The following essay is based on my intervention at the CNDH Maroc Special Event on Human Rights and Climate Change, held on 6 November 2016, in Marrakech.
Climate disruption itself is a human rights issue.
The state of our climate system is a lens through which to read progress on human rights at all levels, in all countries. An inadequate response to climate change leaves people vulnerable to cascading and compounded impacts, which make the protection of human rights much more difficult to achieve.
An example of this would be Nepal, where accelerating glacial melt left mountainside communities far more vulnerable to landslide. When the country was hit by a devastating earthquake, many villages were not only impacted, but disappeared. People were cut off from aid and rescue, and entire districts were displaced. Displaced people, who had lost everything, were far more vulnerable to human trafficking and other predatory crimes.
The thread from climate disruption to the degradation of living conditions, and ultimately of human rights protections, is clear. In such situations, useful local knowledge is of high value, but not readily available.
Decentralizing power and influence is critical.
Concrete actions to expand the civic space are critical for countering the threats climate change poses to human populations. Such actions include:
- Language agreed by consensus with legal force, as part of the COP decisions or agreed text, to provide guidance for implementation.
- Specific progress on sustainable affordable clean energy for all: energy access, climate security, freedom from undue harm, technology innovation, development, and transfer.
- Enhanced public participation: specifically, real and kinetic progress toward always-active open civics, community-level leadership for ongoing MRV and regular, routine, dynamic policy upgrades (no backsliding).
The climate system touches, captures, and connects physical interactions between human intention, public policy, business practices, international law, and the human experience of wellbeing. Gender equality, education, and other macrocritical drivers of value, as laid out in the Sustainable Development Goals agenda, also tie into rights-based climate-solvency questions.
These macrocritical drivers include access to microfinance, reliable local institutions, political transparency, evidence-based policy, sustainable livable breathable communities, clean air and water, distributed microgrid generation, and multilevel multilateral partnerships that foster these outcomes.
A new standard for economic value generation.
Each of these on their own may seem like a discrete area of policy action, but as part of the wider landscape of political integrity and economic value generation, they actively reverse network externalities (like lack of electrification due to the dominance of large centralized grids), creating reliable engines of new opportunity.
Climate solvency—our ability to cope with and reverse climate disruption—requires that we examine rights-related impacts and move toward a situation in which we can honestly say we organize ourselves to avoid climate damage and undue harm. Indigenous rights, equal opportunity in a just economic transition, and intergenerational equity, are critical to allowing us to meet such a standard.
In fact, without integrating the logic of these policy design ethics into our concrete choices for action, we will be far less capable of coping with or solving climate disruption.
Public health is a macrocritical driver with many intimate entanglements with climate change and its impacts. Ongoing, escalating climate disruption poses serious threats to public health, many of which are unevenly distributed across any given population. National human rights institutions can easily begin to adapt their existing mission to include monitoring, education, and policy action to respond to rights infringements flowing from the public health risk of climate change.
In many ways, the uneven distribution of climate risk relates to legal responsibilities of all governments. Disproportionate climate impact on vulnerable populations is not limited to developing countries. All nations face climate justice issues, and most have already existing legal obligations to avoid exacerbating these potentially grave impacts.
This is how the 1.5ºC standard (warming since pre-industrial times) entered into the Synthesis of the IPCC’s 5th Assessment, the Lima Call for Climate Action, and ultimately, the Paris Agreement. Despite the fact that we are rapidly approaching the 1.5ºC warming threshold, and simply ceasing to release climate-forcing compounds into the atmosphere will not reverse warming to date, the gravity of the already observable climate disruption, has made it necessary to recognize that we cannot allow ourselves to enter into a moral failure so grave as to allow entire nations to disappear beneath the waves.
Ambitious, innovative policy design is a rights issue.
The higher, far more ambitious temperature target of 1.5ºC is a first step toward fully committing to the true rights-based climate agenda, in which we orient ourselves, as a world community, toward designing, building, and sustaining an economy that disallows climate harm. The standard must be zero harm and the routine expectation of mutual thriving.
Many argue we will have to do better than 1.5ºC; increasingly, we hear about the need to “draw down” carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, to ensure we “restore the Earth’s pre-industrial climate system”. The reality is: we will probably need to do this to meet the 1.5ºC goal.
This raises additional rights concerns—about equity, justice, and a level playing field for the sharing of knowledge and opportunity. There is an uneven landscape of impact and empowerment, and the old economy rewards those that ignore such imbalance, or take advantage of it, to commit more resources to their own purposes. A new economy—oriented toward climate solvency as a human right—will have to reverse that dynamic: innovators and market leaders will be rewarded for adding empowerment where it has lagged and for eliminating undue impacts on vulnerable populations and ecosystems.
Innovations in mapping will make more good possible.
What all of this gives us is a picture of a landscape of human interrelationship, where not enough is known and not enough is shared. A priority must be expansion of the civic space, so that all people everywhere can be directly engaged in designing a better climate future for themselves and their communities. This will require mapping human experience in new ways:
- The Sustainable Development Goals are, in effect, a map of human experience. Some of the most advanced economies may be lagging in crucial areas of the landscape of human wellbeing mapped out by the SDGs.
- Tracking progress means gaining knowledge that can benefit everyone everywhere.
- Solutions should move across borders, free to amplify human capability the way knowledge does. (Knowledge is a resource that always expands; sharing knowledge fundamentally changes the game of human competition for scarce resources.)
- The Nationally Determined Contributions to implementation of the Paris Agreement can also provide a detailed map of human experience. 147 of the 169 SDG Targets tie into climate action in some way.
While the NDCs are speculative and aspirational, the SDGs are able already, now, to track the status of human wellbeing according to a wide range of measures.
Active local participation can put good ideas together with active local capacity. This allows us to better map needs and innovations.
Governments that engage more openly achieve greater legitimacy and better policy outcomes. The Aarhus Convention experience—on environmental policy in Europe—shows that if all people are automatically treated as stakeholders, and policy-makers are required to show that the real-world interests and ideas of stakeholders are taken into account, policy is stronger, more resilient, and more effective.
Stakeholder participation is a driver of future thriving.
Ultimately, many of the rights issues related to climate disruption can begin to be solved by making room for always active, substantive, locally rooted stakeholder engagement. The Paris Agreement makes room for this kind of bold innovation and devolution of authority to local communities. Each nation is free to detail national climate action strategies according to its own laws.
Where national political systems inhibit such global to local flows of information and capability, they also impede the effective efficient deployment of solutions. Open engagement permits open sharing across borders, and that can allow for a much more rapid acceleration of locally rooted rights-considered policy design and implementation.
We are entering a world in which investors, entrepreneurs and decision-makers, at all levels, everywhere, will need to have solid information about how to compete in a new economy that values climate solvency as a human right, the ability to perform while generating zero external harm, and to cooperate sustainably with partners at all levels. The rights conversation is not new, and it need not be all about cost. Ultimately, moving climate-solvency rights to the center of the discussion means we will plan, innovate, share, and prosper more reliably, in a more inclusive, just and sustainable way.
The climate system is a unified ethical field. From now on, dealing ably with climate means your rights are my wellbeing, and vice-versa.