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Climate change is a reality that now affects every region of the world
by United Nations Office for Human Rights (OHCHR)
8:06am 11th Sep, 2019
Geneva, 9 September 2019
Global update to the 42nd session of the Human Rights Council by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
Climate change is a reality that now affects every region of the world. The human implications of currently projected levels of global heating are catastrophic. Storms are rising and tides could submerge entire island nations and coastal cities. Fires rage through our forests, and the ice is melting. We are burning up our future – literally.
The climate emergency is already driving a sharp increase in global hunger, which according to FAO has increased this year for the first time in a decade. WHO expects climate change to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 – from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress alone.
In many nations, chaotic weather patterns and other manifestations of our environmental emergency are already reversing major development gains; exacerbating conflict, displacement and social tension; hampering economic growth; and shaping increasingly harsh inequalities.
The world has never seen a threat to human rights of this scope. This is not a situation where any country, any institution, any policy-maker can stand on the sidelines. The economies of all nations; the institutional, political, social and cultural fabric of every State; and the rights of all your people – and future generations – will be impacted.
The window of opportunity for action may be closing – but there is still time to act. We live in an era of tremendous innovation. More thoughtful approaches to our use of natural and renewable resources; policies which protect and empower marginalised communities, including various social protection initiatives; and better strategies by businesses across their supply chains can be good for the environment and promote greater human dignity and rights.
This Council has recognised that “human rights obligations, standards and principles have the potential to inform and strengthen international, regional and national policymaking in the area of climate change, promoting policy coherence, legitimacy and sustainable outcomes".
We need to act on that powerful statement. We need strong national commitments for action, with an emphasis on participation by environmental human rights defenders, indigenous peoples, and civil society groups representing the communities that are most at risk – as well as support from business actors, cities and other active stakeholders.
The Secretary-General will convene a Climate Action Summit in New York to step up the pace of climate action by States and the international community.
As members of the world''s primary intergovernmental body for human rights, I ask each of your States to contribute the strongest possible action to prevent climate change, and to promote the resilience and rights of your people in dealing with environmental harm.
Effective action on climate requires bringing the uncommitted and unconvinced into a shared, just and truly international effort. Human rights can help galvanize that movement. Today, a very uneven mosaic of environmental and human rights standards stands between human beings and environmental harm – and many have no effective recourse for the harm they suffer.
I am encouraged by the increasing recognition of the right to a healthy and sustainable environment, in over 100 national and regional laws, which defines the relationship between the environment and human rights. To each of us, a healthy environment is no less important than the food we eat, the water we drink, or the freedom of thought we cherish; all people, everywhere, should be able to live in a healthy environment and hold accountable those who stand in the way of achieving it.
This Council has a critical role to play, with both existing and innovative means to contribute to climate action. There are five key points that I believe should guide our action on climate.
Point one: Climate change undermines rights, development and peace.
The Secretary-General has noted that over the past six decades, 40% of civil wars have been linked to environmental degradation. While there are many current examples of this, I want to look to the countries of the Sahel region. As the UN Special Adviser on the Sahel has noted, this is among the regions most vulnerable to climate change, with temperature increases projected to be 1.5 times higher than the global average.
Desertification has massive impact on people''s enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. The degradation of arable land across the Sahel region is intensifying competition for already scarce resources, leading to frequent clashes between herders and agriculturalists – which, in turn, exacerbate ethnic tensions.
Slow development, and increasing poverty, are exposing youth to exploitation by extremist and terrorist groups, fuelling violence – including attacks on schools; displacement; and political instability.
In May this year, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinators for Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger warned that violent extremism, a serious increase in displacement in the past 12 months, and food shortages stemming from severe drought endanger the future of a “whole generation.” They also warned that growing instability risks spilling over into neighbouring countries.
The initiative by the G5 Sahel countries to create a joint force to combat terrorism, and their commitment to ensure that actions by the force are compliant with human rights, are commendable.
However, addressing the root causes of the current situation will also require significant investment in redressing environmental threats; providing real opportunities for youth; and tackling inequalities.
The Sahel region has abundant natural resources, including potential for renewable energy sources, as well as a young and resilient population of men and women who have a right to live in dignity and at peace. This is a key area where the international community can – and should – implement solutions to help stem a growing crisis, and assist the countries of the region to forge a path to healthy and sustainable development.
My second point: Effective climate action requires broad and meaningful participation.
Effective climate adaptation measures will be those which empower women; indigenous peoples; and others who live in vulnerable areas, who are often members of marginalised and discriminated communities.
