Deadlier than the coronavirus? Climate change and its impact on human rights

By: Paola Encarnación Huaman Salcedo

"I don't want you to have hope, I want you to panic" was one of the phrases by the Swedish environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, during her conference at the United Nations climate summit, held in 2019 in New York City. Her comment, clearly forceful, is a severe wake-up call to all generations who are obliged to curb the harmful impacts of climate change, even more so if they directly interfere with the effective enjoyment of human rights.

A common enemy

Since the end of the last century, caring for our planet has been one of the main issues on the agenda of most governments because regardless of race, religion, political system, or type of economy, a common enemy that haunts us, is the famous "climate change" which is the product of the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas, which generate greenhouse gas emissions that act as a blanket that envelops the planet, trapping the heat from the sun and raising temperatures (United Nations, n.d.).

In this regard, we must consider that the Earth's temperature is now 1.1°C higher than at the end of the 19th century (Manos Unidas, n.d.). This situation has had dire consequences for our planet, such as intense droughts, water shortages, severe fires, rising sea levels, floods, melting of the poles, catastrophic storms, and decreased biodiversity (Toquero, 2022). The picture seems discouraging, even more so when the World Meteorological Organization has pointed out that the quarantine ordered by governments to prevent COVID-19 has failed to sufficiently reduce carbon emissions (World Meteorological Organization, 2021). Thus, we have an imposing enemy that impacts the environment in which we live at unimaginable levels, so is this impact also directly proportional to the enjoyment of our human rights?

Don't mess with my human rights

From a legal perspective, the universal human rights system, through a study conducted by Economic Commission for Latinamerica and the Caribbean (ECLC), has determined that climate change affects human rights, given that it negatively impacts the enjoyment of the right to health, food, water, culture, development, or adequate housing, and most seriously, it threatens the very survival of people, affecting their right to life and physical integrity (United Nations, 2019).

What should governments maintain as observance? Mainly, they should take into account that climate action should be consistent with human rights obligations, standards, and principles, therefore it would be appropriate for them to implement the two main strategies to address climate change, which consist of: a) mitigating the extent of global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and b) adapting and strengthening the capacity of societies and ecosystems to cope with the effects and risks generated by climate change (United Nations, 2019).

Likewise, at the level of the inter-American human rights system, it is worth mentioning the recent resolution published by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) and Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights (SRESCER), on climate change and its impact on human rights in the Americas (OAS, 2022). This document recognizes that change is one of the greatest threats to the full enjoyment of human rights of present and future generations, to the health of ecosystems, and to all the species that inhabit the hemisphere (IACHR, 2022).

In addition to what has already been pointed out by the universal human rights system, it refers that to address climate change, governments must immediately adopt measures that take into account the perspectives of gender equality and intersectionality. As well as consider differentiated approaches that make visible the aggravated risks to human rights against persons, groups, and collectivities in situations of vulnerability and historical exclusion in the hemisphere (IACHR, 2022). It is not surprising that the most affected are people living in poverty, women and children, migrants, the elderly, members of indigenous peoples, tribal communities, Afro-descendants, and peasants.

We need to get to work

In the light of the above, the impact of climate change on human rights is undeniable, so what can we do now? In the first place, we must perfect eco-friendly habits, through which we can contribute to reducing the effects of climate change if these are massively repeated. To do this, you can follow many tips on the internet as the actions proposed by the United Peruvian Youth's Planet group in its recent publication.

However, the most drastic changes which we hope will bear fruit in the future, have been the joint actions of the governments. For example, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, created the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which has now been ratified by some 197 countries. In addition, the Kyoto Protocol can be defined as the implementation of the UNFCCC, as it is the first global commitment to reduce greenhouse gasses. This was followed by the Paris Agreement, a legally enforceable pact that contains all the elements necessary to build a global strategy to combat climate change for the post-2020 period. The pact's main objective is to limit the global increase in temperature to below 2ºC by the end of the century, considering extending this objective to 1.5ºC. (Iberdrola, n.d.).

Last thoughts

Fighting against climate change is an opportunity to reduce its harmful impact that has triggered the violation of various fundamental rights; it is no longer just a struggle to preserve the environment. It is a struggle that ensures that people live in dignity. Let's not forget, dear readers, by being active, we lose nothing, but if we do not try, we will lose everything.