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Human rights have been at the forefront of academic and socio-political discourse for some time now. Notwithstanding that the very term “right” is a fictional human construct, human rights act as the parameter by which human existence at large is judged. The parameters of equality, self-deterministic lifestyle, food, housing etc. all combine to make convenient the process of comparing two hugely separate lifestyles and socio-political systems within the common ground of a few set parameters. However, within this very setup, we witness the large scale of disruption of human rights as well, which in turn help the analyst to judge disruption itself as a basis of comparison. However, keeping aside man-made factors that also contribute towards human rights violations, the purpose of this discussion is solely to judge the impact of climate change upon universal human rights. Climate change is a fitting juxtapose to human rights since both are universal in nature. The rights to life, food, water, health and sanitization are the variety of human rights that has been affected due to climate change. Freedom, dignity, equality, justice and peace are the set of entitlements given to humans by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948. This connection between the set of inalienable human rights and a harmonious planet is profound and deeply integrated within the common fabric of existence.
Impact of Climate Change
Greenhouse gas emissions has the highest potential impact on global temperatures. These gases are produced primarily through human activity apart from certain natural causes. The ecosystem has faced major impacts due to carbon emission at a scale where even the atmosphere is being degraded at exponential rates. Heatwaves, droughts, rise in sea levels resulting in flood is the most apparent effect of ecological imbalance. However, there are effects which are not even apparent at the present moment, effects which will only be realised in hindsight. Loss of habitat resulting from rising sea levels, abnormal weather patterns resulting in destruction of life and property are some real consequences that have a direct correlation with climate change. Perhaps the harshest sentence passed in upon marginalised communities which do not always possess the financial and social resources necessary to sustain life in the midst of accidental loss. Even the elderly and children face hardships when their certain way of life is uprooted by some mischance of nature.
Climate Change and Fundamental Rights
Climate change thus directly affect the human Fundamental Rights to food, clothing and shelter. The right to equality provides us with the entitlement to avail of equal opportunities irrespective of determining factors. However, in the face of ever impending natural doom, human rights are adversely affected with the large-scale destruction of food, crops and property.
Conference on Climate Change and its Impact on Human Rights
A conference at COP24 in Poland was held with 34 Human Right experts addressing the issues of the environment. This conference has directly impacted the price of fossil fuels and other natural resources. The conference has led to an indirect pressurization on national governments and private enterprises to manufacture goods in a manner that sustains the environment as opposed to exploiting it. Thus, accountability on the part of governments and private players in the context of their business practices, assists in the upholding of human Fundamental Rights in the long run.
Thus, this paradigm relegates us towards the essential fact that is climate change, be it positive or negative, has an essential correlation with the standard of living that is sustained within a given set of circumstances. In other words, higher accountability directly results in lower environmental adversities, which in turn help to accelerate standard of living and thus the upholding of Human Rights as well within those parameters. Thus, to narrow the difference between the current environmental situation and the one which is desired should be a significant role for climate change activists and advocates as well as Human Right advocates. This movement has boomed all across the world over the last few decades, the impact of which is already being felt in daily routine practices.
654 cases in the US alone were filed by March 2017 and 230 cases were filed in other countries, all purporting to human right violations in correlation with corrupt environmental practices. In order to reduce the frequency of these, no amount of leeway should be given to governments and corporations. Complete accountability is the only way by which a modicum of reform can be
achieved. No amount of ignorance on the part of manufacturing concerns as to the disposal of waste by-products should be tolerated. Companies must be made to realise that profit cannot be the sole purpose and motive of a concern that spans continents. All companies and in turn, all employees and administrative bodies have responsibilities towards the environment. As a species unlike any other, it is a universal civic duty of each and every individual to maintain the ecological balance of this earth and keep it sustainable for future generations.
