ODVV interview: Enjoyment of all rights could...
There is unanimity among scientists that the Earth’s climate is presently changing faster at any point in the history of modern civilization, and this inauspicious change, unleashing a variety of negative impacts on human life, is chiefly triggered by anthropogenic activities. As evidenced by a plethora of academic and scholarly research, the worrying growth of the emissions of heat-tapping greenhouse gases, deforestation, land-use change and solid waste and waste water generation are only some of the drivers of a phenomenon some experts have warned is the most conspicuous threat to human rights in our time.
Climate change affects human communities in a number of ways. Human health, infrastructure and transportation systems, as well as energy, food and water supplies deteriorate in quality as a result of the steady upward trend in global temperature and the emergence of extreme weather conditions.
Studies have found that humans are contributing to the warming of the Earth at a rate “20 to 50 times faster than some of Earth’s fastest natural climate change events.” The hidden costs of climate change exceed hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Only in the United States, in the 10-year period leading to 2017, extreme weather episodes, coupled with the detrimental health impacts of the burning of fossil fuels, imposed at least $240 billion on the national economy. The heating up of the planet, however, will be impinging on our lives in the long run more grimly. One research has projected that by 2100, the ramifications of climate change will be accounting for a 23-percent decline in global incomes. The same way a clean, healthy and functional environment is essential to the enjoyment of human rights, including the right to an adequate standard of living, climate change represents a critical challenge that curtails the enjoyment and exercise of those rights by contributing to long period of drought, major flash floods, ecosystem degradation, food shortages and prompting immigration.
Dr. Sumudu Atapattu is an international jurist in human rights, environmental and climate change law and Director of Research Centers and senior lecturer at University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School. An attorney-at-law of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, Dr. Atapattu has researched and written on climate change extensively, including in her 2015 book “Human Rights Approaches to Climate Change: Challenges and Opportunities.”
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has conducted an interview with Dr. Atapattu to discuss the human rights implications of climate change, the best strategies to mitigate the negative effects of global warming, the consequences of climate change for the developing nations and the global influence of fossil fuel lobbies. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: In remarks delivered last year, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet termed climate change the most important threat to human rights. She specifically mentioned the civil wars emanating from the warming of the earth and the plight of the indigenous people of Amazon whose lives are ruined due to massive wildfires and rampant deforestation in the region. To what extent do you agree that the climate crisis is the greatest ever threat to human rights?
A: Even before the current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that climate change is a big threat to human rights, Marry Robinson, former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that climate change is the biggest human rights issue of the 21st century. I totally agree. Given the extensive and far-reaching consequences of climate change, ranging from water and food scarcity to displacement of millions of people and inundation of small island states, it is not hard to see why climate change is the biggest threat to human rights. Virtually the enjoyment of all protected rights could be jeopardized by the adverse consequences of climate change. In addition, certain groups and states are disproportionately affected – these include vulnerable groups such as women, children, indigenous communities, climate refugees, [which is] not a legal term, and least developed countries and small island states.
There is also some discussion about the link between adverse consequences of climate change and conflict, although the consensus is that this needs further study. However, with water scarcity, food scarcity and desertification, there could be conflicts over access to resources – in fact, some argue that some of the current conflicts have been exacerbated by climate change or climate change is a threat multiplier – which can trigger mass movement of people which, in turn, could cause conflict in the place where these people will move to.
It is not clear what will happen to the inhabitants of small island states. It is becoming increasingly difficult for them to live on their islands due to increased extreme weather events, salinity and sea level rise.
Q: In a report published in 2007, European Parliament underlined the fact that developing countries are hit hardest by the global warming, and 20 percent of their GDP might be compromised due to the detrimental impacts of climate change. In what ways does climate change result in widespread poverty and increased vulnerability of the developing nations? What are the perils these countries are exposed to, to which the high-income countries are more immune?
A: As far back as 2007, the UNDP recognized that “millions of world’s poorest people are already being forced to cope with impacts of climate change… But increased exposure to drought, to more intense storms, to floods and environmental stress is holding back the efforts of the world’s poor to build a better life for themselves and their children.” The link between climate change and poverty was also recognized by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in its report on the link between climate change and human rights.
As I wrote in my book chapter titled “Climate Change, Human Rights and Poverty: Intersections and Challenges,” the former UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, addressed climate change and poverty in 2019. He pointed out that “while climate change will have the greatest impact on those living in poverty, it also threatens democracy and human rights. Moreover, it could push 120 million more people into poverty by 2030. Noting that it represents an emergency without precedent, the Special Rapporteur called on the human rights community to be bold and creative in their thinking and have a radically more robust, detailed and coordinated approach to climate change. He warned that ‘as a full-blown crisis bears down on the world, “business as usual” is a response that invites disaster’.”
Poor people in both developing and developed countries have no resources or ability to insulate themselves from the adverse consequences of climate change. Affluent people, on the other hand, whether they are in poor countries or rich countries are able to adapt to the consequences. The UNDP captured this disparity in adaptation in its 2007 report.
“Inequalities in capacity to adapt to climate change are becoming increasingly apparent. For one part of the world — the richer part — adaptation is a matter of erecting elaborate climate defense infrastructures, and of building homes that ‘float on’ water. In the other part, adaptation means people themselves learning to ‘float in’ flood water. Unlike people living behind the flood defenses of London and Los Angeles, young girls in the Horn of Africa and people in the Ganges Delta do not have a deep carbon footprint. As Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of Cape Town, has argued, we are drifting into a world of adaptation apartheid.”
