ODVV Interview: It Is Time to Recognize a Human Right to a Healthy Environment

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Publish Date : 09/28/2021 23:53
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Racism and injustice express themselves in many ways, and one of those ways is certainly environmental. Part of the solution to this problem lies in the linking of environmental circumstances to human rights – we need to strengthen people’s rights not to be exposed to these forms of harm, regardless of where they live and regardless of their income level.

In the eyes of many governments and nations, the climate crisis appears to be a down-the-road problem that can be put on the back burner and dealt with at a later point, because it is not an urgent matter with immediate repercussions for our societies. This is a dangerous fallacy that involves the risk of neglecting what the United Nations authorities have warned is the greatest threat to the human rights of our generation.

 

The consequences of climate change are massive and already taking a heavy toll on communities worldwide, particularly the more vulnerable groups that have meager resources to shield themselves from the brunt of a warming planet, rising sea levels, devastating hurricanes and cataclysmic wildfires.

 

In concrete terms, the value of global financial assets at risk as a result of climate change has been estimated by the London School of Economics and Political Science to equal a staggering USD2.5 trillion. Natural disasters are already costing low and middle-income countries nearly USD18 billion every year and more broadly inflicting USD390 billion in damages on households and firms. This is while the Climate Policy Initiative think tank reported the aggregate global expenditure to combat climate change in 2017 totaled USD510-530 billion, which the experts say is an underinvestment.

 

One of the shared targets of the international community, enshrined in the Paris Agreement, is to limit the global temperature increase in the 21st century to 2 degrees Celsius while endeavoring to achieve the means to limit the rise to 1.5 degrees. If this objective is fulfilled, requiring concerted global determination and action, the number of people exposed to extreme heatwaves will be reduced by 420 million, while between 184 and 270 million fewer people will be susceptible to water scarcity. Indeed, the end result is less poverty, less forced migration and less human rights violations.

 

Ken Conca is a professor of international relations in the School of International Service at American University. A member of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Expert Advisory Group on Conflict and Peacebuilding, he is the 2017 recipient of the Al-Moumin Environmental Peacebuilding Award that goes to thought leaders working on the interplay between environmental change, conflict and peace. He studies the human rights implications of climate change.

Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has talked to Prof. Conca to discuss the roadblocks to robust environmental governance, the impacts of climate change on the communities of color and minorities and the importance of environmental justice in political decision-making.

 

Q: In environmental governance, growth is regarded as one of the main drivers of environmental degradation. This is why experts opine that the world should transition to a degrowth phase without curbing social efficiency or lowering the standard of living and quality of life for the people. Is it possible to easily convince the world governments, particularly those reliant on fossil fuel production and exports as well as polluting industrial activities for growth, that the benefits of environmental preservation and adopting sustainable ecological policies outweigh the dividends of economic and industrial growth?

A: Growth of the sort the current dominant economic system has pursued is indeed a problem. Climate change, toxic exposure, damage to water supplies, and the destruction of biodiversity are some of the consequences. However, if there is a pollution of affluence, there is also a pollution of poverty, in which far too many people of the world live in economically and ecologically marginal conditions, without access to clean water, breathable air, and a healthy environment. The challenge is two-fold: first, we must make the idea of sustainable development a reality, by improving people’s standards of living while lessening the most destructive effects of current economic practice. Second, we must find the right balance of “common but differentiated responsibility” among nations. It is neither realistic not ethical to expect desperately poor people not to use the natural resources available to them. But it is also neither realistic nor ethical to think that we can continue on the current path of wasteful, environmentally destructive practices.

 

Q: One of the key concepts in environmental governance is the consideration of the environment and natural resources as global common good embodying the characteristics of non-rivalry and non-exclusivity, meaning that it is impossible to limit entitlement to these resources or deprive anyone from them. Moreover, these assets are crucial for life and shouldn’t be monopolized by a single individual or state. But looking at the facts, we can discover that, for example, the industrial countries have left a disproportionately negative environmental impact, and five industrial nations in the world are responsible for 61 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Or the ecological footprint of the United States exceeds biocapacity by 133 percent, which means the country is exploiting more natural resources than its natural share. How is possible to upend this order and give countries equal share of natural resources and the environment?

A: There is no question that the industrialized world has incurred an ecological deficit. There is also no question that the current unequal global distribution of power makes it very difficult to reverse the situation. I believe that doing so requires a three-part strategy. First, we must find ways to strengthen multilateral institutions and multilateral practices. Much of my work has focused on ways to strengthen the capacity of the United Nations to play a more effective role on global environmental challenges. The UN is certainly not a perfect institution, but it is essential. Second, we must strengthen the coalition of people across borders who are working for a more sustainable future, through new practices of growing food, decentralized forms of renewable energy, water conservation, and other essential practices. Third, it is time to recognize a human right to a safe and healthy environment, so that the rights of people can become a more powerful force for beginning to alter the status quo.

 

Q: It is well-known that minorities and vulnerable communities sustain the most damages as a result of climate change. In North America, impoverished communities and people of color, including the Hispanics are more prone to inhaling toxic air because their neighborhoods are located next to power plants and refineries. Alternatively, African-Americans are three times more likely to die due to airborne pollution. Are there solutions to this sort of climate injustice?

