, such as droughts or floods, because they might not enjoy the same protective regime as other, less marginalized segments of society. Depending on the national circumstances, the rights of those groups should be strengthened [including] their access to decision-making, protection of their rights and access to justice.
Q: Climate change and global warming impinge on an array of essential human rights, including the right to living, right to health, right to housing and right to have a reasonable standard of living. Are the world governments adequately aware of the human rights challenges resulting from climate change and investing on it properly? Do you agree that prioritizing the funding of militaries, urban construction and transportation has trivialized investment on climate change?
A: I doubt that governments are taking the human rights impacts of climate change as seriously as they should. In terms of investment, I think much financial flows – if not all – need to be channeled to building low emission, or zero emission, and climate resilient societies. It is not so much a matter of whether to invest in urban construction and transport, for example, but invest in what kind of construction and what kind of transport. Here, investment in renewable energy systems for transport, and in sustainable housing is crucial. On military funding – or subsidizing fossil fuels or bailing out banks, this is mainly subsidizing vested interests. Governments should know better!
Q: Scientists have been almost unanimous in highlighting the role of human beings in the rise of greenhouse gas emissions. In its fifth assessment report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that since 1950 up to now, almost 100 percent of global warming observed has been a byproduct of human activities. This means it is possible to slow down the process of global warming and extreme weather episodes if people adhere to more sustainable and responsible patterns of behavior, particularly in terms of their consumption of fossil fuels. How is it possible to change people’s behavioral and consumption patterns?
A: Through regulation and government interventions. Science is clear: we need to, globally, reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. This requires a whole transformation of all sectors, everywhere. This cannot be done overnight and it cannot be done by appealing to “behavioral changes.” What is needed is that governments devise and deploy comprehensive and holistic strategies that cut across all economic sectors: transport, trade, buildings, energy, land use, production and consumption, etc. We need low greenhouse gas emission and deforestation free supply chains; we need investment in clean energy, and public transport systems that are affordable, safe and environmentally sound – and much more. All this needs a plan, and regulation. The EU Green Deal is, for example, a good start. This is not possible for all countries – but many. For developing countries, it will be important to “leap frog” over fossil fuel-based energy systems to renewable energy systems. This will require financial resources, which industrialized, or rich countries, will need to make available.
Q: What are the detrimental impacts of climate change on the rural communities, particularly groups of people that are dependent on agriculture, marine and coastal economy? Is it reasonable to expect these communities to survive and sustain their economies without governments taking action to lessen their contributions to global warming and pollution and erosion of natural resources?
A: This depends on which resources are used, where they are and how resilient those communities are. It is not possible to say something general that applies to all. But it is possible to anticipate which changes to expect and try to increase the resilience of communities, for example by governmental support or by proposing alternative livelihoods. But governments are constrained and many of those communities are already marginalized. It might be wise to devise inter-community and intra-community measures to increase their resilience, for example agro-forestry, which preserves forests while sustaining agriculture.
Q: Of the devastating consequences of global warming is the worrying rise of sea levels due to the melting of glaciers and land-based ice caps. Researchers have found out that the rise of sea levels in the 20th century has been greater than the preceding 2,800 years. What are the most immediate and notable consequences of this phenomenon for coastal cities and villages? What are the most effective strategies that can be deployed to offset the effects of this phenomenon?
A: Well, increasing adaptation measures is a must. These changes will come – we know that. Low-lying island states and low-lying coastal cities will be most affected. Increasing their adaptive capacity is crucial. Sea walls, drainage systems, relocation and other measures should be orderly planned now – not to wait until disaster strikes.
Q: Do you see any difference between the developed, high-income countries and small, poorer countries in terms of the extent of damages they sustain as a result of extreme weather conditions, particularly widespread heatwaves that have been happening in different countries every year since the outset of the 21st century? How is it possible to help the underdeveloped countries with minuscule resources move past these challenges?
A: Of course, there are significant differences. This goes to the core of the “justice dilemma” with climate change. Those countries with minimal contributions to the problem and with minimal resources to adapt, will most likely be hit hardest. For this reason, it is so important that on the international level, especially under the Paris Agreement, or the UN generally, financial support mechanisms are put in place that will channel financial support to those who need it.
Q: The plight of climate migrants is one of the 21st century adversities which has received relatively little attention by the academics and decision-makers. The 1951 Refugee Convention doesn’t consider individuals who move away from their homeland under the brunt of extreme weather events as refugees. Doesn’t the absence of legal recognition for these migrants make it difficult to protect them? In 2018, World Bank estimated that the three regions of Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia will produce 143 million more climate migrants by 2050. Do the international organizations have a policy of shielding them and offering them assistance?
A: Yes, this is a long-standing problem and it will become more and more urgent. The 1951 convention does not capture those migrants that have to leave because their land cannot sustain their livelihood any longer. But many discussions are ongoing of how to address this situation, without any real solution yet. The most important thing now to do, is to avoid the worst effects of climate change, and that is by drastically reducing emissions. This should be an absolute priority.
Q: Will the compliance of world countries with their commitments under the Paris climate accords to reduce the production of greenhouse gases and keep the rise in global average temperature at well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels guarantee the mitigation of global warming? How do you think the US withdrawal from the agreement, which will come into effect in November this year, will undermine international efforts to curb global warming?
A: The Agreement is built with the purpose to increase Parties´ ambition over time, in order to enable them to reach the goal of halting global warming well below 2 degrees. The US withdrawal is an act of stupidity and it impacts some other parties’ willingness to high ambition targets. But it does not destroy the agreement. I am convinced that any new administration in the US will bring the country back into the agreement. In the meantime, there are other leaders to come forward, such as the EU, but also China who does a significant deal on renewable energy.
By: Kourosh Ziabari