Climate action must not leave human rights behind

Seventy years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we face one of the biggest challenges and injustices of all times. How can climate change solutions help tackle poverty and ensure rights for the most vulnerable communities?

Children in Laos get free school lunches in government and World Bank programme
Children in Laos get free school lunches in a programme run by the government and supported by the World Bank. Human rights should be included in development agendas. Image: Bart Verweij / World Bank, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Seventy years ago, in the wake of World War II, the world emerged from one of its darkest times. This led the international community to send a clear message to future generations: “Never again!”

Through the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, countries enshrined fundamental rights for the dignity and the integrity of every human being, so that humanity will never suffer again from such horrendous acts.

Seven decades later, humanity faces one of the most daunting challenges and injustices of all times. Climate change is already, and will increasingly provoke humanitarian disasters, displacing millions of people. Climate change threatens the enjoyment of a wide range of rights including those to water, food, health, culture, development, a healthy environment, and life itself.

And it exacerbates gender inequality and other forms of discrimination. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published this October warns that if we fail to urgently and massively scale up climate action, the 1.5°C global warming defence line will be reached between 2030 and 2052, and will have devastating and irreversible consequences across the world. 

Several hundreds of millions more people will experience poverty if we do not keep the increase of global average temperature below 1.5°C. The scientific community echoes a long-standing call issued, loud and clear, by civil society—governments do not have the luxury to turn a blind eye on climate change. Inaction shows utter contempt for humanity and is a violation of human rights.

The good news is that we can still prevent a humanitarian crisis on the scale of what the world faced 70 years ago. It is now in our hands to reverse the trend of rising greenhouse gas emissions. In 2015 countries have already committed, through the Paris Agreement, to pursue all efforts to keep global warming below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, and to implement action to tackle climate change in a way that respects and promotes human rights.

Now, at the 24th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24), governments must complete a critical task: finalising a set of guidelines to deliver on the Paris Agreement promises. This 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a timely reminder of the necessity of this action. There can be no trade-offs between climate action and respect for human rights.

We fear that instead of taking action to drastically reduce global emissions, some governments might turn to ineffective and dangerous technical ‘fixes’, such as massive sequestration of carbon in soils. By doing so, these countries would prevent smallholder food producers from cultivating their land, severely threatening their ability to produce food, access water and maintain their livelihoods. It is unacceptable for governments to continue to nurture a vicious circle of poverty and human rights violations: they must gain the courage to take bold action.

Inaction shows utter contempt for humanity and is a violation of human rights.

Future generations deserve better. Climate action must embrace solutions based on fully realising human rights, among others, by ensuring meaningful public participation throughout the design, implementation, and evaluation of climate policies. It is critical to respond adequately to people’s needs and ensure the broadest public support for climate action.

We should not have to choose between tackling climate change and fighting poverty: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development makes it clear—these two struggles represent two sides of the same coin and must be achieved in unison.

For example, experience shows that indigenous peoples whose rights over their ancestral lands are recognised by public authorities can play a better role in safeguarding the forests and protecting the carbon stored in them. This brings social co-benefits for the communities themselves, along with enhanced biodiversity and resilience.

This 70th anniversary is more than a number, and more than a celebration. It is an urgent call to action to consider human rights in the light of climate change. By making this commitment on December 10, 1948, governments made a promise to humanity. Now is the moment to give it a new meaning.

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