Climate Justice: An Inclusive Human Rights Approach to Dealing with Climate Change

Global climate change summits, climate change conferences, court decisions, civil society organizations (CSO’s) and action networks have never received so much coverage, attention and hope for change than in these days. There is an urge and a need to find local and multi-stakeholder based solutions to a global threat that affects all of us. One way of approaching this, is to address in depth the concept of climate justice.

This was goal of a recent Training School on Climate justice at The Hague Institute. How can good climate governance embedded in a human rights based legal, economic and political frameworks lead to climate justice? What are the ways ahead to contribute to the concept of climate justice?

The notion of climate justice refers to the causes and effects of climate change creating injustice and inequality such as climate change induced migration, poverty and the loss of territory or other property; and how concepts of justice, particularly environmental justice and social justice can help to overcome this injustice through human rights compliance and implementation.

According to Mary Robinson, the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Climate Change, and President of theClimate Change Foundation based in Dublin: climate justice is founded in legal and moral imperatives of human rights and respect for the dignity of the person, making them the indispensable foundation for action in the area of climate change induces poverty, inequality or violations. A climate justice approach uses human rights standards and commitments to inform these processes, creating connections between them.

The concept aims to use a people centered approach which delivers outcomes which are fair, effective and transformative and thus serve as tools to overcome great injustice and violation of human rights induced by climate change. These injustices can be violent conflicts and wars about territory and land disputes that force millions to migrate or seek refugee; or the fact that in particular women and children are most strongly affected by climate change, because they farm and they often are among those who need to migrate in masses. Yet, the realizing climate justice remains to be seen.

In May 2014, a decisions by New Zealand’s court of appeal has refused refugee status to a family from Kiribati, a Pacific island which is quickly sinking beneath the sea.

Nonetheless, the human rights based approaches can contribute to widen the notion and understanding of climate justice, and hopefully future decisions by judges and policy makers. climate justice is a concept that calls for various actors to react, decide and implement decisions that overcome injustice. It is based on a multi-stakeholder approach to solve problems and set up a legal and political framework that is best suited to deal with the challenges that climate change poses.

This approach includes business, politics, civil society and activism by interest groups, such as people that are directly affected by climate change, for example, climate change induced migrants or those who lost their assets and property. Part of this multi-stakeholder approach to deal with issues of climate change can be international organizations, such as the United Nations, the European Union or the African Union as well as governments, municipalities, companies or CSOs. Important however, is, that human rights based approaches focus on ‘all people achieving at least the minimum conditions for living with dignity, through the realization of their human rights’.

The two global regimes, the climate change regime on the one side and the human rights regime on the other side, are difficult to reconcile – if not impossible. Efforts have nonetheless been undertaken under the UN umbrella in the form of the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the frequent intergovernmental meetings such as the one in September 2014 in New York trying to reconcile the consequences that climate change can have not only in negative terms of violating human rights, but also as an opportunity to enhance human rights.

The UNFCC and the Kyoto Protocols in 1997 have by large earmarked what today is called the climate change regime. In 2010, the authors and member states of the UNFCCC first acknowledged that all climate related actions should also respect international human rights norms. Since then they have continued to repeat the urge and need for more human rights based approach to tackle climate change affected societal problems. However, until today, the signatory states of the framework convention did not oblige themselves to base or benchmark their actions against human rights fulfillment.

Thus the fulfilment of human rights rests chiefly on the agreements within the international human rights regime – as outlined in the chapters of this special issue – and above all on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. Nevertheless, out of these two regimes, a new approach has emerged over the past years, namely Climate justice. Climate justice is a concept that asked for those who are responsible for climate change: namely all of us as consumers of environmental damaging goods, and those who can make a difference in it? Again the answer is, all of us, either local or global, either in business or in politics. By no means can states and governments alone respond alone to global threats – regardless how dominant or important they still are in international politics.

Climate change causes great discrepancy and inequality among people(s) and countries – regardless of their political regimes or governance. People who lose their homes or basic means for living to climate change induced natural disasters, such as droughts and flooding, claim to various duty-bearers their human rights to housing, development, food or access to clean water – to name but a few. Most of these human rights claims have a social, economic or cultural basis.

Uprooted or displaced people not only face material loses but often cultural ones such as religious, ancestral or heritage sites. Climate change induced migrants such as defined by the International Organization for Migration, for example, often suffer the loss of their native language and traditions when they have to adapt and survive in alien territory. Climate justice is a key notion to bridge these injustice caused through climate change.

Attempts by state governments that have long believed to be able to combat the consequences and effects of climate change on their own have failed. One government, state or country cannot face the challenges of climate change effectively. Thus, climate change is also a driver for change. It encourages people and government alike, even the most authoritarian ones, to collaborate with other actors in the field – private or public, local or global – to solve collective action problems. Efforts of regional organizations such as the European Union’s policies and doctrines as well as the African Unions responses to climate change, focusing on environmental issues, migration and adaption are yet again based on the political willingness of governments to promote a healthy environment that would allow people to enjoy their human rights.

Many of these efforts are motivated by good intentions, namely to reconcile the consequences of climate change and the willingness to comply to international human rights norms and standards, in particular social and economic human rights. However, we still observe on a global level that climate change induces human rights violations, such as the dramatic rise of migrants and refugees by means of reallocation, such as the massive expulsions of people from Kiribati or Marshall islands to Australia and New Zealand.

Furthermore, after natural disasters linked to climate change have occurred, millions of people remain without social and human security. They also sometimes lose a territorial base on which they can claim residency and no longer can make use of their rights to participate in decision making, let alone enjoy adequate housing, access to clean water, to professional development or citizenship. The question stands out whom to hold accountable for these violations of human rights.

The answer to the question ‘who is responsible’ and ‘who is the duty-bearer’ might be: “all of us”. This includes consumers, clients, political actors, businesses, corporates and civil society organizations. We are all are co-responsible for the consequences of climate change. Thus we all have to take our share of developing adaptation strategies that allow people who suffer most from human rights abuses to recover and resettle in a different environment.

As a result, the full spectrum of international human rights law applied to climate change affected people and societies. Thus, one of the ways ahead to tackle it is through the concept of climate justice based on human rights in order to enhance an international rule of law culture, that allows us to comply with common norms and standards to bring justice to those most in need and most affected by climate change.

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