ODVV interview: Vulnerable communities bear the...
The world is reeling from an unprecedented, lethal pandemic and governments are scrambling to come up with a remedy in the form of a vaccine that can tamp down the torrent of deaths and infection it is causing. It is intrinsic that the scourge of COVID-19 and the global economic recession associated with it represent the leitmotif of daily conversations, soaking up the attention of media and the public.
At this critical time, it might be that such pressing global challenges as global warming are overlooked. But let’s face it: our summers and winters are getting warmer; with the rise of sea levels at rates not chronicled in some 3,000 years, cities as colossal as Jakarta might be submerged altogether; the average size of wildlife populations have shrunk by 60 percent since 1970, and novel diseases emanating from the rising temperatures are claiming more lives.
The crisis of climate change is predominantly navigated in terms of how it makes life on the Earth unsustainable, erodes resources at our disposal and forces new species into extinction. Yet, the real risk lies in the ways the global climate emergency unleashes its human rights impacts, spawning untold human suffering.
The upshots are multifaceted. Decreased crop productivity leading to extensive food insecurity, malnutrition and issues in child growth and development is one of the human rights implications of climate change. There is also the peril of the exacerbation of stresses on water resources, degenerating into water conflicts unfolding in hotspots such as India, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan and elsewhere. Add to these woes the spike of migration induced by environmental and climatic problems, extreme weather events displacing people and destroying communities and the increased possibility of wars and even modern forms of slavery.
Prof. Ole W. Pedersen is the Director of Research and professor of environmental and energy law at the Newcastle University’s Law School. A Chair of the University’s Biosafety Committee, he is a fellow at the Cambridge Centre for Property Law and the editor of the 2018 collection of essays “Perspectives on Environmental Law Scholarship.”
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has conducted an interview with Prof. Pedersen to discuss the human rights effects of climate change, the role of human beings in aggravating the climate crisis and the importance of mobilizing intergovernmental action to mitigate climate change. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Q: The international community has woken up to the destructive and irretrievable impacts of global warming. Scientists agree that nearly 99 percent of climate change is precipitated by anthropogenic activities. Do you believe the world governments have the sufficient determination to mitigate the impacts of climate change and make life on the planet more sustainable?
A: I sure hope so, yes. And there are encouraging signs to suggest that some governments are beginning to wake up to the need for action. It is important that in the EU, the Union launched its Green Deal in 2019. Similarly, the adoption of the Paris Agreement follows a decade of few positive developments on the international arena and the election of President Biden will likely open up scope for US re-commitment to the Paris Agreement and international diplomacy more generally.
Similarly, there is a lot of positive developments on the domestic and local level both in terms of actions taken by local authorities and civil society as well as a range of potentially important developments in the area of climate change litigation as well as corporate decisions and commitments to net-zero emissions. Naturally, a lot of hard choices need to be made in the near future but, on the whole, I think there are grounds for being cautiously optimistic.
Q: Studies indicate in order to address climate change, a total of only USD140 billion is required every year, amounting to less than 0.1 percent of world GDP. Are the underdeveloped, poorer countries able to chip in their share in the fight against climate change? What about the developed, high-income countries? Are they playing a role proportionate to their resources and capacities?
A: It is well evidenced that taking action to prevent serious impacts from climate change makes a lot of sense economically. The problem is of course that foregoing present benefits for future gains is cognitively difficult for humans to do. But it is of course also a problem if a country has valid and pressing concerns around poverty alleviation or indeed around economic recovery following the global pandemic.
The international regime most recently incorporated in the Paris Agreement tips the balance slightly so that the responsibility to reduce emissions is no longer mainly on developed countries, as was the case under the Kyoto Protocol. In reality, if we want to make meaningful emission reductions, the help from developing countries is needed.
Q: In the past 20 years, humans have caused or worsened some 68 percent of extreme weather events, including heatwaves, droughts, floods, heavy rainfalls and wildfires. This implies it is possible to preclude such disasters by modifying patterns of consumption, production, lifestyles and large-scale policymaking. What are the steps that are needed to be taken to stave off these destructive episodes that annually claim around 250,000 lives?
A: One challenge which must be borne in mind in this context is the so-called delayed effect of greenhouse gas emissions, which means that even if we managed to achieve net zero by, say, 2050, climate change impacts from historic emissions would still take place. That of course is not a reason not to take any steps but the steps we need to take are significant. These include a combination of large-scale changes to our energy infrastructures, changes in land use and farming practices, large-scale modification to housing stock, changes in food consumption as well as modes of transport. The task is evidently immense.
Q: The impacts of global warming on the people’s enjoyment of essential human rights, such as right to life, right to food and right to housing are undeniable. Yet, different studies have proved that climate change doesn’t treat the entire world population equally, and they are usually the more vulnerable communities that suffer the most. For instance, the United Nations says women and children are 14 times more likely to die in natural disasters. How is it possible to shield the underrepresented and fragile communities against the brunt of climate change?
A: There is no hiding from the fact that those likely to bear the brunt of the most devastating climate change impacts are the most vulnerable groups in society. This highlights the need to take rapid action. In order to effectively protect these vulnerable groups from impacts, steps need to be taken internationally and regionally to ensure that the most vulnerable groups are effectively compensated and that these groups are heard and taken into account when lawmakers and policy-makers draw up climate change responses.
Q: The warming of the Earth, the swift evolutions of the climate and the natural disasters associated with it force thousands of people into moving from their homes every year. Only in 2018, 17.2 million people were displaced in 148 countries, and it is expected that there will be 200 climate refugees by 2050. Do you think this worrying trend, which has been somewhat neglected in the debate on migration, is inevitable or is possible to be slowed down through robust policy-making?
A: There has been a fair amount of focus on the phenomenon of climate change refugees. And there is of course a real risk that this problem becomes worse. One problem faced in this context is that the international legal framework which offers some protection to refugees does not work that well in the context of climate change refugees, insofar as the legal regime simply does not recognize environmental impacts as a reason for granting individuals refugee status. States have been very reluctant to change this and no doubt the rise of populism in Western countries plays a role in this.
Q: Climate change is an important topic of discussion by the world leaders. Even in the US presidential debates, it popped up as a major theme for conversation. Yet, the Republican contender Donald Trump clearly denied the importance of climate change, and is on the record to have said in the past that global warming is a “hoax” invented by China. What is behind this unscientific approach to a cataclysm of global dimensions?
A: Thankfully, President Trump was not reelected and with his departure hopefully the United States can return to the international context as a serious player, leading by example. In my mind, there is no doubt that the rise of populism plays a part in the willingness by some to challenge what is well-settled science and facts.
Q: Do you believe the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, as per the instruction of President Trump, will disrupt the global efforts to tackle the climate crisis? Do you expect the decision to pull out of the treaty to undermine the resolve of other nations for investing in reduction of greenhouse gas emissions or induce them into ditching their commitments?
A: I believe President-elect Biden has signaled that the United States will see to rejoin the Paris Agreement so that is a step in the right direction. That aside, the lack of commitment by the US has not necessarily acted as a disincentive to other nations who have readily moved on in the absence of American leadership.
By: Kourosh Ziabari