Climate change: Biggest threat to human rights

The global climate has been changing as the world gets warmer largely due to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions resulting from human activities. This fact is now widely accepted but there are still a few formidable sceptics around, who refuse to accept evidence of human causation of recent observed warnings.

According to latest assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a dedicated international scientific body to review and assess the most recent scientific, technical and socio-economic information produced worldwide to understand climate change, and established by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20 century due to increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations, and that the warming of the climate system has been unequivocal.

About the warming of the planet, the IPCC finds that warming in the last 100 years has caused about a 0.74 degree Centigrade increase in global average temperature, which is up from 0.6 degree Centigrade increase in the 100 years prior to the Third Assessment Report. It observed that since 1961, the ocean has been absorbing more than 80% of the heat added to the climate system, and average Arctic temperatures increased almost twice the global average rate in the past 100 years.

The changes in the atmosphere have been due to marked increase of emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide resulting in warming of the planet with infrequent cold days and nights, while hot days, hot nights, and heat waves have become more frequent. They found that the twelve-year period, 1995-2006, ranked among the top 12 warmest years since 1850.

It noticed increased incidents of high intensity winds, increased droughts and heavy precipitation. It found that mountain glaciers and snow cover have declined, land-based ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica have been lost and very likely contributed to sea level rise between 1993 and 2003, and that ocean warming caused seawater to expand, contributing to sea level rising on an average about 1.8 mm/year during the years 1961-2003 while, in 1993-2003, the sea level increased at an average rate of 3.1 mm/year.

Based on such and other factors, the Panel projected a model based future after analysing various climate models, and predicted that in the 21st century surface air warming for a low scenario would be around 1.8 degrees Centigrade, with a likely average of 1.1 to 2.9 degrees Centigrade, and for a high scenario, 4 degrees Centigrade with a likely range of 2.4 to 6.4 degrees Centigrade rise of temperature at a rate of 0.1 degree Centigrade per decade in first two decades, and rise of about 0.2 degree Centigrade for the next two. For sea level, it estimated rise of 18 to 59 cm, in low scenario, to 26 to 59 cm in a high scenario, resulting in increase in frequency of warm spells, heat waves, heavy rainfall, droughts, intensified tropical cyclones, extreme high tides etc.

Climate change and Bangladesh: Effects of climate change are all too visible in Bangladesh. According to one study, compared to present day temperature, temperature could increase to 2.4 degrees centigrade higher than the current level by 2100, causing hotter summer, and hot winters. The rainfall could increase to 10% at the same time, changing drastically usual rainfall patterns. The seawater rise would cause more havoc as it is estimated that by 2100 the level would increase by 88 cm from the current level, submerging vast tracts of land with seawater. Frequent and severe floods, frequent storms etc., have already become regular features and are likely to multiply, affecting lives of tens and thousands of people, who are mostly poor and vulnerable.

What have human rights got to do with climate change? Human rights are universal basic rights and freedoms which all humans are entitled to, including civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights entailing such rights as right to life, liberty, freedom of expression, to worship, to own property, to be treated equally before the law, to family, to education, to culture, to health, to subsistence etc. These rights being universal and fundamental, states have obligation to prevent violations of these rights.

However, global warming has been threatening all human rights which are designed to prevent destruction of life, health, property, livelihood, culture, means of subsistence, residence, movement etc. The threats from climate change include death and danger from droughts, floods, heat, storms, rising oceans, impacts on agriculture and food production, loss of animals, various diseases, destruction of water supplies, and inability to live and sustain lives.

Forced displacements have already impacted strongly, and are likely to do so in future with the predicted rise of sea level and devastating storms, costing a huge portion of gross domestic product. In Asia and Pacific, according to the report of the Working Group on Climate Change titled "Up in the Smoke?" (2007), "human drama of climate change will largely be played out in Asia, where over 60% of the world's population, around 4 billion, lives."

To some extent, the relationship between the environment and human rights, and human well-being, has been recognised. According to Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, realisation of many human rights is necessarily related to and in some ways dependent upon one's physical environment.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) also feels that damage to environment can impair and undermine all human rights. Protection of environment, according to the Advisory Council of Jurists of the Asia-Pacific Forum on National Human Rights Institutions, is a vital part of the contemporary human rights doctrine and a sine qua non for numerous human rights, such as right to health and the right to life.

Indeed, many rights recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights, Convention against Torture, Convention on the Rights of the Child, are relevant to those people whose way of life comes under threat from climate change. States therefore have responsibilities under these instruments to take action to remedy the direct and indirect threats to these rights posed by climate change. These are positive obligations to protect individuals against the threats of climate change, regardless of the causes.

Climate change discourse and human rights: In international negotiations and even in IPCC reports, human rights hardly appear as an issue. These are overwhelmed by science and economics, but not by those who matter most, the people. In climate discussions in Bangladesh too, human rights are not mentioned. It appears, despite deep and complex interlinks, climate change discourses are silent on human rights. This has to change, and discussions in all earnest should begin to understand the full impact of climate change on human rights.

Even though it involves some difficult rights issues that might be challenging, such as weak enforcement mechanisms under international laws, or extraterritorial responsibilities in that, ordinarily, the government concerned has the primary duty to act in case of violations of rights, but in the case of climate change, responsibility of impacts cannot be attributed to the government nearest to hand, but also to countries far away, and both public and private entities.

Therefore, what is most needed now is adoption of a "human rights based approach" to policy and legislative responses to climate change, based on international human rights norms and standards, and ensuring promotion and protection of human rights. Human rights standards should be minimum thresholds for mitigation and adaptation policies.