ODVV Interview: Climate change is no longer a future threat but a present challenge

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Publish Date : 01/27/2021 23:01
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We can see the effects of climate change impacting on many rights such as the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to health, rights of Indigenous peoples to culture, land and self-determination and so on.

It was in 1965 when scientists on the US President’s Science Advisory Committee broached the idea of a “greenhouse effect” that was sparking concerns about the rising temperature of the Earth, and no more than a decade later, the distinguished geoscientist Wallace Broecker coined the term “global warming”, which took a while to enter the mainstream debate but carved a fundamentally new path for research and excavation into how anthropogenic activities accelerate the heating of the planet and endanger the lives of humans and other species.


The international community’s fight to tackle climate change as a concern of universal proportions started more than three decades ago, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up by the United Nations in November 1988. At that time, a consensus had coalesced around the understanding that climate change should have been recognized as a serious challenge affecting the humanity, and world needed to muster resources and collective action to tackle this menace. The ensuing developments included the kicking off of the Rio Earth Summit in June 1992, the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in December 1997 as the first international agreement to mandate the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the initiation of December 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, the largest gathering of world leaders concerned about the climate crisis.


Although the community of nations has made strides in slowing down the runway pace of global warming, a lot remains to be done to ensure the worst-case scenario the climate scientists have warned against, which is the demise of at least 150 million people with the planet getting warmer at 3 degrees Celsius by 2100, is staved off. Climate change is gradually being reframed as a human rights concern, which means more resources will be put into countering it and more public attention will be devoted to it. But the clock is ticking fast and efforts on the international level must be concerted, multilateral and swift.


Dr. Bridget Lewis is a senior lecturer in the School of Law at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, where she is a member of the Ecological Justice Research Program. She has explored the human rights implications of climate change in a range of scholarly works, including her 2018 book “Environmental Human Rights and Climate Change: Current Status and Future Prospects.”

Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has conducted an interview with Dr. Lewis to explore the effects of climate change on human rights, the growing momentum of the climate justice movement, the implications of global warming for vulnerable communities and the significance of multilateralism in addressing climate change. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.


Q: Broadly speaking, what are the most immediate and significant human rights effects of climate change? Activists and legal scholars usually tend to explore human rights within the framework of concepts such as the freedom of expression, freedom of the press, political freedoms, gender equality, war crimes and racial inequalities. This means the impacts of climate change on human rights are usually glossed over. Do you agree?

A: I actually think in the last five to ten years, our understanding of the ways that climate change impacts on human rights has developed significantly. In part that is because we are starting to see the effects of climate change in the here and now – it is no longer a future threat but something that people are already experiencing. And more and more people are recognizing the interconnectedness of different human rights with the environment. We can see the effects of climate change impacting on many rights such as the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to health, rights of Indigenous peoples to culture, land and self-determination and so on, and those impacts ripple out into broader social, economic and political consequences affecting a wider range of rights. There is obviously still a lot of work to do, but the impacts of climate change on human rights are becoming more obvious, and the stories of people affected are attracting greater attention.


Q: According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, women are among the social groups most vulnerable to the brunt of climate change. Seventy percent of the 1.3 billion people living under poverty worldwide are women. Women are the frontrunners of the food production in the world, meaning that 50 to 80 percent of the food we consume is produced by women, but they legally own less than 10 percent of the lands. In what ways do the extreme climatic events hurt women?

A: Climate change itself doesn’t discriminate but our societies do, and it is those social, economic, cultural and political factors which disadvantage women more broadly, that is the reason why they are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. For instance, in societies where women’s agency is limited, they might be more vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather events because they may be unable to relocate to safer locations or have their views taken into account in disaster planning and response processes. As you point out, in many places women make up much of the workforce for food production, so they are susceptible to the effects of both sudden and slow-onset natural disasters, have greater exposure to higher temperatures, more at risk of losing their livelihoods from crop failure, loss of arable land, flooding, drought and so on. And often this is accompanied by weaker protections within legal and political systems, for example through weaker property and labor rights or poorer representation within the political class, making it more difficult for them to seek change and insist upon support for climate adaptation.


Q: There are indications that the climate justice movement is gaining momentum, particularly as more young people across the globe are mobilizing and raising their voices to persuade governments to take action and address the challenges arising from climate change. But do you think race, gender and class considerations are now at the center of the climate action debates? Are the developing countries that have paltry resources to respond to global warming able to contribute to the movement?

A: I wouldn’t say that those considerations are at the center of climate action debates, at least not mainstream discussions. There is definitely a growing momentum of activism from younger people which is hugely encouraging – we can see that in the Fridays for Future climate strike movement and the litigation that is currently before the European Court of Human Rights and the Committee on the Rights of the Child, where young people are challenging states’ failures to take stronger action on emissions, arguing that they are breaching their human rights. Many of these young climate activists are from the global south and they are bringing attention to the particular impacts of climate change on developing countries. There has also been great leadership and advocacy from developing states in the Pacific. For instance, the Pacific Islands Development Forum adopted the Nadi Declaration in 2019 which expressed “deep concern about the lack of comprehension, ambition, or commitment shown by developed nations of the world” regarding the climate crisis. But I still think there is a way to go before climate decision-making fully respects and recognizes the experiences and contributions of developing countries.


Q: The right to a healthy environment is a fundamental human right, and as the Human Rights Watch put it, “diverse ecosystems and clean water, air, and soils are indispensable for human health and security.” But what is the solution when governments don’t prioritize safeguarding this right and don’t put enough resources into mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, tackling pollution, combating deforestation and preserving biodiversity?