This requires Governments to recognise the structural factors, which deepen these communities climate vulnerability; involve them in seeking solutions; and dedicate resources to upholding their rights, including equitable and improved access to social protection and a just transition towards greener jobs.
There is abundant evidence that women – in particular, women with disabilities ­– are disproportionately affected by natural disasters. The exclusion of half of society from effectively helping to shape environmental policies means those policies will be less responsive to the specific damage being caused; less effective in protecting communities; and may even intensify the harm being done.
Twelve years ago, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples1 recognised "the urgent need to respect and promote the inherent rights of indigenous peo­ples, which derive from their political, economic and social structures and from their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories and philosophies – especially their rights to their lands, territories and resources".
But as the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP) will report to the Council this month , they are increasingly being driven off their lands by environmental destruction. And yet it is thanks to the ancestral knowledge and leadership of indigenous peoples that many of humanity''s forests, and other resources, still exist.
That knowledge is even more vital now. Examples where indigenous peoples knowledge may prove essential for climate action include traditional fire management; weather early warning systems; rainwater harvesting; traditional agriculture techniques; and coastal marine management.
It is essential that the rights of all indigenous peoples be protected, including their right to freely and fully participate in shaping policy decisions.
I commend Canada for its pledge to fund a UNFCCC Secretariat Indigenous Peoples Focal Point in support of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform established by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Canada has also included indigenous peoples in its delegations to the Conferences of the Parties.
While these are positive steps, I encourage all States to ensure the full, meaningful and effective participation of indigenous peoples in all environmental decision-making processes.
In Colombia, since 2014, my Office has been assisting indigenous peoples and Afro-descendant communities to set up protocols establishing requirements for consultation. In several cases, this has contributed to dialogue and agreements with the authorities. For example, the protocol of the Arhuaco indigenous people, completed in 2017, seeks to ensure sustainable and respectful management of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, a strategic ecosystem and water source. Today, a government decree preserves this ecosystem, and ensures that sacred sites are defined.
I am deeply concerned by the drastic acceleration of deforestation of the Amazon. The fires currently raging across the rainforest may have catastrophic impact on humanity as a whole, but their worst effects are suffered by the women, men and children who live in these areas – among them, many indigenous peoples.
The full toll of death and harm done in the course of recent weeks in Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil may never be known. I call on the authorities of their countries to ensure the implementation of longstanding environmental policies and incentive systems for sustainable management, thus preventing future tragedies.
Across the world, my Office has also noted several cases where development projects, such as large hydroelectric dams and biofuel plantations, have been funded by international financial institutions in the name of climate action – but have harmed the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, including women.
I urge all development and finance institutions – including mechanisms established under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement – to establish human rights safeguards, with participation, and access to information, justice and remedy at their core.
Point three: We must better protect those who defend the environment.
Environmental defenders – including those who defend indigenous peoples right to land – engage in great service to their countries, and indeed humanity. The Office and Special Rapporteurs have noted attacks on environmental human rights defenders in virtually every region, particularly in Latin America.
I am disheartened by this violence, and also by the verbal attacks on young activists such as Greta Thunberg and others, who galvanise support for prevention of the harm their generation may bear. The demands made by environmental defenders and activists are compelling, and we should respect, protect and fulfil their rights.
Last month, the Office signed a strengthened partnership with the UN Environment Programme. This will include stepping up our cooperation to protect environmental human rights defenders at headquarters and in specific country and regional presences.
It will ensure that we work within the UN system to ensure consistency and coherence across environmental and human rights actions. It will increase our support for national implementation of human rights-based environmental policies, including through the work of national human rights institutions.
The Latin American Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters – known as the Escazu Agreement – also offers hope for change. The Agreement aims to guarantee the rights of every person to a healthy environment and sustainable development.
It includes specific, binding provisions for the protection of those who defend the environment, and also guarantees rights to environmental information, public participation in environmental decision-making, and access to justice in environmental matters.
I urge all States in the region – including the 15 that have so far signed the agreement – to proceed swiftly to ratify and implement it. I also call for other regions and States to consider developing similar commitments.
We are also partnering with the University of the South Pacific, which has 14 campuses across the South Pacific islands, to promote better support to environmental human rights defenders who challenge businesses and governments to better prioritise environmental issues. We have assisted defenders across the region to establish a network for coordination and mutual support.
My fourth point: Those most affected are leading the way.
