In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

Human Rights and Climate Change

Posted 5/5/2010 by Grant Mitchell


Recently, Senator Sharon Carstairs invited me to speak on human rights and the environment at a conference she was hosting. This was a panel discussion that included Senator Carstairs speaking about the tremendous work she is doing as Chair of an international group that works to protect politicians around the world who are being persecuted in their countries. The other participant was Senator Mobina Jaffer who is a world renowned human rights advocate and who spoke on women’s rights.

I was very flattered to speak alongside these Senators who are internationally known for their work on human rights. On the other hand, I am not an expert in this area by any measure and I had never really thought about the link between human rights and the environment or climate change, my particular focus these days. But, when Senator Carstairs asked me to consider speaking on the link between human rights and the environment, I wondered why I hadn’t connected the two before.

Well, it seems that few people have actually thought about, or at least written about, this topic, certainly as it involves climate change. Academics seem to be in a protracted debate about whether a human rights obligation can exist with someone yet to be born. They would argue that human rights involve reciprocity and you cannot have reciprocal relationships with people who do not exist yet. We have looked at climate change from the natural sciences perspective, and from an economic perspective, but the progression of the issue through academic silos seems to have stopped there.

There seems to be an obvious case to be made, however, for the human rights implications of climate change. Think about the impact of the following on our health and access to food and water:  drought, erosion, changing rain patterns, glacial melt, water shortages, rising seas (due to increased temperatures causing the water to expand), violent storms, and heat.  These impacts could be exacerbated by mass migration due to climate change and climate change wars.

But correlation is often not enough to compel action. Climate change could be “chalked up” simply to “erratic” weather causing the problems. And, in order to qualify as a rights issue, two causal/obligation links must be established: there has to be an obligation between generations even if it involves people not yet alive. And human activity has to be causing climate change in order for a case to be made that rights are being violated.

I think it is problematic that we cannot establish intergenerational reciprocity. If academic thought on this issue cannot keep up in a changing world, it needs to change itself. Second, many of the people whose human rights are being violated by climate change are alive today. Senator Tom Banks put the obligation this way.  The climate change obligation to future generations is like a person having a $50,000 debt imposed upon them, even though it was incurred by their grandparents, and then losing their home when they cannot pay it. It seems straightforward.

The second link that has to be established is that humans are causing climate change. Admittedly, very few people now say climate change is not occurring (is this progress?). Instead they say it is occurring but we are not causing it. My answer to that is that if we are not causing it, then we are in real trouble. Because if we are not causing it, there is no chance of fixing it...unless they think that we can tinker with the sunspots to get  the warming to stop at whatever precise temperature will be liveable. Their comeback is that it is normal cycles that have gone on for millions of years.  But, of course, they do not seem to consider that the world has been uninhabitable for most of these millions of years and, if these cycles are the cause, then it is highly likely that they will not stop at some convenient temperature.

However, all the science tells us that natural cycles do have an effect on climate, but they do not account for a significant amount of the change we are observing.   The proponents of naturally occurring climate change fail to gather sufficient evidence to support it, and then cast doubt on a solid scientific consensus. Their most famous effort involved the stolen, ten year old emails in East Anglia taken out of context. Interestingly, the Guardian and Associated Press have investigated and exonerated the scientists involved.  When we have the kind of certainty about climate change that the deniers want, it will be too late.  In any event, the cases that the deniers promote as evidence of faulty climate change science represent a minuscule portion of the total science. As I like to say to the deniers, if you were to find one sentence in one edition of the National Post to be incorrect would they say every issue of the National Post was without credibility?

I simply believe that it is irrefutable that climate change is occurring and that human activity is causing it.  To deny this evidence is to deny gravity. And, if there is human responsibility for climate change that causes profound violation of those elements that comprise a standard list of human rights, then there is a case that in fact climate change involves human rights.

There are some advantages to the debate on climate change in invoking the human rights argument. First, the standard climate change case has been made largely within the context of the impact on states and economies. The human rights lens brings in the overdue element of the impact on people, individuals and communities and the suffering they are experiencing and will continue to experience. This may help to humanize and personalize the argument that climate change is profoundly serious. Secondly, it raises the idea of a right to information. This in turn suggests that it is the responsibility of government to clarify the confusion that many people feel about climate change science.  This would give government greater political leeway to do what has to be done. Finally, human rights experience establishes a great deal of precedent for the case that we in one country often have an obligation to people in other countries.

In the end, I know that the key element is that humans are causing climate change with the prospect of catastrophic effects, and we have an obligation to our fellow earthbound inhabitants to take care of us all.

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