A: That is a very big question! There is not really one solution, but many things that could be done to try to encourage states to better protect the vital relationship between the environment and human rights. One step would be to improve legal recognition of the right to a good environment, and to make sure that it is supported by effective enforcement mechanisms. The Global Pact for the Environment is seeking to do this at the international level by advocating for a treaty which enshrines the right to a healthy environment. Many countries include an environmental right of some kind in their constitutions, and this has been an effective tool in some jurisdictions to force the government to take stronger action. But in many places, it is not enforceable or environmental protection is easily outweighed by economic considerations, so strengthening legal protections is an important piece of the puzzle.

I also think there is a big role for the private sector to influence state policies on climate change, and for community groups, shareholder organizations and even individual consumers to help build pressure on governments. For instance, we have seen some effective campaigns through shareholder activism to encourage companies to divest from fossil fuels, and the renewable energy sector continues to grow and become more competitive. It is important that companies do more than greenwashing when it comes to their climate commitments, but I think there is significant potential for businesses to be agents of change, and through them hopefully to pressure governments to change as well.


Q: There are different views about the interconnection between climate change and armed conflicts. Some scholars believe climate change-induced complexities don’t necessarily result in wars, but can potentially exacerbate existing conflicts. Others opine climate change is responsible for many of the water conflicts currently happening worldwide. And also, there is a consensus that the natural environment is usually a casualty of warfare. Can you walk us through the way climate change stimulates conflicts or somehow accelerates them?

A: I tend to agree that climate change is most likely to contribute to conflict where tensions over natural resources and land already exist. If there are already shortages of water or arable land, these are likely to be exacerbated by the effect of climate change, so if those shortages act as a catalyst for conflict already, then we might expect to see that erupt more frequently. Climate change is also going to mean greater movement of people as they seek to find safer, more suitable places to live. In some places, this will be seen with climate refugees seeking to move to a new country as climate change makes life more difficult in their homelands, or it may be people who are internally displaced by flooding, drought or cyclones, or are trying to find work in other areas. Those movements of people can be triggers for conflict, but again that is most likely where tensions already exist.

And there are other ways that conflict and climate change interact. As you say, armed conflict already impacts on the natural environment, and this is likely to be felt more keenly as climate change worsens. For instance, where armed conflict damages or pollutes water supplies, this will impact more seriously if clean water is generally in shorter supply. Destruction of farm lands will be more problematic if people have fewer options for where they might relocate. And any impact of armed conflict on ecosystems and non-human species will likely be more pronounced because biological diversity is already facing so many other threats due to climate change.


Q: According to the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the Sabin Center on Climate Change Law, there were 1,260 national laws on climate change across 164 countries in 2017, showing a 20-fold increase in the number of legislations adopted by countries in 1997. Despite this massive number of legal instruments on climate management, we are witnessing that the Earth is getting warmer and greenhouse gas emissions are not abating. What is the problem here?

A: Again, another really big question! Other people are more qualified than me to analyze this big question and provide useful answers, but I think it is a combination of factors. For one thing, in many cases climate laws are simply not ambitious enough. For instance, in my own country of Australia, we have legislation on climate change, renewable energy targets and plans for cutting emissions, but most experts agree that those targets are not enough to make a meaningful difference to the trajectory of global heating. Another problem is that laws which are in place are not implemented and not enforced, so governments are not actually delivering on their commitments. Stronger accountability measures are needed in those cases to make sure governments deliver what is in their legislation. I think there has been some improvement in this area in recent years. For instance, we are seeing an increasing number of court cases where litigants have been successful in holding governments responsible for breaches of climate laws.


Q: From a legal perspective, can unilateral coercive measures against certain countries in the form of indiscriminate economic sanctions undermine their ability to respond to climate change and protect their populations from its detrimental impacts?

A: This is not something that I am able to comment on, except to say that obviously responding to climate change, particularly through adaptation measures, is an expensive business and so any kind of economic measure has potential to impact on climate action.


Q: In 2017, the US President Donald Trump authorized the US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. Did the decision undermine the efficiency of the accord, which was ratified unanimously by the majority of UN member states? How can unilateralism hamper global efforts to address global warming?

A: I think most climate activists were dismayed by President Trump’s announcement of the United States withdrawal in 2017, and more recently we have been buoyed by President-elect Biden’s announcement that he will seek to reinstate America’s membership. While climate change is obviously a global problem requiring a cooperative response from all states, there is no doubt that some states wield significant influence. That influence is political and economic, in terms of their ability to influence the actions of other states through their trade and other relationships, as well as through the example that they set for other states. They also have significant influence by virtue of the magnitude of their contribution to the problem. It is recognized that without a significant reduction from high-emitting states like the US, we will have very little hope of meeting the ambition set out in the Paris Agreement of keeping global warming to well-below 2oC, let alone 1.5oC. So, the US withdrawal threatened to derail progress on climate action, and their return to the fold is very welcome.

That being said, in the intervening years since President Trump’s announcement, we have seen many other countries lift their voices and call for stronger international action. Many countries have now made a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. It feels like some of this may have been a response to, or at least influenced by, America’s withdrawal, either because America’s absence opened up room for other states to steer the narrative a little more, or it may even have been a direct opposition to President Trump’s stance.



By: Kourosh Ziabari

“ ODVV Interview: Climate change is no longer a future threat but a present challenge ”