Ban Ki-moon says it. A new UNDP report says it. Even some heads of state say it. Climate change is a human rights problem. But no one is stepping forward at Bali to tell us what that means, if anything.
Human rights are embedded in international law, so you might expect that if climate change is a human rights concern, those of us responsible for it have an obligation to those most affected by it. But so far all we have in Bali is vague feelgood rhetoric, nothing that looks like a commitment. Maybe this is not surprising. Why bring up hard duties when you are already juggling emissions cuts, technology transfer, adaptation funds, avoided deforestation and the rest of the jargon that climate change has spawned?
Three answers come to mind. First, because there is surely an ethical duty to prioritise the needs of those worst hit by our addiction to luxurious lifestyles. Second, if morality doesn't cut it, the law is still the law: there is a legal right to protection from these basic harms. But third, if the law proves hard to enforce, it still makes excellent policy sense to think through the long-term effects not only of climate change, but also of our answers to it.
Climate change is already causing human rights violations. The war in Darfur, according to the UN secretary general, is due in part to resource pressures generated by climate change. Severe droughts have hit Saharan Africa repeatedly for decades. Traditional livelihoods are disappearing among the Inuit in North America and on the smaller islands already sinking.
And of course things are scheduled to get much worse if the IPCC's latest report is any guide. Water stress, food insecurity, health threats, catastrophes, possibly leading to forced mass migration and wars. This is a full-on security crisis.
Fortunately we (mostly) agree that slowing or stopping climate change is paramount. But the human rights impacts of the path we choose to achieve this aim are just as important. This might be obvious - albeit so far unheeded - when it comes to cutting deals with major loggers or planting biofuels in the midst of famine. But it is also true at a more basic level: our policies on cutting and trading emissions and on technology transfer will determine human rights protection far into the future.
Think about it. On most recent estimates, total emissions need to be cut by 50-80% by 2050. This is huge. No matter what happens at Bali, there is simply no way the poorest countries will ever be able to ramp up their carbon emissions to the kinds of levels that have achieved wealthy country lifestyles, or even close. Securing food, water, health and so on costs money. All those countries that can't yet guarantee these basics are now hit by a double whammy. On one hand, increased strain from climate pressures. On the other, they are constrained from building up their economies to the levels they need.
The theory is that these countries must simply develop differently, using cleaner more efficient technologies. But these magic fixes are expensive to buy and protected by harsh international intellectual property laws. They require resources to build and develop and knowledge to scale up and run. In any case they don't really work yet: nothing better demonstrates our poor faith in technological fixes than our eagerness to build a carbon market and import "emission reductions" from down south--and so buy our way to slower and fewer reductions up north.
The future economic options of poor countries will decide the future human rights of those worst hit by climate change. We need to know much more about how the policy choices taken now will pan out. Ultimately the scale of technological upgrading required suggests that nothing short of a Marshall plan will work - as per the Stern report. And that means a much greater commitment to the rights of the most vulnerable than is on display at Bali today.
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