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What has climate change got to do with human rights?

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What has climate change got to do with human rights?

We hear a lot about Human Rights, but do we stop to think about what these are and how our actions impact humanity?

Modern-day human rights stem from the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948). These rights are so fundamental that they are as relevant today as in 1948 but are now embodied in the ‘United Nations Global Compact (2000)’ which sets out ten principles. Importantly, these are ‘Global’ principles, based on the aspirations of collective governments at the United Nations. As such, these aspirations are not affected by National political changes such as the outcome of Brexit (pending at the time of writing in October 2019).

Direct vs indirect impacts

 Human rights abuses are associated with the most vulnerable in our society and those in other economies, with child and forced labour being among the most objectionable abuses. We do not often consider how our actions can indirectly impact human rights, or the important role that the environment plays in human rights conventions. Climate change has been linked with global temperature increases and greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, climate change damages habitats and is linked with rising sea-levels and adverse weather, which ultimately threaten livelihoods and displace communities.

Three out of ten Global Compact principles specifically relate to the environment and are principles we can align with through our everyday values and practices; namely: 

Principle 7: Businesses should support a precautionary approach to environmental challenges;

Principle 8: Undertake initiatives to promote greater environmental responsibility; and

Principle 9: Encourage the development and diffusion of environmentally friendly technologies.

A difficulty with human rights conventions is that they exist through treaties, ratified by governments. When a government ratifies a treaty, they are only agreeing in principle and governments do not always legislate for the protection of human rights. A worrying development is in the United States wherein 2017 the Trump administration withdrew from ‘The Paris Agreement’, an international environmental treaty. This appears to contravene environmental principles 7, 8 and 9 and signals to US businesses that they will not be reprimanded for conducting environmentally damaging practices at home or abroad. Following this withdrawal, US CO2 emissions increased by 3.4%.

Western society's demand

It is also difficult to enforce such treaties due to globalisation and the ability of businesses to relocate environmentally damaging processes and factories to countries which are less incentivised to protect the environment - often driven by our demand for ever-cheaper products in Western society, such as clothing. This is a form of environmentally related exploitation as these countries are often vulnerable and desperate for inward investment; they pay less than the minimum wage and their working conditions and labour rights are often lacking. This directly links environmental issues to the more severe human rights abuses referred to previously.

What can you do? 

The issue can seem to present an overwhelming challenge for us in our everyday lives, but we have witnessed many changes to the climate and the political landscape, to the extent that we cannot rely on others to pave the way for us.  Instead, we can actively become more conscious of our choices. Whether by generating our own energy with a renewable technology or simply conserving energy at zero-cost, you will be making an important conscientious and ethical choice.  Buying local produce, reducing plastic consumption and conserving water are other examples of simple actions you can take.  And if you can influence your organisation’s policy on how it buys goods or services, this will make a positive contribution and signal to others the importance your organisation places on the environment and Human Rights matters.

Even the great scientific minds of our time can struggle to agree upon solutions to our climate crisis. However, in a recent book ‘Drawdown’ by Paul Hawken (2018), scientists offer a range of suggestions from experts from the fields of biology, economics, geology and engineering, which collectively, could reverse the damage caused by mankind. It comprises 100 ideas ranging from infrastructural philosophies on transport and land-use to policies on the education of women in developing economies. Upon reviewing these measures, it is clear that many relate to social injustice and inequities experienced by poor economies through climate change. By not addressing these issues through our choices we are failing to address human rights issues and may indirectly aggravate these injustices.

In summary, addressing environmental issues is not just about the local environment we live in, but our impact on the lives of others who may be much further afield.  These issues directly link to Human Rights which our governments support in principle but are may not be their most pressing matters when it comes to legislation. There are many actions we can each take which do not have to involve financial investment but are a step in the right direction.  This article includes some links for those who wish to read more on this topic.

If you would like to read more on the topic of sustainability, have a look at our other blogs, including; 

The problem with palm oil, The danger of climate change to our health, 4 steps to sustainability and 7 ways to reduce your carbon footprint. 

Mark Compston

Mark Compston
Senior Project Manager


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