Article 1 (Right to Self Determination)
Article 1 of the UN Charter calls for respect of the “self-determination of peoples”. It is the basic right of each and every individual to freely choose and determine their lives as they seem it to be fit. However, climate change inadvertently cuts short this fundamental right. For example, migration in the light of some natural calamity inevitably snatches one’s right to self-determine, since in migration, the individual has to let go of all previous wishes and aspirations. Even without migration, a common flood resulting in loss of property sets back years of development and resource mobilization. To self-determine is not only a fundamental human right, but more importantly it’s a philosophical entitlement, one that stands irrespective of income level or standard of living. To witness climate change, that is largely a physical phenomenon, affect individual philosophical concerns gives one a sense of the scale at which climate change actually impacts the world around us.
Article 11 ICESCR: Right to Housing
On a similar standpoint, natural calamity also opposes one’s right to housing. According to Article 11 of the ICESCR, all individuals are entitled to adequate standard of living for themselves and their families and this includes the right to housing. However, in the event of any natural calamity, the first and foremost loss that oftentimes occur is their residence. What’s worse, natural calamities are not considered by any insuring body, and thus, most times than not, climate change affects one’s fundamental right to housing more than everything. Of course, this right could also be disrupted in lieu of man-made events as well. Classic examples are the Minamata Disaster wherein the dissolution of mercury within the water system led to mass-scale mercury poisoning, or in the case of
disasters such as the one at Chernobyl, humans had to leave their settlements in the event of human error. Thus, corporations and mostly, their human counterparts also need to be held to account for acts that severely subvert human rights.
Death and Climatic Change
Extreme temperatures in in the last decade have given rise to a number of climate-related deaths. Rising temperatures resulting in heat-related sickness and diseases have caused 150,000 deaths around the world, a number of staggering proportions. The fundamental human right that gives meaning to all the rest is the right to life. However, such climate extremes resulting in death is the very antithesis to the right to live. Climate-related deaths are a continuous and perpetual process. Each and every year, the frequency of such cases is on the rise. With global warming on one hand and increasing water shortages in several areas of the world, the fall in such deaths seems to be distant dream. Moreover, with the shortage of water comes another acute human rights issue, that of sanitization. Without a proper drainage system and running water, it is no longer possible to maintain a degree of hygiene and sanitization that is desirable. With the issue of sanitization at risk, diseases and illnesses automatically increase their footprint. Sanitization issues plague both urban and rural sectors of the population and therefore cannot be said to be a problem arising out of sociological factors. Water shortage arising out of groundwater depletion is a primary concern in several parts of the world and cannot be said to be the sole purvey of third world countries.
Right to Water and Sanitization
There has been a serious water crisis in Bolivia that has breached the human right to water and sanitization in the last years. With the receding of glaciers leading to rising sea water levels and groundwater reservoirs being depleted due to irregular rain patters, humanity stands at a threshold from which there can be no return once crossed. The same has been witnessed in other countries such as India, Australia and even European countries where adequate safety measures haven’t been implemented. There needs to be urgent measures that are implemented in order to preserve and more importantly, recycle water resources. A serious lesson can be learnt from countries like Israel, who have the wherewithal to boast of 100% water recyclability. Countries in the Africa such as Kenya have already begun to produce, if not recycle, water from human excreta, owing to the acute lack of water resources. The right to water and sanitization is concurrently connected with the issue of diseases as well. There are a host of water borne diseases which are extremely lethal without proper medical care. The consumption of improper water or water that is not potable leads to an exponential increase in the risk of contracting such a disease. Moreover, it is of no mean significance, that the human body can live on for 3 weeks without food but not even 3 days without water.
Melting glaciers as a result of global warming pose a significant threat as well, more prominently to coastline countries. It is no mystery that with each and every passing year, Bangladesh finds itself with an ever -receding coastline, since all of it is located on the Gangetic delta. In Venice, built on the sea itself, the people find its streets and buildings flooded on a daily basis according to the rise of the tides. Such examples are becoming commonplace day in and day out with images from all round the globe portraying the depleted and oftentimes, extinct glaciers.
