Climate Change and Human Rights: Securing the Right to Life

By Samir Saran and Vidisha Mishra - 17 November 2015
Climate Change and Human Rights: Protecting People on a Warming Planet

This column by Samir Saran and Vidisha Mishra is part of Global Policy’s e-book, ‘Climate Change and Human Rights: The 2015 Paris Conference and the Task of Protecting People on a Warming Planet’, edited by Marcello Di Paola and Daanika Kamal. Contributions from academics and practitioners will be serialised on Global Policy until the e-book’s release in November 2015. Find out more here or join the debate on Twitter using #GPclimatechange.

Climate change poses both direct and indirect threats to human rights: the right to food, the right to water and sanitation, access to affordable commercial energy, as well as the consequent larger right to development. Issues such as forced mass migration, threat of climate-linked conflict situations, direct and indirect threats to health and healthcare systems, and the impacts on land and livelihoods all demonstrate that climate change and human rights concerns are closely interwoven. The right to a life of dignity and the right to life itself are at stake.

At the heart of the problem of climate change is a twisted irony - the countries that have been least responsible for the problem are the ones likely to suffer the most. Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions arose from the economic activity of developed countries but the worst impacts of climate change will be felt by poorer nations. People who are already vulnerable and marginalized will be more affected than those who have greater capacity to absorb adverse impacts. The impacts of climate change will be transnational but they will not affect everybody equally.

At present, almost a third of all yearly human deaths are due to poverty-related causes. The situation is only likely to get exacerbated in the future with the increasing impact of climate change. Women and girls make up a disproportionate number of the world’s poor, which renders them even more vulnerable. For instance, in rural India, women are predominantly responsible for providing food and water. Hence, the effects of climate change on soil fertility, water availability and food security have very direct impacts on women. Further, the 2004 earthquake and tsunami highlighted the higher vulnerability of Indian women in disaster situations, when four times as many Indian women as men died in the affected region. This is one example of how climate change widens existing inequalities, which could be lethal for India where besides gender, caste- and class- related disparities also determine the levels of human rights enjoyed by citizens.

While global climate negotiations must inevitably focus on protecting the environment and safeguarding natural resources for future generations, it is essential that they never forsake the immediate development needs of the most vulnerable populations across the globe. To do that, the debate on climate change must focus especially on equitability, access to energy, and sharing of space. Clearly, development is not just an economic and social necessity; it is also the best adaptation to climate change. Development which leads to strengthening of the response-capabilities and assets of vulnerable populations is crucial for safeguarding their basic human rights to life, health and livelihoods, as well as for successful climate change adaptation and mitigation.

This is especially relevant for emerging economies like India, home to an estimated 33% of the world’s poorest 1.2 billion people. Safeguarding the right to development is crucial here, as it will implicate the right to life itself. A successful approach would be one that does not view environment protection and poverty eradication as mutually-exclusive domains. There is little morality in saving the planet when a third of all humans still do not live beyond the fourth decade, while a seventh of them live well beyond eight decades.

In fact, the dominant narrative of de-linking energy emissions from growth within climate negotiations fosters an implicit narrative of possible human rights suppressions in developing countries. Economist Tim Jackson has explored the popular narrative of "absolute decoupling" of emissions from economic growth. According to his findings, while it is possible to slow the growth of emissions relative to the growth rate of the economy, it is implausible to stall or reverse emissions while the economy is still in the process of expanding - the existence of carbon-saving technologies notwithstanding.

India has yet to peak its energy consumption and is still striving to provide the minimum lifeline energy of 2000-W per capita - that is, the per capita energy consumption with which a first world citizen could live in 2050 without lowering their present standard of living (as per a 1998 study by the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich). Research suggests that access to energy is essential for poverty alleviation, and in improving livelihood opportunities in developing countries. Although India’s per capita energy consumption is far lower than that of China, the U.S. and the European Union, India is the world’s fourth largest energy consumer overall and the world’s third largest carbon emitter. The country’s stand at climate change negotiations is likely to be focused on the twin ambitions of economic growth and access to energy for human development while pursuing a clean energy agenda.

What concerns much of the developed world is that while they have generally reduced their coal consumption in the recent past (post-financial crisis), India has increased its consumption over the same period. However, analysis indicates that this increase in consumption should not be considered reflective of the country’s ‘irresponsibility’ towards the climate. Rather, it must be emphasised that on a per capita basis, India burns roughly a fifth of the coal that the U.S. does, and a third of the EU. As we move towards 2050, where we seek to limit per capita emission to 2 tonnes of CO2 (Eqv.) for the estimated 9 billion inhabitants of planet Earth, personal energy space, carbon allowances, fuel choices and lifestyle emissions must start to converge. Here, the crucial distinction between accesses to lifeline energy versus lifestyle energy needs to be strongly articulated. The former reflects the minimum energy required to fulfil what can be categorised as “basic human needs”, measured through GDP growth rate targets, HDI levels, as well as estimations of the energy required to meet a predetermined set of development goals. However, if lifeline energy is understood to be high - enough to cover the minimum lifestyle needs of citizens in developed countries - anything beyond that ought to be defined as lifestyle energy. Therefore, while it will strive to move towards cleaner energy, India is likely to rely on coal consumption in order to grow its industrial base and develop its economy. Without development and poverty alleviation, India will be unable to invest in renewables or be climate-resilient. More succinctly, “India will need to grow its coal capacity if it is to successfully go green”. The existing inequitable sharing of carbon space is the point of departure for conversations around climate justice and equity.

In December this year, at the Conference of Parties (COP) 21, countries will attempt to formulate a global climate agreement by integrating voluntary and self-determined national contributions of 193 countries. The negotiations in Paris must ensure that the agreement is not so focused on safeguarding the rights of future generations that it ends up sacrificing the lives and prospects of existing at-risk and vulnerable populations in developing countries. Notwithstanding the “creeping normalcy” of climate impact, climate change induced natural disasters and extreme weather events are already upon those populations and are only likely to be more extreme in the future.

In this context, a rights-based approach, could “analyse obligations, inequalities and vulnerabilities,” and “redress discriminatory practices and unjust distributions of power,” as specified by the United Nations Human Rights Commission. It can be established that such obligations apply to the targets and commitments of States in the context of climate change, and therefore future climate regimes should focus on protecting the rights of those most vulnerable to climate change. The Declaration on the Right to Development proclaimed by the UNFCCC articulates these human rights principles, and calls for States to address the issue in keeping with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities in order to benefit both present and future generations.

In a still dramatically unequal world, realizing low-carbon, climate-resilient, and sustainable development in all countries is not possible without international cooperation in finance, technology, and capacity-building. It must also be acknowledged that climate change mitigation is not plausible without eradicating poverty and ensuring climate justice across and within nations. Integrating human rights into climate actions and empowering the most vulnerable populations such as women and children in developing countries to participate as change-makers in the adaptation and mitigation processes will expedite the mobilisation required to combat the impacts. Providing energy access is an auxiliary for gender equality, women’s empowerment and inclusive development.

Ahead of the Paris conference, the Indian Prime Minister has urged the global community to focus on ‘climate justice’ over climate change. Under-consumption of the poor cannot subsidise the over-consumption of the rich, both across and within nations. In order for future negotiations to be sustainable and successful, States must strive to rise above rhetoric and power-play to shoulder the dual responsibilities of protecting the environment while upholding the rights to life and development – equitably, if not equally.


Samir Saran is Senior Fellow and Vice President at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, India. His research interests include the evolving contours of global governance particularly on matters of climate and internet. Vidisha Mishra works on social policy at the Observer Research Foundation.

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