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Climate Stress Impacts Fundamental Human Rights


The World Health Organization (WHO, 2018) indicated that between the years 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths each year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress alone – other than the deaths from wars and the several internal armed conflicts

By Salam Rajesh

Climate change discourses are front-page headlines in contemporary society where the perceived and the felt impacts of changing climatic conditions globally is bringing to the fore serious deliberations on how the process affects every form of living being on planet Earth, notwithstanding only humans primarily.

The deliberations swing back and forth, sometimes progressing with promising notes and sometimes stuck in the cauldron of arguments from those unwilling to accept the realities of climate change implications. In between, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in 2021 posed the big question on how does climate change impacts the basic rights of people across the globe.

On this very fundamental note, UN secretary-general Antonio Gueterres put it simply as, “The climate crisis is the biggest threat to our survival as a species and is already threatening human rights around the world” (UN Human Rights Council, 2020).

Supplementing on this thought process, the World Bank (2015) reflected that ‘without urgent action, climate change impacts could push an additional 100 million people into poverty by 2030’, with caution on the hard fact that ‘more than 2 billion people are currently living in countries with high water stress, and almost twice as many could be affected by 2050’.

This observation is reinforced by the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF, 2017) estimation that by the year 2040, one in four children – around 600 million – will be living in areas of extremely high-water stress.

Several countries around the world are already experiencing conditions of acute water scarcity due to drying up of water bodies and fall in ground water levels, rainfall deficits, extreme weather events, and extensive droughts (such as the projected mega droughts in Australia), and many urban city areas are deep in water stress already.

To make matters worse, the World Health Organization (WHO, 2018) indicated that between the years 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths each year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress alone – other than the deaths from wars and the several internal armed conflicts.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO, 2019), too, has some bad tidings for the world community where it says that climate change is ‘causing extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters, depriving millions of people around the world of a livelihood’.

The nearly 78 percent of the world’s poor – approximately 800 million people – who live in rural areas, many of whom rely on agriculture, forestry and fisheries for their survival, are particularly affected’ (FAO, 2019).

Adding spice to the discourse, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre’s report ‘Global Report on Internal Displacement’ (Geneva, 2019) noted with concern that, ‘Extreme weather events were one of the main causes of the internal displacement of 28 million people in 2018’.

These observations by the several global forums are but the tip of the iceberg in the larger discussion on climate change implications on human well-being globally, neither underscoring the impacts on the natural world – the biological diversity and all other life forms on Earth where it is feared that climate change impacts may lead to extinction of vulnerable species.

In this discourse, it is quite relevant to reflect upon the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (1972) which noted that, ‘Both aspects of man’s environment, the natural and the man-made, are essential to his well-being and to the enjoyment of basic human rights – even the right to life itself’.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) specifies that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person, while the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) reiterates the inherent right to life of every human being, implying that States should not only take effective measures against foreseeable and preventable loss of life but also enable people to enjoy a life with dignity (OHCRH, 2015).

This fundamentally brings up the crucial debate and concern on the increasing loss of lives and properties around the world from the natural disasters and extreme weather events that are seen as direct implications of the climate change discourse. During these past few years, the world has increasingly been witness to a series of unprecedented extreme weather events that are being linked to the processes of global warming and climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its Fifth Assessment Report (2014), noted how increased malnutrition from reduced food production would lead to growing risks of mortality, particularly in the sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia countries. The observation reflect upon the notion that increased extreme weather events, particularly extended droughts and heat waves, could impact agriculture and thereto lead to accelerated decline in crop production.

The OHCHR report while suggesting that nations must take up human rights-based climate action that can be transformative, called for the recognition and implementation of the human right to safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment which includes safe and stable climate and also ensure that climate action benefits those most affected by climate change and aligns with human rights obligations, the 2030 Agenda and the eradication of poverty for all, leaving no one behind.

The report further called for the meaningful and effective participation of all people, including women, youths and Indigenous peoples in climate related decision-making process and planning. This understandably reflects upon the Indigenous peoples’ call for acknowledging their traditional wisdom and knowledge in shaping bottom-up model of climate action planning.

This again translates into the fervent call for recognizing Indigenous peoples’ fundamental rights – in particular their rights to traditional knowledge, lands, territories and resources, while ensuring that all climate actions that may affect Indigenous peoples are carried out with their Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) which resounds in most resolutions of the United Nations.

For climate action to be successful, the OHCHR called for the national laws and policies – such as, the national climate change action plans and strategies, including the preparation of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement – must include human rights.

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