Global warming and climate change present humankind with one of the
greatest challenges in the history of our species. While there is now
broad acknowledgment of this fact, for those of us in the world’s
most developed countries, our awareness is often abstracted: We see
climate change as just an environmental problem that will somehow be
solved, or our view is shaped by the kind of horrific disasters that
make for sensational headlines and gripping news footage. Then we
forget all about it until the next disaster flashes across our
What shouldn’t be overlooked is that the effects of climate change
are cumulative. They do not always take the form of extreme natural
disasters. Climate change is already having a profoundly adverse
impact on poorer communities around the world, as they experience,
for example, a heavy rainfall that destroys a farmer’s entire crop
during the normally dry season. The people most affected – women,
children, and the most vulnerable – are the least responsible for
causing climate change, and also the least able to cope.
Fossil-fuel consumption undermining the life chances of very poor
Putting aside the worst-case scenarios of a much hotter world, we
need to face the present reality that climate change is already
disproportionately affecting the daily lives of hundreds of millions
of people in a way that jeopardizes their fundamental human rights.
I’ve become increasingly aware of this during my years traveling to
many of the world’s poorest and most underdeveloped countries,
where I’ve seen how climate change is threatening food supplies and
sabotaging development goals.
Climate change is an issue of both human rights and fundamental
justice. Developing countries’ fossil-fuel consumption is
undermining the life chances of very poor people, and, unlike those
of us in developed nations, those people are largely helpless in
response to the climate shocks of severe droughts, catastrophic
storms, and floods. They don’t have insurance, and their
governments don’t have the means to provide climate adaptation
The impact of climate change on human rights
Considering climate change from a human rights and justice
perspective compels us to recognize our own responsibility to support
poorer populations in their efforts to adapt and become resilient. It
lends greater urgency to the need for a true partnership of nations
to limit global warming.
Fortunately, this human rights perspective is increasingly being
embraced. The UN Human Rights Council first recognized the impact of
climate change on human rights in 2008, and last year appointed John
Knox, a distinguished American academic, as its first independent
expert on human rights and the environment.
More recently, the UN High-Level Panel charged with advising the
secretary general on an agenda for global development beyond 2015,
the original target date for the UN’s Millennium Development Goals,
released its report, “A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty
and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development.” The
report clearly links human rights and development, as well as
development and the environment.
Challenges for the developed countries
The climate agenda must be achieved by 2015. This agenda can only be
truly effective if it’s seen to be fair and equitable, recognizing
the legitimate development aspirations of developing countries and
supporting the transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy.
Developing countries will not embrace an agenda that does not
recognize climate change’s disproportionate impact on them. Climate
change jeopardizes food and water security, limits access to
resources, and exacerbates the effects of poverty. Poorer countries
thus end up being more affected.
The importance of a rights-based approach
In order to achieve the climate agenda, we need to focus on the poor
and most vulnerable, and recognize the importance of a rights-based
approach. People’s rights must be protected. We must make sure
nobody is left behind.
I’m infused with a sense of urgency. We must act now, or the world
we pass on to our children and grandchildren will be almost
unimaginably troubled. What will they think of us? We have the
awareness, the knowledge, and the expertise to do something about
climate change. Let us not be accused of failing to act while there
was still time.
Robinson was the President of Ireland from 1990–97, and the UN High
Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997–2002. In July 2009, she was
awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’
highest civilian honor. In 2010, Mary Robinson established The Mary
Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice. In March 2013, she was
appointed UN Special Envoy to the Great Lakes region of Central
Africa. (The Mark News)