Q: It is corroborated that one of the challenges caused by global warming is its effects on human health. For example, in India, the relationship between extreme weather conditions and the malaria disease has long been a subject of scrutiny by scientists. The malaria epidemic risk increases about five-fold in the year after an El Niño episode. What do we know about the link between climate change and health and wellbeing of the inhabitants of the planet Earth?
A: The link between human health and climate change is well-documented. Due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the global temperature has already increased by 0.8 degrees Celsius and it is likely to increase well beyond 2 degrees Celsius, considered as the “safe level” for the planet and living beings, unless drastic action is taken to go carbon neutral by 2050. With increased temperatures, vector-borne diseases in tropical countries will increase. These diseases will emerge in temperate countries which are not familiar with these diseases.
According to the WHO, “climate change is one of several concurrent global environmental changes that simultaneously affect human health – often interactively. A good example is the transmission of vector-borne infectious diseases, which is jointly affected by climatic conditions, population movement, forest clearance and land-use patterns, biodiversity losses…, freshwater surface configurations, and human population density.”
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, climate change increase heat-related mortality, greater frequency of infectious disease epidemics following floods and storms, and substantial health effects following population displacement from sea level rise and increased severe weather events. We are currently living through a pandemic the likes of which we have never witnessed before and which has links with deforestation, animals and humans. Climate change will only add to the vicious cycle of habitat loss which will have a spillover effect on animals and humans.
Like with other stresses, certain groups will be particularly vulnerable to disease and injury. These groups include poor people, those without access to healthcare, women, children, indigenous peoples, the elderly, disabled people, refugees and displaced people.
Just as climate change will adversely affect health, mitigation measures can have health co-benefits. For example, walking and biking, instead of driving, will have health benefits while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Better air quality will reduce cases of asthma. Over 5 million people die annually due to air pollution. These deaths can be prevented and healthcare costs will come down with a healthy population.
Q: Environmental activists, particularly in countries with authoritarian regimes, are under pressure and face intimidation and harassment. A 2019 report in Nature Sustainability found that environment defenders are at risk more than ever and only between 2002 and 2017, at least 1,558 of them were killed in 50 countries and territories. What do you think is the driving force behind this violent campaign against environmental activists? Why do governments fail to protect them?
A: Environmental rights defenders are increasingly being harassed and even killed, particularly in Latin America. This is a huge problem. The main reason is the amount of money involved – mining, petroleum and similar industries bring vast amounts of revenue to these companies which often donate large sums of money to politicians. These special interests do not want to see their profits reduced. They will do anything to suppress science as well as to silence those who speak against them. Often corrupt governmental officials collude with these companies and attack environmental defenders although the state is responsible for protecting them, punishing the perpetrators and providing redress to victims. Indigenous peoples are particularly at risk. The Ogoniland case from Nigeria decided by the African Commission of Human and Peoples’ Rights is a good example of government forces colluding with oil companies, including Shell Oil, and attacking Ogoni people and forcibly evicting them from their land, destroying their homes and food crops.
According to Global Witness, more than three people were murdered each week in 2018, for defending their land and the environment. Also, “in 2018, Guatemala recorded the sharpest rise in murders, which jumped more than fivefold to make it the deadliest country per capita.” Mining was the worst sector with 43 murders while the Philippines had the highest number of deaths in any country with at least 30 murders of environmental defenders.
Q: The excessive reliance of governments on fossil fuels and the extensive consumption of these fuels by households is one of the factors substantially preventing the mitigation of global warming. Do you think ideas such as carbon tax can be sustainable panaceas? Reports show five giant oil and gas companies and their subsidiaries expended €251 million between 2010 and 2019 on lobbying European Union institutions to preclude the adoption of policies in favor of alternative, clean energies. Is it possible to insulate the international bodies from the influence of “fossil fuel lobbies”?
A: Using financial tools like carbon taxes and carbon trading may work – I am not an economist – but the real problem is the fossil fuel-based capitalist economy. I think it is shortsighted to rely on the same system that caused the problem to solve the problem. Also, studies have shown that these taxes could have a disproportionate impact on single mothers even though on paper, there was nothing discriminatory about the tax. So how these taxes will impact vulnerable groups is something that policymakers must take into consideration.
As long as we have a fossil fuel-based economy, these lobbies will continue. I think the best way forward would be to subsidize or provide incentives for renewable sources of energy and eliminate subsidies for fossil fuel companies, create jobs in these sectors and train the labor force with the necessary skills to do these jobs. We also need to invest in new technologies and training the labor force to do the new jobs. Education, awareness raising and divesting from these companies are other steps that can be taken. I think we need to adopt both carrots and sticks.
Q: What are the impacts of unilateral coercive measures against certain countries and denying them access to global markets and financial, banking resources on those countries’ ability to fight climate change? Is it realistic to expect these states to play an active role in tackling climate change?
A: This is a very broad question and without context or background it is hard to answer this question. It is necessary to know why these coercive measures were taken? Why are some countries denied access to global markets? Obviously, why these measures were imposed is relevant to the answer and politics play a role here.
Q: International climate treaties are introduced to empower world countries and set in motion global coalitions for addressing global warming in a collective, eclectic manner. Does the unilateralism of certain countries, for instance the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, bring these efforts to a standstill?
A: Certainly, the non-participation of major players does affect the overall effectiveness of the regime, but it does not necessarily bring everything to a standstill. US was not a party to the Kyoto Protocol either and Canada withdrew from it in 2012, but the climate legal regime continued without them. On the other hand, the Ozone regime is considered as one of the most successful legal regimes to date and that could be due to several reasons including universal participation and industry pressure and involvement in developing substitutes. For global issues like climate change, participation of major players is critical for their success but just because one or two states do not participate doesn’t mean that the whole regime will collapse. It might even make participating states more resolute to make the regime work.
By: Kourosh Ziabari