Climate change is the greatest human rights issue facing humanity today, and that is how we can fight it.
In 2012 Olivier De Schutter laid bare this argument in The Guardian, observing that
climate change represents an enormous threat to a whole host of human rights: the right to food, the right to water and sanitation, the right to development.
Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, Foreign Minister on Human Rights and Climate Change for Bangladesh, took this one step further, stating that ‘its effects impact on peace, stability and prosperity as much as violent conflict’. The human rights impact of climate change is innumerable and awful, with 600 million people being likely to experience drought and famine as a result of it. Indeed, the Syrian crisis, it has been argued, was caused in part by the destabilising effects of climate-related droughts and widespread famine.
There are already myriad examples of climate change devastating lives across the globe. For example, the islands states of Kiribati, Tuvalu, Vanuatu (to name but a few) have been decimated by typhoons and rising sea levels. But with 4% of its Gross Domestic Product lost every year to climate-change-related impacts, the Global Climate Risk Index 2015 listed the Philippines as the country most affected by climate change in the world. This is unsurprising considering the Philippines has over 37,000 miles of coastline and 60% of its population lives in low-lying areas. Of the 10 deadliest typhoons to have hit the Philippines between 1947 and 2014, all ten have occurred since 2006. Just two weeks ago Typhoon Nina tore through the country, displacing 68,315 families and costing billions of pounds of damage. The situation is overwhelming and people are despairing.
Having been decimated by Haiyan (a super-typhoon of cataclysmic power) in 2013, the country was on its knees. But from the rubble a hero emerged. Yeb Sano, who stepped onto the world stage at the 2014 UN Climate talks in Warsaw, quickly found himself at the forefront of climate-change-related discourse; acting as a standard bearer for not only the Philippines but for all those whose human rights were being impacted by global warming. In a Greenpeace blog post written in December 2016 (Sano is now Executive Director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia) he explains that his motivating urgency was ‘very personal’ after he almost lost his family in the chaos of Haiyan. Speaking publicly, writing articles and raising awareness through a 15,000 km, 60-day pilgrimage from Rome to Paris, culminating in the COP21 climate talks, he has spearheaded the efforts to reframe the problem of climate change.
Through the work of people like Sano, who enforce the idea of ‘climate justice’ and hold the worst perpetrators of rampant greenhouse gas emissions accountable, meaningful action is being taken. Based upon all respectable governments’ dedication to upholding human rights, where deficits are found, action must taken. This means that fossil fuel mining, deforestation, the degradation of oceans and other such damaging acts can be legitimately challenged, and alternative, sustainable approaches adopted. As an example of such action, on the 10th December 2016, Greenpeace Southeast Asia announced that the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines initiated ‘the world’s first-ever national investigation into human rights harms resulting from climate change’. The petitioners (including Sano) have named 47 investor-owned carbon producers including ExxonMobil, BP and Shell as responsible for dealing with the negative effects already being felt around the globe. Public hearings will be held in April 2017 and, if successful, ‘those who have profited most from pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere must bear the burden of preventing the havoc already being wreaked by climate change’. And with organisations like the Green Climate Fund and Companies Vs Climate Change such action is being supported.
However, it is the individuals that make the difference; with outspoken activists like Yeb Sano and filmmaker Jackson Harries and fearless ecologically oriented journalists such as Andy Revkin, the first steps of the movement are being paved. But we cannot rest on our laurels. With a President-Elect (who once claimed that climate change was a hoax invented by China) threatening to pull out of the Paris Agreement and picking climate-change skeptics to head the Environmental Protection Agency and Energy Department, it is clear that some are sadly still stuck at square one, ignorant of the reality.
How many more climate change refugees will it take, how many more lives must be lost? By anchoring these issues in human rights terms even the most hard-headed of politicians will be legally obliged to act. As Yeb Sano put it, ‘as long as companies and governments fail to act on climate change, every day is human rights day’.
If you want to get involved, join the #RiseAbove campaign here – http://peoplevsbigpolluters.org/ – and add your voice to the movement.