Impact of Air Pollution
Air pollution is another serious impediment to establishing human rights. With increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, cities around the world are being swamped within smog and gaseous effluents. There are a huge number of cardiovascular diseases, malnutrition, stunting of growth that are linked with oxygen deficiency and polluted air inhalation. Moreover, such alarming levels of pollution can only be mitigated with measures that in their stead will take a few decades to take effect. We have already witnessed one ozone hole in our atmosphere due to the epidemic of CFC’s that were in use in refrigerators and air conditioners until the 1990s. It has only been after 30 odd years that some amount of improvement in the ozone layer is being detected. One can imagine the amount of time that it might take to permanently reduce the effect of air pollution from this earth. Moreover, air pollution even impacts crops and plants, which in turn adversely affects food levels around the globe. The right to food is of course one of the fundamental human rights, one that is being impacted at an accelerating proportion all around the globe. Moreover, food is a resource that is massively disproportionate in terms of its distribution. Thus, whereas on one hand there are areas of the world, where food is scarce, there are also areas of the world where excess food goes to waste. This instance simply points out the magnitude of disbalance within society as well as the potential for reform in what is one of the greatest imbalances in society.
Various organizations have done their research on climate change and related human right obligations. These include governments, non-governmental bodies, the UN and various other bodies.
Concurrently, all these bodies unanimously agree that climate change is intertwined with human right violations at the very onset.
OHCHR on Human Rights
Michelle Bachelet in her opening address to the 42nd Human Rights Council stated that the future is being burned up by human implications only.Climate change has thus reached proportions which affect each and every citizen of this world, simultaneously. It is said that as a species, human beings have impacted the environment around them to the extent that even a million years from now, the artefacts of our existence will be available for exhibition. This is primarily owing to the production of petroleum-based products such as plastics, polycarbonates, polyethylene and so on. We are the first species on the face of this earth to have an entire age named after us, the Anthropocene. Being the singular most impacting force on the face of this planet, it is of the utmost urgency that human beings as a whole mitigate their footprint on this planet.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations aims to achieve this with certain guidelines that it feels stands in line with its 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement on climate change. The primary concern of this report is that the State must take measures and steps to promote holistic business practices that are concerned with the preservation of human rights of society as well as indigenous communities, which play an important role in climate preservation. Oftentimes, indigenous communities are the purveyors of traditional knowledge and knowhow that help in the preservation of their surroundings. These practices are passed down, on a generational basis and help these communities sustain their heritage.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights also advocates other steps that could be taken to attain a sustainable model of development, one that keeps in mind the concerns of the environment before profit making enterprises. Of prime importance is the need to collaborate with partners such as government and private agencies that aim to integrate and associate human rights within the iota of environmental laws and policies. It is only with the inclusion of such rights within the legal framework of a system that any effective long term change can be implemented. Other steps include the providing of assistance to human rights mechanisms around the globe, such that they are equipped with the proper resources and wherewithal to deal with issues that call upon such
specialized expertise. The most significant change that can be brought however is possible only with the inclusion of civic bodies and inhabitants within the administrative and regulatory framework so as to better understand the needs and requirements of a certain specific situation. Involving local bodies and localized individuals also brings about a greater awareness and better understanding among subjects who actually are stakeholders within that framework, thus significantly increasing the possibility of effective change.
Right to Life and Climate Change
In any situation of disastrous outcomes, and similarly in the context of climate change as well, the ones who suffer most are inevitably the ones who were already vulnerable to a certain degree. Thus, climate change that affects each and every individual irrespectively, also indirectly impacts the ones most who are already battling with other factors such as poverty, war zones, migration and so on. It is of the highest importance that care be taken to safeguard the rights of people who already do not have a sufficient background to fall back upon. States must take this initiative that individuals already torn asunder by other contributing factors should be able to avail of the mitigating influence of good governance and safeguarding of human rights. It is perhaps all the more coincidental that mostly marginalized communities voluntarily stay extraneous to the system, and thus it is these communities who truly feel the impact of climate change. It is oftentimes these marginalized and indigenous communities, who sustain a close association with the environment around them, and thus they take steps to conserve and preserve it. Such communities are oftentimes storehouses of traditional and pagan knowledge that if tapped into, might help researchers develop better policies and practices to better safeguard the ecology.
