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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Climate Change and Human Rights

Observations of the effects of greenhouse gases on the world have been documented for over 100 years. It was in 1896 that Swedish Chemist Svante Arrhenius first concluded from his research that the natural greenhouse effect that sustains life on Earth might be enhanced by industrial-age coal burning by humans. According to his findings, the consumption of such energy sources has a considerable effect on the natural heating process of the planet by producing more carbon dioxide than may be consumed by plants, which as a result retains more thermal energy in the atmosphere and re-radiates it back towards Earth.

Over the past century, the scientific community has built a consensus around this effect. As the world’s population increases, more countries become industrialized, and consumption of fossil fuels grows, the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide steadily increases, and so has the surface temperature of Earth. This past year (2015) has been the warmest year on record, with a 0.87 degree Celsius increase from the 1951-1980 average. The 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 2000.

The effects on nature are startling. Higher temperatures and the resulting climate change can lead to rises in sea level; stronger storms; species’ extinction; and increased risks for drought, fire, and floods. Such changes can affect humans as well, including economic losses and increased risks for heat-related illnesses and diseases. Moreover, human populations as a whole are at risk of losing their lands, housing, and sources of food and water.

These disruptions may result in mass migrations of individuals from areas lying near sea level (such as Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, or the coastal regions of the United States) or in the tundra and Arctic regions, or displacement of individuals from a loss of their means for living. The negative impacts of climate change are disproportionately borne by people already living in disadvantageous situations due to geography, gender, (dis)ability, poverty, or historical background—often those contributing the least to greenhouse gas emissions.  The human-rights-related implications are substantial: individuals affected are at risk of exploitation, starvation, exclusion from political and economic participation, and extended conflict for resources, to name a few.

The international community has developed a rights-based approach to climate change. Through the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations has emphasized considerations for ensuring that climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts are “adequate, sufficiently ambitious, non-discriminatory, and otherwise compliant with human rights obligations….” The human rights priorities include ensuring that efforts to address climate change are carried out in a way that protects the most vulnerable, and that such efforts not exacerbate inequalities within or between States.  The human rights approach also focuses on transparency, ensuring for instance that early warnings on natural disasters is made available to all sectors of society. According to the U.N. High Commissioner, “Adaptation and mitigation plans should be publicly available, transparently financed and developed in consultation with affected groups.” 

Most recently, the United Nations held its 21st yearly session for states party to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on climate change and the 11th session of states party to the Kyoto Protocol, both of which emphasize responsibility of states and individuals to limit their global carbon footprint, in November and December of 2015. Participating nations approved a landmark agreement: 195 nations, including the United States, committed themselves for the first time to lowering their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and to assist other nations as well in the process. 

However, that isn’t all: coalitions have formed around the world to combat climate change in the corporate sector—including here in Minnesota. Major multinational corporations recently came together to form the Minnesota Sustainable Growth Coalition as a way to promote a healthy environment and sustainable growth by monitoring what and how natural resources are used and to support innovative approaches that may lead to systemic change in businesses’ practices. The collaboration has already borne fruit: Best Buy, for example, has committed itself to reducing its carbon emissions by 45% by 2020 through operational improvements and renewable sourcing.  

In response to these recent events, the Human Rights Program has reached out to Jim Dorsey, a founder and Past President of The Advocates for Human Rights and partner at Fredrikson & Byron who has been involved in international discussions about climate change and human rights, to comment on the intersection of climate change and human rights. The dialogue below represents his viewpoints on this important issue: 

What do you see are the biggest human-rights-related implications of climate change at the moment? In the future?

In the Declaration of Independence, after listing the self-evident, unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Jefferson explains that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men . . . .”  The biggest impact of climate change on human rights is that climate change has the potential to create failed states.  In such places, the instruments of government no longer work and, hence, provide no protection for human rights.  We can see this already occurring in countries in the Horn of Africa, where drought has led to famine, which has led to political instability.  Similarly, some commentators point to climate change as an instigating factor in Syria’s current chaos.  Moreover, the Pentagon views climate change as a threat to international security largely because fragile states, which have limited economic, social, and human capital already, are vulnerable to the disruption that climate change will cause.   In short, climate change will negatively affect human rights by threatening the viability of governments, which are the institutions through which people create and protect human rights.    

How do you anticipate the human rights discourse to change as climate change continues?

The definition, breadth and emphasis of human rights is always evolving.  For instance, in the aftermath of the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995, the role and importance of women’s human rights grew dramatically.  Now the status of women and girls in a society is a useful measure of the overall economic, social, and human rights health of that society. 

In response to the challenge of climate change, we can expect human rights thinking to evolve and expand again.  One possibility is that the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) may be embraced as a means of promoting and measuring human rights progress.   Adopted by the UN on September 25, 2015, the SDGs consist of 17 goals to be achieved by 2030.  The goals fall into three broad categories (or, as the UN calls them, “dimensions”) – social (feed, educate, provide health care, eliminate poverty, etc.), economic (provide employment, build resilient infrastructure, etc.), and environmental (combat climate change, protect the air, water, and forests).   Proponents of the SDGs say that achieving the 17 goals will also promote human rights. 

In which ways at the individual, local, national, and international level can we begin to work towards living environmentally friendly lives?

Climate change does not respect international borders.  In that way, preventing or ameliorating climate change, like combating infectious diseases or terrorism, will require international cooperation and collaboration.  In addition, each country or region will need cross-sector collaboration among its own business, government, non-profit, philanthropic, education, and faith communities. 

In the past, Minnesota has excelled at such cross-sector collaboration.  For instance, from about 1950 to 1990, Minnesota rose to where it ranked at or near the top of all the states in terms of the Human Development Indices (longevity, level of education, and per capita income), plus we had high ACT scores, low unemployment, high home ownership, low incarceration rates, and more Fortune 500 companies per person than anywhere else in the country.  That happened through cross-sector collaboration in, and support for, investment in human capital. 

Addressing climate change and promoting sustainable models for business growth and societal well-being offers an opportunity for Minnesota to again be a model for such collaboration.  With our tradition of corporate social responsibility, bi-partisan political progressivism, non-profit dynamism, philanthropic vision, educational commitment, and faith community involvement, we could be a world leader on sustainability issues.

For instance, the Minnesota Sustainable Growth Coalition, composed of Minnesota companies, government entities, and non-profits, has just recently formed.  The Coalition aims to achieve growth and competitiveness by promoting business-led projects that create a circular economy through stewardship of our natural and human resources.

At the international level, Minnesota is also well positioned to collaborate.  Formed in Caux, Switzerland, but now based in St. Paul, the Caux Round Table (CRT) has hundreds of corporate and individual members located across the world.  The CRT promotes “Moral Capitalism” as the best means to achieve greater prosperity, sustainability and fairness in the global economy.  Furthermore, it views the SDGs as a necessary and well-fitting component to ethical capitalist practices.