ODVV Interview: Climate change affects all...
In 2020, a string of unprecedented extreme weather events across the globe highlighted the exigency of taking meaningful action to tackle the climate crisis more seriously than ever. From record rainfalls in Indonesia forcing some 62,000 people from their homes to wildfires in Australia killing nearly 3 billion animals and demolishing 3,000 homes, from the Chinese province of Yunnan reporting the worst drought in 10 years to devastating floods in Kenya and Uganda displacing at least 400,000 people, the twinge of the heating Earth and changing climate was felt excruciatingly. Experts say 2020 was an apocalyptic wildfire season, with the global direct cost of forest fires standing at USD17 billion. Aggregately, natural disasters cost the world countries a total of USD210 billion in damages last year. While the past decade was the hottest on record, the year 2020 was alone 1.2C hotter than the average year in the 19th century. The hottest January, May, September and November of the 141 years of recorded climate history occurred in the turbulent 2020.
Although the global community appears to be preoccupied with the concern of how to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and restore a state of normalcy stripped away from human life for over a year, it is naïve to neglect the conundrum of global warming on the grounds that it does not immediately jeopardize our survival. Climate change, as attested by bodies such as the United Nations and countless scholars, is an existential threat to a range of human rights, and a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center across 26 nations found a 67-percent majority of people in these countries regard climate change as the foremost threat to the security of their societies. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres has termed climate change the “most important global systemic threat in relation to the global economy.”
Marcos Orellana is an adjunct professor of law at the George Washington University and his scholarly work primarily deals with the intersection of climate change and human rights. A former co-chair of the UN Environment Program’s civil society forum, Prof. Orellana is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has conducted an interview with Prof. Orellana on how the evolving patterns of climate change are impinging on the quality of life in different human societies, what the world governments need to do to stave off a climate catastrophe and what the effects of unilateralism are on climate policy-making. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: One of your study areas is the interplay between climate change and human rights. In 2019, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty Philip Alston broached the concept of “climate apartheid.” He said we are dealing with a situation in which the rich “pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.” Why has this challenge emerged? Who are the actors responsible for the glaring inequality the UN expert warned against?
A: The challenge of climate apartheid that the former UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty warned about has emerged from the profound environmental injustice underlying the climate crisis. Those who have contributed the least to the climate change emergency, such as islanders, forest dwellers, and people in the global south, stand to lose the most from climate impacts. Loss of water from the Himalayas may affect hundreds of millions of people. Sea level rise will leave entire nations without a livable territory. Heatwaves and wildfires will render much of the land uninhabitable for humans.
The environmental injustice underlying the climate emergency has been well known and documented. And while emissions of greenhouse gases result from an industrial development model that has been followed by most countries of the world, the lion’s share of historical responsibility of emissions lies with the global north. This is well reflected in the international law principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, according to which the north recognizes the pressures it has placed on the global environment and commits to taking action to address the problem. But the implementation of this principle does not often translate into concrete measures of accountability.
At the same time, the science of climate change is enabling ever more precise determinations of the contribution by certain corporations, especially in the oil and gas sector, that are individually responsible for an outsize share of emissions of greenhouse gases. Climate apartheid is the direct result of the lack of accountability of these corporations for irresponsible business models that set out to fund climate disinformation campaigns and fight climate regulatory action, all in the knowledge of the catastrophic risks and impacts resulting from climate change. Given the severe human rights impacts of climate change, it is no surprise that many are calling for the criminal prosecution of these deliberate, irresponsible corporate practices.
Q: What are the human rights that would be threatened as a result of the unchecked rise of the temperature of the Earth?
A: As the UN Human Rights Council has concluded, climate change-related impacts have a range of implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of human rights. Those people in already vulnerable situations, such as indigenous people, the elderly, the poor and the disabled, will feel the impacts most acutely. Human rights particularly threatened by climate change include the rights to life, health, food, water, property, science, self-determination, and the right to a healthy environment. But the omnipresence of the climate threat means that all aspects of the human experience on the planet will be impacted. In that sense, the enjoyment of all human rights will be negatively affected by climate change.