A: Racism and injustice express themselves in many ways, and one of those ways is certainly environmental. Part of the solution to this problem lies in the linking of environmental circumstances to human rights – we need to strengthen people’s rights not to be exposed to these forms of harm, regardless of where they live and regardless of their income level. Historically, minority communities in the United States lacked the power to prevent these intrusions. Another important part of the solution is in how we collect and report information; we need to be able to see not just national average outcomes but the distribution of effects across different communities, whether based on race, gender, or geography. If there is good news, it is in the growing organization of a movement for environmental justice. Certainly, we are seeing that growth in the United States. But we still have a long way to go to achieve environmental justice.

 

Q: United Nations studies predict 30 world countries will be water scarce by 2025. Within the next four years, it is expected that at least 1.8 billion people will be living in regions beset by water scarcity. Considering the steep depletion of water resources and that the water wars have already begun, do you think water crises will be spilling over into developed, high-income countries, as well?

A: We are already seeing such spillover. Here in the United States, the Colorado river basin is slowly and painfully being forced to recognize that there is simply not enough water for the current, wasteful practices. Tensions have been rising, not only between different states but also between different user groups, for example, cities versus farmers. However, water wars are certainly not inevitable. There is far more cooperation around water in today’s world than conflict, and cooperative strategies can create conditions of smarter water use that leaves everyone better off than if they were to fight over limited supplies. The single most important step is to create institutional arrangements that allow such disagreements to be discussed, mediated, and resolved peacefully, before they reach the point that tensions erupt into open conflict.

 

Q: A legal precedent has emerged by which non-governmental organizations and citizens in countries such as France, the Netherlands and Switzerland take their governments to court for their failure to set adequate climate action targets and mitigate the climate crisis. Do you believe this procedure is useful in holding the governments accountable over their environmental commitments? Can such a pattern be replicated in less democratic, cloistered societies?

A: I believe that citizen initiatives of this sort are essential to creating greater accountability. To take full advantage of them, however, we also need to create a stronger rights framework upon which citizens can press their legal claims. Many of the strategies we are seeing are forced to make indirect legal arguments because the underlying foundation of environmental human rights in the law is incomplete. It is true that such challenges are more difficult to move forward in less democratic contexts, and this is where global multilateral initiatives can play an important role. When the United Nations recognized a human right to water, for example, it greatly strengthened the hand of domestic actors trying to press their claims in the courts in their nation.

 

Q: The dependency of the world on fossil fuels and conventional sources of energy such as oil and gas is a persistent reality, even though massive investment has been made internationally on renewable energies. Reports show that since 1988, only 100 major fossil fuel companies have been responsible for the production of 71 percent of all greenhouse gases. Do you believe this trend can be reversed and that it is possible to mitigate the negative human rights impacts of global warming by curtailing the reliance of countries on these fuels?

A: I am optimistic about the future of solar and wind energy. Here in the United States, wind technology is now economically competitive as a way to generate electricity, and solar is getting close as improvements in battery storage systems continue to be realized. The challenge is not so much technological or economic, but rather political. We need to change the legal framework so that small generators can sell the surplus power they generate more easily into the national grid. We also need to recognize that some of the fossil fuel resources owned by those companies are going to be “stranded assets” that never get developed, because climate change simply will not allow it. My university recently decided to stop investing in fossil fuel energy companies, not only as a way to speed up the transition but also on the belief that it simply will not be profitable. Some of these companies exert a very strong influence on our politics, in part because we believe ourselves to be more dependent on them than we actually are.

 

Q: There are many countries that do not recognize climate action as a top agenda item due to being preoccupied with unilateralistic priorities. This only ratchets up the costs of climate change, and unless the international community takes unified action to confront the climate emergency, the challenges will remain in place. How is it possible to make policy-making for environmental sustainability an urgency for all nations similarly?

A: At the global level, we have seen too many governments hiding behind one another’s inaction, using it as an excuse not to do more themselves. I believe much of the pressure for change in government policies must come from inside the nation. More and more people are starting to feel the effects of climate change in their daily lives. Here in the United States, we are seeing terrible problems with wildfires in the American West and with drought and flooding in many regions. As people start to connect these harms to climate change, they are starting to demand action. At the global level, we also need to put more accountability mechanisms into international agreements. The Kyoto Protocol was not a perfect agreement, but at least it did contain targets and timetables for specific achievements. In comparison, the Paris Agreement, which replaced Kyoto, is a very weak instrument that lacks clear reporting and accounting mechanisms that can be used to hold governments accountable for the results they produce.

 

Q: How do unilateral coercive measures, in the form of economic sanctions, deny countries the wherewithal to develop green technologies and respond to the challenges associated with climate change and global warming? Do these measures somewhat exacerbate the environmental crisis in the target countries?

A: I do not believe that economic sanctions wielded by governments are an effective tool of international environmental policy in most cases, because I do not believe that they will be applied in a fair and balanced fashion. Often, we see the use of such sanctions being driven by commercial or geopolitical incentives, in a way that can be very damaging to the political cooperation we require on these issues.

 

 

By: Kourosh Ziabari

“ ODVV Interview: It Is Time to Recognize a Human Right to a Healthy Environment ”