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#IJCHRHumanRightsWeek: Respecting human rights in a changing climate

Danielle
Andrade

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

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Exercising my 'reasoned judgement', I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society. — US District Judge Ann Aiken in Juliana v US

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change is real. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), described as the largest scientific coordinated effort in history, essentially confirmed in its fifth report that human-made greenhouse gas emissions are the main cause of climate change. Adverse impacts such as increasing frequency of extreme weather events and natural disasters, rising sea levels, floods, heat waves, droughts, water shortages, and the spread of tropical and vector-borne diseases threaten our rights to life, water and sanitation, food, health, housing, and development, among others.

Jamaica, as a small island developing state (SIDS), is particularly vulnerable to climate change. Communities living along or in close proximity to coastlines are most at risk from sea level rise, storm surges and hurricanes. The devastating effect this will have on Jamaica is pronounced due to the fact that most of our infrastructure and 60 per cent of our population are located within five kilometres of the coastline. Impacts such as erosion of beaches, coral bleaching, and reduced water supply will have severe ramifications for the livelihoods of these communities, many of which are heavily dependent on fisheries, agriculture and tourism. The situation is worse for vulnerable groups such as the poor, elderly and children who have less capacity to adapt to the impacts.

The Paris Agreement on climate change, signed by all except one country — the United States — requires countries to indicate the climate actions they voluntarily intend to take to reduce emissions (national determined contributions [NDC]). Jamaica, although not a significant cause of climate change, has committed to reduce the growth in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 7.8 per cent by 2030.

Holding the source to account

Equity, justice, and fairness demand that those who have not contributed to the problem, and have the least adaptive capacity, should not bear the costs and burden of the impacts from climate change. In fact, a primary premise of the international movement to address climate change is to ensure that developed countries that have historically contributed to climate change should be held accountable.

Climate change mitigation efforts need to be adequate and ambitious, but the reality is that developing countries will face inevitable loss and damage as a result of historic emissions that are beyond their ability to adapt. Examples of loss and damage could include coastal cities that are no longer habitable or lack of fresh water due to sea level rise. At the international level, developed states have yet to provide clearly expressed acceptance of responsibility or compensation relating to this issue.

Human rights claims against companies and countries

There are entire island nations that may disappear due to rising sea levels. The Tuvalu Islands located in the Pacific are a mere 200 metres above sea level and are already experiencing loss of land, raising issues such as climate change refugees. The Environmental Justice Foundation notes in its 2017 report, 'Beyond Borders', that there could be tens of millions of climate refugees in the next decade.

In 2015, the Netherlands High Court ordered the Dutch Government to reduce its emissions by 25 per cent within five years to protect its citizens from climate change in what was said to be the world's first climate liability suit. In the same year, typhoon survivors and non-governmental organisations brought a legal complaint against 47 oil, coal, cement, and mining companies before the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines — a constitutional body with the power to investigate human rights violations. The complaint, supported by more than 31,000 Filipinos, alleges breach of the human rights to life, food, water, sanitation, adequate housing, and to self-determination.

In the United States case Juliana v US, 21 children and young adults filed a claim in 2015 against the United States federal government alleging that its actions encouraged fossil fuel use, despite knowing the dangers of climate change and it violated the youngest generation's constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. This trial is scheduled for February 5, 2018. These cases highlight several approaches to ensuring human rights are protected when people are impacted by climate change.

Those that should be held accountable for the contributions to climate change include not only governments, but private companies as well. Further, governments should be ambitious in their attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And an adequate and progressive legal framework is needed to deal with the issue of loss and damage and climate refugees.

We go forward.

Danielle Andrade is an attorney-at-law. This article was submitted as part of the Independent Jamaican Council for Human Rights (IJCHR) observance of Human Rights Week, December 3 - 10, 2017. Human Rights Day will be celebrated on December 10, 2017. #IJCHRHumanRightsWeek

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