Human rights abuse does not only happen in times of conflict. In its report “Climate Wrongs and Human Rights” released recently, a major civil society group Oxfam International said that the lackluster response of industrialized countries to climate change mitigation is another ticking bomb for human rights violations in developing nations.
“In failing to tackle climate change with urgency, rich countries are effectively violating the human rights of millions of the world’s poorest people,” Oxfam stated.
The report stressed that the industrialized countries’ lack of commitment to clean up their own backyard will hamper the worldwide effort to keep global temperature from going beyond the critical threshold of 2ºC, the ideal temperature in which climate change could be kept at bay.
Climate change, which is triggered by unabated greenhouse gas concentration, is defined as “any change in global temperatures and precipitation over time.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that it could cause stronger typhoons, sea-level rise, drought and massive flooding, displacing millions and increasing deaths worldwide.
The most vulnerable communities to climate change are the developing countries. Oxfam, quoting the IPCC, illustrated that climate change could halve the produce of farmers in some parts of Africa in 2020, and victimize one billion people in Asia through water shortage.
Clean own backyard
With their major contribution to carbon emission, rich countries should pave the way for mitigation by cleaning their own backyard, Oxfam said.
Rich countries should cut their carbon emission by at least 80 percent, with 30 percent reduced by 2050. Oxfam said that 23 first-tier countries, which include the United States, Japan, Australia, Canada and Western Europe, have produced 60 percent of the world’s total carbon discharge since 1850.
In the G8 Summit held last July, leaders of the Group of Eight ?France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, US and the European Union pledged to set “interim” goals to achieve the 2050 carbon emission target.
However, while this was acclaimed as an improvement over the assailed past agreement of G8 nations to only “seriously consider” offsetting their carbon emission, critics said that until rich countries specify targets, any multilateral pledges would just be political hogwash.
Setting reduction goals for carbon emission has become a pressing objective as the expiration of the targets in the Kyoto Protocol draws near. Ratified by 182 parties as of May this year, the protocol requires Annex I, or affluent nations, to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5 percent below their 1990 levels. The United States is the only developed nation which has not yet ratified the protocol, whose green house gas (GHG) subtraction targets will lapse in 2012.
More importantly, the Oxfam added that the subject of halving carbon emissions is in itself a human rights issue. Rich countries are also answerable for the lives and welfare of their poorer neighbors, as the impacts of climate change threaten peoples’ rights to exist and grow.
Table 2. How Climate Change Undermines Human Rights
Human-rights norms in international law
Current and projected impacts of climate change upon human rights
The Right to Life and Security
‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.’ (UDHR, Article 3)
• There will be more deaths, disease, and injury due to the increasing frequency and intensity of heat waves, floods, storms, fires, and droughts.
• Rising sea levels will increase the risk of death and injury by drowning. Up to 20 per cent of the world’s population live in river basins that are likely to be affected by increased flood hazard by the 2080s.
• Heat waves are likely to increase deaths among elderly or chronically sick people, young children, and the socially isolated. Europe’s 2003 heat wave – induced by climate change – resulted in 27,000 extra deaths.*
The Right to Food
‘The State Parties to the present Covenant, recognise the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger…’ (ICESCR, Article 11)
• Future climate change is expected to put close to 50 million more people at risk of hunger by 2020, and an additional 132 million people by 2050.
• In Africa, shrinking arable land, shorter growing seasons, and lower crop yields will exacerbate malnutrition. In some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could fall by 50 per cent as soon as 2020.
• In parts of Asia, food security will be threatened due to water shortages and rising temperatures. Crop yields could fall by up to 30 per cent in Central and South Asia by 2050.
The Right to Subsistence
‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing…’. (UDHR, Article 25)
‘In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.’ (ICCPR, Article 1.2 and ICESCR, Article 1.2)
• Water: By 2020, between 75 million and 250 million people in Africa are likely to face greater water stress due to climate change. Reduced water flow from mountain glaciers could affect up to one billion people in Asia by the 2050s.
• Natural resources: Approximately 20–30 per cent of plant and animal species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk of extinction if average global temperatures rise more than 1.5–2.5oC. Coral bleaching and coastal erosion will affect fish stocks – currently the primary source of animal protein for one billion people.
• Property and shelter: Millions more people risk facing annual floods due to sea-level rise by the 2080s, mostly in the mega-deltas of Asia and Africa. On small islands, too, sea-level rise is expected to exacerbate inundation, storm surge, and erosion, threatening vital infrastructure, settlements, and facilities that support the livelihoods of island communities.
The Right to Health
‘The State Parties to the present Covenant recognise the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.’ (ICESCR, Article 12)
• Child malnutrition will increase, damaging growth and development prospects for millions of children.
• Increasing floods and droughts will lead to more cases of diarrhoea and cholera. Over 150,000 people are currently estimated to die each year from diarrhoea, malaria, and malnutrition caused by climate change.*
• Changing temperatures will cause some infectious diseases to spread into new areas. It is estimated that 220–400 million more people will be at risk of malaria. The risk of dengue fever is estimated to reach 3.5 billion people by 2085 due to climate change.
Sources: Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR); International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007, Working Group II; *World Health Organisation.
Money vs. lives
The obstacle between wealthy nations and their reduction of carbon emission is the economy. One of the reasons why countries did not immediately buckle down to work after the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997 is that the immediate decrease of carbon emission would weigh down the economy of Annex I nations.
Oxfam said, however, that wealthy nations should not duck from their responsibility because of money.
“But in a global context, how can the financial costs of cutting emissions in the richest countries be compared with the human costs of climate change for the world’s poorest people? The implications of such a trade-off are appalling. Human-rights principles provide an alternative to the assumption that everything – from carbon to malnutrition – can be priced, compared, and traded. Human rights are a fundamental moral claim each person has to life’s essentials – such as food, water, shelter, and security – no matter how much or how little money or power they have,” Oxfam said.
The Kyoto protocol addressed this problem by introducing "flexible mechanisms," where rich countries could buy their greenhouse gas emission reduction and gain carbon credits by financially and technologically supporting projects of emission decrease in developing countries.
The Oxfam said that the bar has to be raised and urged wealthy nations to increase the financial aid both for adaptation and mitigation. The group specified that in 2030 alone, $176 billion in low-carbon investment is needed to push developing countries to moderate their carbon emission.
No to biofuels?
The group also flashed the red light against hastily joining the biofuels bandwagon. “The current rush into biofuels is both failing to deliver emissions cuts, and undermining the rights of people in developing countries,” they said.
They added that biofuel production has spurred skyrocketing food prices, as resources have been divided. Lands for growing grains have been used instead to plant crops where biofuel derives from.
Aside from this, Oxfam reported that workers in biofuel plantations suffer from poor pay and substandard labor conditions. The continued demand for biofuels could also lead to the displacement of more than 60 million indigenous peoples worldwide, as the “scramble for supply” may result in wanton land conversion and expansion of biofuel plantations.