Human rights threats in warming world could speed up climate action

September 19, 2019 - 8:43 AM
SIxteen year-old Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg at the Supreme Court in Washington
Sixteen year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg listens to speakers during a climate change demonstration at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., September 18, 2019. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

NEW YORK — From worsening hunger and migration to greater loss of lives and property to wild weather, climate change is driving violations of human rights – and focusing on that may be a key way to win faster climate action, rights experts said Wednesday.

“Most of the states that are rather reticent to move on climate change have long accepted the full range of human rights obligations,” said Philip Alston, chairman of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University.

Pushing those governments to uphold their rights commitments – and helping them see climate change as a fundamental threat to those rights – could spur action to contain climate damage, he told a pioneering summit on human rights and climate change.

Rising rights infringements could also offer a growing avenue to sue fossil fuel companies and the banks, insurers and other entities that support their work, legal experts said.

The meeting, in the build-up to the U.N. Secretary-General’s climate summit Monday, brought together more than 200 indigenous people, human rights campaigners, environmental activists, lawyers, trade union representatives and academic experts.

Together, they are looking at ways to harness legal action, public protests and other measures to make clear the connections between the Earth’s climate and human rights, and to build stronger pressure to protect both.

“It is clear the fingerprints of climate impacts are firmly on human rights issues,” said Kumi Naidoo, the head of Amnesty International, one of the organizers of the two-day meeting.

As companies continue to profit from business that drives climate change, “we are now going to be using the full weight of human rights law in terms of coming after them”, he said.

“They need to understand any decision they make now to invest one cent more in fossil fuel is an investment in the death of our children.”

More lawsuits 

The push to tie climate change to human rights violations is being aided by the rising ability of scientists to quickly tie specific extreme weather – from heatwaves in Europe to floods in Bangladesh – to climate change.

Such “attribution science” can now also link the actions of specific fossil fuel corporations to rising global temperatures, said Jennifer Morgan, the head of Greenpeace International.

That has helped pave the way for the filing of more than 1,000 climate change lawsuits around the world, many against fossil fuel majors, she said.

“To point to a specific responsibility and liability for corporate actors is a game-changer,” she said.

And while bringing lawsuits based on environmental damage can be difficult, individuals who suffer harm from climate-driven threats “have claims that are enforceable”, she said.

In the Philippines, victims of devastating Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, for instance, have brought a case against fossil fuel companies to the country’s human rights commission.

It is expected to report back on its findings later this year, Morgan said.

A separate case filed by a Peruvian farmer against a German power giant argues its emissions have contributed to flooding threats in his community.

One of the aims of the lawsuits is to make apparent to companies and governments that investing in fossil fuels comes with legal and financial risks, said Ellen Dorsey, executive director of the Washington-based Wallace Global Fund, which has supported work on fossil fuel divestment.

At a meeting in Cape Town last week, she said, activists fighting fossil fuel expansion and campaigners pressuring financial institutions teamed up to try to cut funding to new fossil fuel projects in South Africa.

Such joined-up efforts are a promising way forward to deal with companies and governments that are reluctant to change, said Bertha Zuniga Caceres, the daughter of murdered indigenous Honduran environmental campaigner Berta Caceres.

“We must not be disingenuous and think the changes will come from the very same places that have caused environmental catastrophe,” she told the meeting.

Street protests

Apart from filing lawsuits, climate and human rights campaigners hope to encourage the surge of popular protests launched by students, including Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, and by Britain’s Extinction Rebellion movement.

If companies and governments fail to act on climate change and growing rights threats, people will have little option but to take to the streets, said Craig Mokhiber, director of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York.

“That’s the rumble we hear now – the growing of those movements,” said Mokhiber, an international human rights lawyer.

Amnesty’s Naidoo said joining the environmental and rights movements was now an obvious way forward.

“We have treated these as separate struggles,” but they are now “intimately connected”, he told the meeting, attended by people from more than 50 countries.

“We are in the middle of the biggest intergenerational human rights violation we have ever seen,” he said.—Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation