Climate change has serious consequences for human rights and health. As glaciers melt and sea levels rise, and as droughts, floods and storms grow more frequent and extreme, the rights to health, life, food, water and sanitation, housing—even to having a nationality—all stand under threat.
For this reason, all of the UN Special Procedures to the UN Human Rights Council, UN Special Envoy on Climate Change Mary Robinson, Human Rights Watch, and hundreds of civil society groups have urged leaders to include their human rights obligations in the COP21 climate agreement. Leaders are being reminded they must, “in all climate change-related actions, respect, protect, promote, and fulfill human rights.”1
But what does incorporating human rights into the Paris agreement mean for health and for whom does it matter?
Those familiar with the UN Human Rights Council’s resolutions on human rights and climate change, the IPCC’s Assessment Reports, or Pope Francis’s encyclical will recall references to “the most vulnerable.”2 This refers to those most susceptible to the adverse effects of climate change owing to factors such as age, gender, disability, poverty level, geography, and indigenous or minority status.
It includes farmers in the Andes who depend on glacial water to grow crops to feed themselves and their families, and to support their livelihood. It includes Arctic indigenous peoples whose icy land is melting earlier, faster, and more, compromising their ability to get enough to eat. It includes women in drought-stricken northwestern Kenya, finding they have to walk farther to get water for themselves and their families to drink, cook, clean, and bathe. It includes people in the Philippines and Bangladesh who battle contaminated water and disease after devastating floods. And it includes people in the US who drowned or were crushed, cut, or hit by debris in Superstorm Sandy.
From access to food and clean water to disease and bodily harm, each of these examples implicates the right to health. Many also implicate other rights, such as food, water, housing, and life. The Paris agreement links to all of this because it sets the bar for national action. Parties will give effect to the agreement by incorporating it into national law and actions. Thus, incorporating human rights in the agreement will guide States to take steps at home to protect the health and rights of their people.
This would drive countries to design adaptation projects to account for Andean farmers’ and families’ water needs. It would help Arctic countries to recognize the vulnerable situation indigenous peoples face in accessing their land and natural resources and to
raise their climate mitigation ambition accordingly. It would guide Kenya to develop an adaptation plan to reduce the burden on women in obtaining clean, accessible, and adequate water. And it would help countries to recognize the need to plan for adequate medical treatment following storm-induced devastation from the Philippines and Bangladesh to the US.
All Parties to the UNFCCC have signed at least one of the major UN human rights treaties, so their obligations apply in the context of climate change regardless. But expressly stating those obligations in the Paris agreement makes it clear to States, as they design their climate policies and take actions in response to climate change, that they need to think about those obligations and make sure they abide by them. Because human rights obligations apply universally to the elements of the UNFCCC, they should appear in a general, overarching section of the agreement.
Climate change does not need to be a story of doom and gloom. Rather, it can drive us to build a healthy, sustainable, and just future—by taking actions that protect the environment and people.
There is a real opportunity coming up in Paris.
States can affirm their human rights obligations by stating in the operative part of the Paris agreement that “Parties shall, in all climate-related actions, respect, protect, promote, and fulfill human rights.”
Abby Rubinson, JD, is a consultant on international, environmental, and human rights law and an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law.
1 http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15393&LangID=E; http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2014/smsn/ngo/482.pdf; https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/10/15/there-no-time-left/climate-change-environmental-threats-and-human-rights-turkana; http://www.ciel.org/news/hundreds-of-civil-society-groups-demand-human-rights-are-enshrined-in-2015-climate-agreement/.
2 UN HRC Resolutions on human rights and climate change, 7/23 (2008), 10/4 (2009), 18/22 (2009), 26/27 (2014), and 29/15 (2015); http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg2/WGIIAR5-Chap19_FINAL.pdf at 1043; http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.