Small island nations are among those suffering the most catastrophic effects of climate change, although they contribute very little to fuelling the problem. Just this past week, yet another devastating hurricane hit the Bahamas, taking a terrible toll in human life and destroying precious development gains. The storm accelerated with unprecedented speed over an ocean warmed by climate shifts, becoming one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes ever to hit land.
Most of the population of the Caribbean lives within coastal zones – and several Caribbean countries, including the Bahamas and Dominica, have introduced policies aimed at building climate resilience and mitigation measures. But according to research by ECLAC in 2011, rising sea levels could submerge between 10 and 12 percent of the territory of the Bahamas by 2050: an inestimable loss for humanity. And the reality is that island States cannot act alone to solve a problem that is not of their own making.
South Pacific States have been leading the global call for climate action and climate justice. Our presences in the region receive evidence almost daily of impact on communities’ rights to water and sanitation, health, food, work, adequate housing – and the resulting displacement of people.
I call on the international community to increase the provision of resources and technical support to South Pacific countries, and all Small Island States, for mitigation, adaptation and prevention.
In line with discussions at the regional meeting on human rights and climate change convened last month, we will continue working with Pacific Island governments to help them mainstream human rights throughout the climate change agenda.
This brings me to point five: Business will be crucial to climate action
To avert future climate harms and ensure climate justice, businesses must be part of the solution. The Caring for Climate Initiative, hosted by the UN Global Compact and UN Environment, brings together more than 400 companies from around the world that have committed to taking action to address the climate crisis. Their contributions to the green and blue economies are key to the achievement of sustainable development.
I also welcome commitments by several countries in the Americas to develop National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights, with emphasis on the need for the meaningful participation and consultation of indigenous peoples.
Businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights, in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. States have an affirmative obligation to effectively regulate business to prevent human rights harms.
Yet in many countries, Government support and subsidies for the fossil fuel industry endangers climate goals. I remind all States of the need for policy coherence – nationally and internationally – in how they seek to address the human rights impact of climate change, including in relation to business activities.
Currently, the National Human Rights Institution of the Philippines is holding an inquiry into the human rights responsibilities of 47 companies accountable for the majority of historical greenhouse gas emissions at the global level.
The inquiry has generated considerable attention regarding the responsibility of businesses for the adverse human rights effects of climate change, and will release its findings later this year.
Increased monitoring of business human rights compliance by bodies such as the Ethics Council of the Norwegian Pension Fund is also leading to heightened awareness of shortcomings, and their responsibility to take urgent corrective action.
Furthermore, last month the Human Rights Committee issued a landmark decision in Portillo Caceres v. Paraguay – a case in which several people became ill, and one died, due to uncontrolled and unlimited use of pesticides.
This was the first time a treaty body has so clearly found that a State’s failure to protect against environmental harm may violate its obligations regarding the rights to life, privacy, and family life.
This important decision sets a precedent in establishing that States have obligations under international human rights law to conduct investigations into similar environmental harms; sanction those responsible; and provide reparations to victim.
* Access the full global update via the link below:
Sep. 2019
Our addiction to fossil fuels causes climate emergency. (OHCHR)
UN human rights experts call for an end to society''s addiction to fossil fuels ahead of the Climate Action Summit. They issued the following statement:
"Burning coal, oil, and gas produce the vast majority of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in the global climate emergency that endangers human rights in every region of the planet.
"Twenty-seven years after all States committed to tackling the challenge of climate change through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the share of the world''s energy provided by fossil fuels remains unchanged at 81 percent. Since 1990, global energy consumption has grown 57 percent, with coal consumption up 68 percent, oil use up 36 percent and natural gas use up 82 percent.
Climate change is already causing increased frequency, intensity and duration of extreme weather events, melting of glaciers and ice sheets, rising sea levels, storm surges, saltwater intrusion, ocean acidification, changes in precipitation, flooding, heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, increased air pollution, desertification, water shortages, the destruction of ecosystems, biodiversity loss and the spread of water-borne and vector-borne disease.
Among the human rights being threatened and violated by climate change are the rights to life, health, food, water and sanitation, a healthy environment, an adequate standard of living, housing, property, self-determination, development and culture.
While fossil fuels have made an enormous contribution to economic prosperity, the environmental and social costs of their use are staggering. Millions of people die prematurely each year because of air pollution, while billions of people are adversely affected by the Earth''s changing climate.
In its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that ''limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society''. To meet the 1.5°C target set by the Paris Agreement and limit the damage to human rights, urgent and effective actions must be implemented immediately to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030, phase out unabated fossil fuel burning by the middle of the century, and reverse deforestation.