Solution to Climate Change and its Impact on Human Rights
The only true way to securely eradicate climate change is to work within the parameters that nature provides to us. Thus, the human Industrial Revolution that has been sustained and expanded on the back of fossil fuels has to come to a complete stop. It is only with the incidence of this monumental shift in the way the modern world works that we can ever hope to stop climate change and in a more optimistic light, work to reverse it. Without this shift in the paradigm, there can never exist any system that can truly hope to work against climate change. The first inklings of such a shift are being seen in the automobile industry where at this moment there is occurring a shift from internal combustion engines to the lesser harmful eco-friendly electric engines that emit zero emissions. We are also witnessing a surge in solar power initiatives as more and more institutions realise the viability of their carbon footprint and work towards eradicating it. The usage of more and more environmental-friendly fuels such as biogas and hydrogen, is definitely a step in the right direction. Harnessing wind power as well has exponentially risen in the last decades, even though there are certain limitations to that specific technology. However, on a megawatt-to-megawatt basis, wind power is the most commercially viable option, more than solar power or hydro energy.
There also needs to be a shift in consumer habits and trends as well, since consumers are the backbone of the capitalist industry and society that we largely find ourselves in. The usage of plastic by sheer volume is the singular contributor to the majority of soil and water pollution that we find all over the globe today. Plastics are a double-edged sword, since not only are they utterly non-perishable, but the sheer volume of petroleum that is consumed in the production of such plastics is in itself an environmental hazard. Polycarbonate, polyethylene, the more modern Styrofoam are all examples of a lifestyle that has evolved solely on the back of petroleum, both as an ingredient and expedient. Plastics are also the primary cause due to which fish and fauna choke within themselves. The extinction of fauna from the face of this earth is one of the most alarming factors that work towards climate change. At the very outset, fauna are the factors that complete the ecological equation, the removal of even one factor turns everything haywire. The human civilization sorely needs to realise the impact of their consumeristic lifestyle that has them turning a blind eye on the consequences of their actions. Only with such a drastic shift within the system can one even begin to be optimistic about regaining their lost ecological balance.
Climate change is therefore an anathema that threatens human civilization itself. Both from socialistic and economic perspectives, climate change inadvertently subverts human rights and indeed, prohibits an individual’s access to them as well. It is of the highest immediacy that adequate measures and steps be taken in this direction to improve the situation. The disruption of human rights after all threatens the very fabric of a free, fair and equal society. Within this social setup, climate change and its impact on human rights poses one of the gravest threats towards the sustenance of individual as well as social life. The gravest consequences are still to come, for standing at the very threshold of irreparable damage, there is still potential time and opportunity to prohibit the worst
from taking place. Thus, if state agencies and watchdog enterprises take adequate steps in the direction of sustaining the environment, human rights violations too shall inevitably be reduced. True, there will still be man -made factors to contest, but the first step must be launched in order for the second to take place. Only with the safeguarding of human rights will human society be able to a better and more coherent future than the one currently in view.
1Green Peace International, published on 10th December, 2018
Herbert Smith Freehills, published on 26th September, 2019
Prof. Monica Pinto, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, University of Buenos, AIRES Law School, New York,Published on 16th December, 1966
ICESCR, 3rd January, 1976
Earth Day, 6th December, 2019
Submission the OHCHR for Human Rights to the 21st Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change,
accessed on 18.04.2021
Justin Adams, Executive Director, Tropical Forest Alliance, Natural Solutions to Climate Change, published on 22nd November, 2017
The Human Rights Act, 1998
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