The serious risks and impacts posed by climate change to human rights calls on governments to take effective action to protect people against harm. This human rights obligation is heightened by the fact that climate change results from governments failure to control emissions of greenhouse gases from their territories. The Paris Agreement set a milestone in the interaction between climate change and human rights by reaffirming states’ duties to respect human rights in climate action. This statement of principle has profound significance in the development of the climate regime and measures, as the solution of climate change should not come at the expense of the rights of people. This issue has been raised in various contexts in climate negotiations, most recently in the elaboration of the rules on carbon markets: climate mitigation projects should not violate human rights.
Q: As reported by the World Bank, at 2 °C of warming, between 100 and 400 million people could be exposed to severe hunger while 2 billion more people may no longer have access to adequate drinking water. By 2080, climate change can lead to a global crop yield loss of 30 percent, even if proper measures are adopted. Is this unfavorable trend inevitable or is it possible for the governments to come up with remedies to avert such scenarios?
A: The Paris Agreement offers the tools needed to overcome the crisis and avert the worst impacts of climate change. Climate change is the result of the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere since the industrial resolution. Human intelligence and ingenuity are capable of finding solutions to serious problems.
The failure of governments to properly control pollution, and the failure of businesses to respect the environment, has resulted in a looming catastrophe for human rights of people around the world. But governments and businesses can change course.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that solidarity, cooperation and targeted action are critical to averting global threats. The global pandemic has also exposed the fault lines of social and economic inequality and vulnerability. In the face of the severe economic costs imposed by the pandemic, there is an important window of opportunity to implement economic recovery policies and plans that do not simply replicate the failures of the past that caused the climate crisis, but instead apply technologies and adopt policies that decarbonize society.
Actually, the window of opportunity offered by the post-pandemic recovery is not just important; it is actually the only chance available to humanity to avert the worst scenarios of climate impacts and achieve the emissions reductions called for by scientists prior to 2030.
Q: Governments worldwide are devoting their resources to procuring basic staples, funding education, transportation and supply of energy for their peoples, while many of them are engaged in counterproductive arms races. Is addressing climate change a top priority of the majority of governments today? Is the international community cognizant of the acuteness of global climate emergency and sufficiently determined to tackle it?
A: Climate change is an existential threat on humanity and on countless living forms in the planet. In business-as-usual scenarios, climate change will cause unspeakable suffering to millions of people around the world who will see their livelihoods, shelter and food sources compromised. Millions will lose their lives; many more will suffer hardship, dislocation, conflict and disease. These are the predictions of scientists and experts in the field.
Against this reality, one would expect that governments treat the climate emergency as a truly global existential threat. But the inertia, the complacency, the denial, and the deliberate obfuscation of science are all diverting attention from the climate crisis.
While international conferences have time and again loudly underscored the severity of the climate change crisis, the actual measures and plans for emissions reductions adopted by national governments are a far cry from what is actually needed to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. This said, awareness of the climate threat is increasing worldwide, despite disinformation campaigns by climate deniers. And greater awareness should enable governments to find the political support needed to decarbonize national economies.
Q: The former US President Donald Trump instructed the US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement in 2017. In 2001, and under the leadership of George W. Bush, the United States had dropped out of the Paris treaty’s predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol. What policies should we expect Preside Joe Biden to adopt in responding to the global climate crisis?
A: The United States under President Obama signed and ratified the Paris Agreement. In addition, the Obama administration took important regulatory action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from the energy sector and other sectors of the national economy. However, President Trump denied the reality of climate change and undertook an outright assault on science as the basis of reasoned environmental policymaking.
Many expect President Joe Biden to take strong action on climate change. His appointment of John Kerry as special presidential envoy for climate is an encouraging sign, as Mr. Kerry played an influential role in the negotiations of the Paris Agreement and its successful adoption in Paris in 2015.
All this said, the cornerstone of the Paris Agreement’s mitigation strategy lies in nationally determined contributions to the global mitigation objective of limiting the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. In other words, each country unilaterally defines its mitigation policy, while committing to the highest possible ambition in the level of emissions reduction. In that sense, unilateralism is embedded in the Paris Agreement’s multilateral response to climate change mitigation.
By: Kourosh Ziabari