In addition, indigenous peoples knowledge may prove essential to curb the effects of climate change: their ancestral knowledge and leadership, which have maintained many of humanity''s forests, biodiversity and other resources, must be preserved. It is therefore crucial indigenous peoples rights be protected, including their right to freely and fully participate in shaping policy decisions, in particular regarding hydroelectric, wind or other projects which may be developed on their traditional homelands with the goal of reducing fossil fuels.
To empower and protect vulnerable populations requires mobilizing at least $100 billion in annual adaptation funding to assist low-income countries, and establishing a new fund, financed by an air passenger travel levy, to support small island developing States and least developed countries in addressing loss and damage caused by climate change. Wealthy countries and other large emitters must lead these efforts and provide the majority of the requisite financing.
Meeting the Paris Agreement target of 1.5°C could save millions of lives every year, providing trillions of dollars in health and environmental benefits. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, energy storage and energy efficiency would create unprecedented economic opportunities. Measures must also be put in place to ensure a just transition, such as re-training and educational opportunities for workers in the coal, oil and gas industries.
A safe climate is a vital element of the right to a healthy environment and is absolutely essential to human life and well-being. In today''s global climate emergency, meeting the obligations to respect, protect and fulfil human rights could help to spur the transformative changes that are so urgently required."
June 2019
Climate change will have the greatest impact on those living in poverty, but also threatens democracy and human rights, according to a UN expert.
“Even if current targets are met, tens of millions will be impoverished, leading to widespread displacement and hunger,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, in a report released today.
“Climate change threatens to undo the last 50 years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction,” Alston said. “It could push more than 120 million more people into poverty by 2030 and will have the most severe impact in poor countries, regions, and the places poor people live and work.”
Even the unrealistic best-case scenario of 1.5°C of warming by 2100 will see extreme temperatures in many regions and leave disadvantaged populations with food insecurity, lost incomes, and worse health. Many will have to choose between starvation and migration.
“Perversely, while people in poverty are responsible for just a fraction of global emissions, they will bear the brunt of climate change, and have the least capacity to protect themselves,” Alston said.
“We risk a ‘climate apartheid’ scenario where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”
Climate change has immense, but largely neglected, implications for human rights. The rights to life, food, housing, and water will be dramatically affected.
But equally importantly will be the impact on democracy, as governments struggle to cope with the consequences and to persuade their people to accept the major social and economic transformations required.
“In such a setting, civil and political rights will be highly vulnerable,” the Special Rapporteur said.
“Most human rights bodies have barely begun to grapple with what climate change portends for human rights, and it remains one on a long laundry list of ‘issues’, despite the extraordinarily short time to avoid catastrophic consequences,” Alston said.
“As a full-blown crisis that threatens the human rights of vast numbers of people bears down, the usual piecemeal, issue-by-issue human rights methodology is woefully insufficient.”
Sombre speeches by government officials at regular conferences are not leading to meaningful action. “States have marched past every scientific warning and threshold, and what was once considered catastrophic warming now seems like a best-case scenario,” Alston said. “Even today, too many countries are taking short-sighted steps in the wrong direction.”
States are failing to meet even their current inadequate commitments to reduce carbon emissions and provide climate financing, while continuing to subsidise the fossil fuel industry with $5.2 trillion per year.
“Maintaining the current course is a recipe for economic catastrophe,” Alston said. “Economic prosperity and environmental sustainability are fully compatible but require decoupling economic well-being and poverty reduction from fossil fuel emissions.”
This transition will require robust policies at the local level to support displaced workers and ensure quality jobs. “A robust social safety net will be the best response to the unavoidable harms that climate change will bring,” Alston said. “This crisis should be a catalyst for states to fulfil long ignored and overlooked economic and social rights, including to social security and access to food, healthcare, shelter, and decent work.”
Although some have turned to the private sector for solutions, an overreliance on for-profit efforts would nearly guarantee massive human rights violations, with the wealthy catered to and the poorest left behind. “If climate change is used to justify business-friendly policies and widespread privatisation, exploitation of natural resources and global warming may be accelerated rather than prevented,” Alston said.
“There is no shortage of alarm bells ringing over climate change, and an increase in biblical-level extreme weather events appear to be finally piercing through the noise, misinformation, and complacency, but these positive signs are no reason for contentment,” Alston said. “A reckoning with the scale of the change that is needed is just the first step.”
* Access the Climate Change & Poverty report:

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