Climate change, disaster management and human rights

Published : 03 Dec 2019 05:41 PM | Updated : 07 Sep 2020 02:53 AM

In the fourth week of Sep­tember this year, a UN panel of scientists associated with the Inter­govern­mental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)   issued a report on future impact of climate change and rising temperatures that signaled a red alert pertaining to expected devastating effects that would arise from ice melting in our seas and frozen regions. The study pointed out that it was "virtually certain" that the global ocean has now warmed without pause since 1970. The waters have consequently soaked up more than 90% of the extra heat generated by humans over the past decades, and the rate at which it has taken up this heat has doubled since 1993. This rising water level is now being driven principally by the melting of Greenland and Antarctica. It has also been observed that glaciers are also melting at a fast pace in areas like the tropical Andes, Central Europe and North Asia. It is now being mentioned that these regions will lose 80% of their ice by 2100 under the high carbon emissions scenario. This will have huge consequences for millions of people.

The worrying scenario is that all this extra water gushing down to the seas is driving up average ocean water levels around the world. That will continue over the decades to come. It has also neen suggested that global average sea levels could increase by up to 1.1 meter by 2100, in the worst warming scenario. This is a rise of 10cm on previous IPCC projections because of the larger ice loss now happening in Antarctica.

Another new research has also revealed that coastal flooding will hit nearly 42 million people in Bangladesh by 2050. This means that the situation is likely to be worse than what was feared earlier. The number of victims could reach 57 million by the end of this century, according to the study conducted by US-based non-profit research group Climate Central and published in British scientific journal Nature on 29 October. It may be recalled that such a dismal prospect is worse than previous estimates. It may be recalled that a previous projection by the group had observed that flooding as a consequence of climate change would affect around 5 million Bangladeshis living in coastal areas by the mid-century. Some other studies had however indicated that the number could be 20 to 30 million.

The new study says researchers have developed a more accurate way of estimating the effects of sea level rise over large areas, and found that nearly 300m people across the world will be vulnerable by 2050 to flooding made worse by climate change. This means that globally, more than three times people will be at risk from rising sea levels than previously believed. This report, based on findings from individual assessments of 135 countries across multiple climate scenarios, also forecasts deadly storm surges, cyclones and rising sea in Asia in the coming decades.

It may be mentioned here that more than two thirds of the vulnerable populations causing anxiety in this regard live in Bangladesh, China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand. It is also being pointed out that by 2050 low-lying areas in some South and South East Asian cities not far from the coast (without proper embankments) are likely to face inundation during high tide as part of the flood zone. This includes the cities of Dhaka, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Taizhou, Surabaya, Mumbai, Ho Chi Minh City and Osaka. There is however some disagreement with regard to Dhaka, Shanghai and Mumbai. Bangladeshi climate experts have however pointed out that 100 kilometres away from the coastal zones the districts of Pirojpur and Shariatpur might be badly affected as there are no embankments there.

These debacles that are staring us in the face have also raised several questions as to how the concerned countries are expected to respond to the evolving disastrous situation and how the basic human rights of the affected people need to be safeguarded while tackling this growing emergency.

This aspect is receiving attention because environmental sustainability and the promotion of human rights are closely intertwined and complementary objectives that are at the core of sustainable development.

It needs to be mentioned here that there is a mutually supportive nature with regard to disaster and human rights because the dimensions are inter-linked. Ecosystems and the services they provide, such as food, water, disease management, climate regulation, and spiritual fulfilment, are preconditions for the full enjoyment of human rights, including rights to life, health, water, and food. Efforts to promote environmental sustainability can only be effective if they occur in the context of conductive legal frameworks, and are greatly informed by the exercise of certain human rights, such as the rights to information, public participation in decision- making and access to justice.

I believe that the implementation any agenda by individual States or a multilateral effort to tackle the impending climate change disaster will require States and other relevant actors to adopt policies and mobilize resources to advance equitable, human-rights-based and sustainable development. The linkages between human rights and the environment are one of the key aspects that need to be addressed in balancing the different facets pertaining to sustainable development across the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Human rights mechanisms will have to address issues within the right to a healthy environment directly and also focus on the environmental dimensions of more established rights, though emerging rights, such as the right to water and the right to development. Both human rights and environmental law have recognized the effect of environmental degradation on human welfare. A number of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) also recognize the link between the environment and human health and well-being, and many MEAs also include provisions regarding civil liability and compensation for damage caused by environmental degradation, particularly in the context of pollution.

Human rights tribunals in the context of environmental law has also dealt with protection of collective intellectual property rights, through principles of benefit sharing, i.e. in the context of genetic resources. In addition, there is some suggestion that the disproportionate impact of environmental degradation on certain groups could amount to a violation of rights to freedom from discrimination. This potential is referred primarily in the context of discrimination against indigenous peoples, though it has also come up in the context of racial minorities.

There is also the question of environmental degradation playing a decisive role in many conflict situations. One needs to remember that such degradation can contribute to the outbreak of a conflict and result in the infringement of fundamental human rights, such as the right to life and the right to health. These infringements would include damages to the life and properties of victims of conflict, disruption of normal living conditions, and loss of access to basic services.

Conflicts can also fuel environmental degradation by weakening governance structures, undermining positive environmental practices and promoting uncontrolled systems of resource exploitation. It is thus crucial that conflict management is taken into account from the outset, along with humanitarian, economic and social needs. Neglecting in the establishing of strong governance systems which factor in the environmental rule of law can consequently jeopardize the peace process and the well-being of the population and the environment.

Ensuring a human rights framework also denotes the importance of accountability mechanisms in the implementation of measures and policies in the area of climate change that requires access to administrative and judicial remedies in cases of human rights violation resulting out of absence of environmental protection. Such an approach can then serve to bring greater clarity about the underlying causes of positive or negative impacts of various economic measures related to environmental protection It will also allow for better choices among policies and projects. This can then improve outcomes by facilitating positive synergies, and generally improving the governance of natural resources. 

It will also facilitate and increase the legitimacy of activities, programmes and policies by integrating social concerns with environmental goals, drawing on a widely agreed upon set of norms specifying the rights and responsibilities of all actors. This will also ensure the accountability of governments, the private sector and environmental or human rights organizations with regard to the impact of their activities on the environment.

Such an approach through stronger cross-sectoral links would provide a framework to integrate social development, economic 

development and environmental protection.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance