CLIMATE CHANGE IS A HUMAN RIGHTS CRISIS
The climate emergency is a human rights crisis of unprecedented proportions. Climate change threatens the enjoyment of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of present and future generations and, ultimately, the future of humanity. When climate change-related impacts hit a country or a community, the knock-on effects can seriously undermine the enjoyment of the right to life lived in dignity, endanger a range of freedoms, and in many cases even put at risk the cultural survival of entire peoples.
At the current level of 1.1°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, we are already witnessing devastating impacts, such as heatwaves and unprecedented wildfires, back-to-back tropical storms of high intensity and severe drought. These events, together with the slow-onset impacts of climate change such as sea-level rise, severely affect the enjoyment of the human rights of millions of people, including the rights to life, water, food, housing, health, sanitation, adequate standard of living, work, development, healthy environment, culture, self-determination as well as the right to be free from discrimination and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, among others. This publication describes how people are denied enjoyment of these rights due to climate change, and what the future threats are. For example, about 6,300 people died in the aftermath of super-typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013 and almost 4 million were affected by the 2019 cyclones in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, being killed, displaced and losing access to schools, hospitals and sanitation. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, on average, 20.88 million people were internally displaced every year by weather-related events between 2008 and 2018.
Every further increase of global average temperature will aggravate the impacts of climate change for people and the planet. For example, the World Health Organization predicts that climate change is expected to cause 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 due to malaria, malnutrition, diarrhoea and heat stress. The World Food Programme expects that climate change could lead to a 20% increase in global hunger and malnutrition by 2050. A 2°C rise in global temperature would lead to more than 1 billion people suffering from a severe reduction in water resources.
Scientists have confirmed that it is crucial that global warming is maintained within 1.5°C. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that holding the increase in the global average temperature to 1.5°C could – compared with 2°C – result in 420 million fewer people frequently exposed to extreme heatwaves, reduce the number of people exposed to climate-induced water stress by 50% and reduce the risk of coastal flooding by up to 80% for small island developing states. The 1.5°C threshold can still be met but urgent and wide-ranging measures are needed and the window for action is closing rapidly. Once carbon emissions are reduced to zero, states will need to establish a further, lower threshold for the global average temperature that reduces even further the harmful impacts on human rights that have occurred even at the current global average temperature.
The climate crisis is a manifestation of deep-rooted injustices. Although climate change is a global problem affecting everybody, it disproportionately affects individuals and groups who are already subjected to multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination or who are marginalized as a result of structural inequalities, ingrained practices or official policies that unfairly distribute resources, power and privilege. For example, women are often confined to roles and jobs that make them more reliant on natural resources and therefore more exposed to climate impacts. Because they face barriers in accessing financial or technical resources or are denied land ownership, they are less able to adapt to climate change. Because Indigenous Peoples heavily rely on the natural environment for their livelihoods, housing, medicines and cultural identity, and because they often live in areas prone to climate-related disasters due to a history of expropriation and forced evictions, they are among the groups suffering the most from climate impacts. People with disabilities are at greater risk during climate disasters compared with people without disabilities and their needs and voices are generally neglected in disaster risk reduction strategies. This publication describes the way in which climate change impacts these groups as well as other people marginalized on the basis of gender, class, caste, race and minority status, disability, age and migration status.
The climate crisis also disproportionally affects people in developing countries, especially in low-lying small island states and least developed countries, due not only to their exposure to climate-related disasters, but also to underlying political and socio-economic factors that amplify the impacts of those events, including the lasting consequences of colonialism. Climate change will not only perpetuate the effects of colonialism but, in effect, it is a new form of atmospheric colonization by states that had established colonial empires, and the states based on the settler societies they left behind. The climate scientists James Hansen and Makiko Sato have shown that between 1751 and 2014, the USA, UK and Germany produced cumulative per capita greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions that were at least six times higher than the global average. Russia, Canada and Australia meanwhile produced four to five times the global average. Responsibility for climate change closely tracks privilege across the world. OXFAM has calculated that from 1990 to 2015, the richest 10% of the world’s population (about 630 million people) were responsible for more than half of the cumulative carbon emissions, while the poorest 50% (about 3.1 billion people) were responsible for just 7% of cumulative emissions. The wealthiest 1% of the world’s population were responsible for the emission of more than twice as much carbon dioxide (CO2) as the poorer half of the world combined.
HUMAN RIGHTS ARE ESSENTIAL TO TACKLE THE CLIMATE CRISIS
Under international human rights law, states have legal and enforceable obligations to tackle the climate crisis. When states fail to take sufficient measures to prevent human rights harms caused by climate change, including foreseeable long-term harms, they violate their obligations under human rights law.
International human rights law provides extensive legally binding obligations that can be used to demand effective climate change policies and measures. Human rights law also provides extensive tools to enforce states’ legal obligations. Similarly, human rights principles and standards provide significant guidance to establish the responsibility of businesses in relation to the climate crisis. Human rights are therefore essential to hold states and corporations accountable for the human rights harms related to climate change for which they are responsible.
Recognizing that the climate emergency is a human rights crisis is also important as it can broaden the spectrum of people inspired to campaign for a just and rapid response to tackling climate change. Campaigning and advocating on the basis of human rights – as opposed to solely environmental protection – can motivate some decision-makers to adopt decisions in favour of human rights-consistent climate action, either due to the intrinsic argument made, or by showing that climate action has broad support in society.
As illustrated by several UN agencies and experts, civil society organizations and Indigenous Peoples, human rights are essential to strengthening climate action. Ensuring that climate measures and policies are consistent with human rights and centred in human rights principles, such as public participation, respect of free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples, equality and non-discrimination and respect of labour rights, is a legal obligation based on the human rights treaties that states have joined. It is also an effective approach to ensure the shift to a zero-carbon economy happens at the speed and scale required to limit global heating to 1.5°C or below without negatively impacting disproportionately on the rights of the most marginalized and those living in poverty. Affirming human rights principles and standards, but also using human rights mechanisms, tools and tactics to enforce these rights, can and has provided a crucial contribution to shape climate action that is ambitious enough to bring real positive transformation to people and the environment.
Groups most affected by the climate crisis, such as women, Indigenous Peoples, persons with disabilities, migrants and refugees, must not be seen only as victims, but everyone should recognize them as key agents of change and leaders in the local, national and international efforts to tackle climate change.
This publication presents Amnesty International’s analysis of international human rights standards and how they are relevant to climate change as a human rights issue and to key climate change-related issues such as mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage. It explains the importance of adopting a human rights lens to tackle the climate crisis, and it illustrates how climate change adversely affects the enjoyment of human rights and worsens inequality and discrimination. This document therefore seeks to spell out state obligations and corporate responsibilities as precisely as possible.
Amnesty International’s positions described in this document are based on human rights law, as developed by international and regional human rights treaty bodies and courts. They are also informed by the work of numerous UN and regional agencies and independent human rights experts, NGOs, think tanks and academics over the past decade as well as the activism of social movements and grassroots groups on the frontline of the fight for climate justice.