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Climate Change And Human Rights: Will Cancun Deliver?

Climate change has the potential to exacerbate existing incompliance with economic, social and cultural rights because many countries that are most vulnerable to climate change are ones with weak human rights mechanisms.

Although poor countries are disproportionately feeling the adverse impacts of climate change, however, wealthy countries--the historical CO2 emitters--are dragging their feet on committing to a legally-binding solution, an inaction that led Bolivia’s ambassador to the UN to say that wealthy states are "holding humanity hostage."  As countries gather this week for the 2010 UN Climate Change Conference, will Cancun deliver what Copenhagen couldn’t? Bringing human rights to into the discussion might help to bring climate justice to the center of negotiations.

For many people, climate change seems like a looming but distant problem, an intangible concept removed from our day-to-day living and relegated to scientific statistics and future concerns. For many communities around the world, however, climate change is already having devastating human impacts; it is a crisis of today just as much as it is one of tomorrow.  What is certain is that ultimately, climate change will affect us all, and even small changes in global temperatures and weather patterns can have huge and irreversible impacts. 

Symptoms that we are reaching a breaking point have been already evidenced in several devastating natural disasters in recent years, such as, for instance, the floods in Pakistan earlier this year. Around 14 million people were affected by the flooding there, a disaster greater in scale than the South Asian tsunami and the recent earthquakes in Haiti combined. Evidence shows that the frequency of if these sudden-onset disasters is increasing, with an average of about 400 disasters per year, double the figure reported 20 years ago.

These disasters result in high death tolls which disproportionately are felt by vulnerable groups such as women and children, indigenous groups, refugees, the disabled and the poor. They often lead to secondary negative impacts which further exacerbate the enjoyment of human rights—including food crises, displacement and lack of access to adequate sanitation, education and health facilities.  

Climate change impacts, however, are not always so obvious, and some of the most challenging consequences have been or are slowly encroaching.  We have all heard the foreboding predictions on the climate-change induced displacement that would occur should global sea-levels rise even marginally. A new report by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research shows that up to a billion people could be made homeless in the next 90 years if countries fail to cut emissions. Many small island nations’ very right to self-determination is threatened by rising sea levels, such as Kiribati, which recently hosted the latest conference of the Climate Vulnerable Forum. 

Each year, many countries find themselves more and more water-scarce and prone to desertification, leading to droughts which have pushed people on the brink of starvation, notably in landlocked Niger, where 46 percent of the population suffer from food insecurity. In June 2010, Russia, the world’s third largest polluter after China and the United States, experienced an anomalous heat wave that resulted in many fatalities and wildfires around the country.  Figures by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suggest that 2010 is most likely to be the warmest year since records began in 1880. 

Climate change is slowly melting glaciers and the ice caps, often presented through the image of desolate polar bears floating on broken-off ice islands.  However, these changes to Arctic regions are also threatening the traditional way of life of indigenous peoples. An Inuit petition was famously filed in 2005 to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights against the United States, claiming that the US had violated human rights by damaging the livelihoods of the Arctic peoples by failing to curb its emissions.

Climate change is already and will continue to have distressing and multiple negative impacts, posing an existential threat to humankind, making combating it a "a moral imperative."  This has been acknowledged by the UN OHCHR in its Resolution  7/23 on Human Rights and Climate Change (March 28, 2008), which raised concern that climate change "poses an immediate and far-reaching threat." The world’s nations cannot afford to waste time delivering on their pledges made in Copenhagen last year to reduce emissions to keep global temperatures under a two-degrees Celsius rise. The Kyoto Protocol aimed to reduce greenhouse gases by five percent by 2012 from 1990 levels. However, in 2009, greenhouse gas emissions were 40 percent greater than they were in 1990.

Unfortunately, those who have contributed the least to climate change emissions and have the least resources and access to information to cope with and understand its effects often find themselves on the frontline of feeling climate change’s adverse impacts.  Even more disconcerting, several countries continue to operate under a “business as usual” scenario and up until recently, even evidence of global warming was disputed. The OHCHR (A/HRC/10/61 of January 15, 2009) in a recent study on the links between climate change and human rights outlines policy guidelines and stresses international obligations of states with regard to international in this context.

The OHCHR has also affirmed that human rights standards and principles should form the basis for and strengthen policymaking in the area of climate change and countries are called to align climate change policies with human rights objectives. CESR participated in the 3rd UN Social Forum on the adverse impact of climate change on the fulfillment of human rights, including ESC rights, that was hosted in Geneva from October 4-6, 2010.

World leaders are urged to incorporate international human rights principles into the Cancun negotiations. Despite already low expectations for Cancun, it is critical that a binding commitment be reached on emissions reduction to keep temperature below the tipping point of 2 degrees Celsius. Wealthy countries should acknowledge their “differentiated responsibility” in global climate change adaptation and mitigation in order to comply with their extra-territorial obligations to respect, protect and fulfill economic, social and cultural rights.