In Climate Crisis Era, Why Human Rights?
August 11, 2022
Gi-gon Kim/ Senior Researcher at Gwangju Jeonnam Research Institute
Covid-19 pandemic allowed us to realize that climate crisis is a pressing and present disaster already infiltrated in our daily life. Since scientists raised climate change as a serious issue in the mid-1980s, it has posed a grave threat to humanity’s entire lives all over the globe.
Various researches and our experiences have proven that new infectious diseases such as Covid-19, and social and economic polarization are deeply linked to the climate change. It seems not coincident that the period of over the last half century in which new contagious diseases have exponentially grown falls on the period in which the climate change has aggravated. Many scientists warned that we would face devastating consequences when temperature rises by 1.5 ˚C from the level the industrialization. Currently, however, we have been closer to that point. Therefore, now, it is time for us to raise awareness on and take actions against the climate crisis in order to brace for more serious risks in the future.
Indeed, climate change is directly related to human rights in that it undermines the basis of social and economic life of people not only the environment eventually to take a devastating toll on humanity. In this regard, international organizations and society have long dealt with the issue of climate change in the perspective of human rights. Especially, the UN Human Rights Council established a human rights-based thinking system on the climate change in 2007, and issued ‘the Resolution on Human Rights and Climate Change’ expressing concerns that climate change could cause a very extensive and immediate threat on humanity and society.
In 2016, the council called to integrate the human rights approaches in the actions of adaptation to and mitigation of climate change. In October 2021, it adopted a resolution to recognize climate change as an issue that had a serious impact on human rights. The IPCC’s Working Group II Contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report suggested that the climate crisis had adverse impacts not only on the ecosystem but also on water shortage, food crisis, health deterioration, urban lives, residence, and infrastructure in many areas. Furthermore, we need to cope with the issue of the life of as many as 20 million climate refugees who have to leave their home town because of desertification and water shortage derived from the climate change.
Not only the UN but also the international human rights activists have concerned over inequality hidden behind the climate crisis. The climate crisis has deepened inequality in diverse settings and fields of nations, regions, and classes not only aggravated environmental disasters. Especially, the climate change has disproportionately taken a greater toll on the socially vulnerable. Women, the disabled, the poor, the elderly, the displaced, and refugees tend to be hit harder than any other group of people. For instance, this summer, Seoul, the capital of South Korea, was hit hard by unprecedented torrential rains which left many casualties and property losses. In particular, many of casualties were those who lived in houses on semi-basement because of their economic difficulties. As such, with accelerating climate crisis, extreme heat and cold wave have caused even more serious damages on those living in poor residential areas as well. The point is that everyone suffers from the climate crisis, however, the damages the climate crisis causes are considerably discriminate.
Cho Hyo-je, human rights sociologist and professor, said the most seriously infringed right by climate crisis is the right to health. Climate crisis brings about all kinds of health problems including seasonal diseases, new viruses, vibrio-caused diseases, and lung diseases. It also threatens mental health of humanity. After experiencing wild fires, typhoons, and other natural disasters, the victims reportedly tend to suffer from devastating post-traumatic stress disorder(PTSD), anxiety, and insomnia.
Climate crisis is deeply intertwined with social and economic problems to include food crisis, poverty, contagious diseases, refugees, job insecurity, inequality, and poor living condition. It is one of the greatest threats that undermines stable fundamentals of life and deteriorates human rights at every corner of our lives. That is the reason why we have to strictly uphold the obligation of nations and local governments to prevent human rights infringement and protect citizens.
With adoption of the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism(CBAM) by the EU in 2023 and the Carbon Neutrality Policy by the Republic of Korea, many regions and nations have rushed to come up with and implement policies and initiatives in responding to climate change. In the course, the most important principle is ‘just transition’. Policies of transforming energy and industrial structures to cope with climate crisis need to take an approach to protect labors and locals and to eliminate inequality.
First of all, taking a ‘human rights approach’ is important to deal with climate crisis. We need to take climate crisis as a problem of human rights, so, the process of addressing it needs to take the human rights approach. Under crisis, the principles that we need to value include the national and local governmental responsibility to protect citizens’ human rights, active climate actions by businesses to prevent the carbon capitalism, the application of climate associated conventions agreed by the international community, engagement of the youth and stakeholders, and a transparent information sharing.
Kwon Seung-moon, Deputy Director of the Energy and Climate Policy Institute, emphasized three directions that climate justice need to seek for in the perspective of human rights. Among them, the first one is a substantial justice. It is about to respect the rights of all members of our society to be equally protected against climate crisis and to enjoy a healthy and clean environment. The second principle is a distributive justice. It is about to address inequality in damages occurred by climate change. The third one is a procedural justice. It is to engage those hit hardest by climate change in the process of responding to climate crisis.
In the wake of climate crisis, the most significant and pressing challenge that the world human rights cities including Gwangju have to work on is to thoroughly prepare policies to protect human rights, a universal value of humanity. The 12th World Human Rights Cities Forum will be held in Gwangju in October under the theme of “Climate Crisis and Human Rights”. The upcoming forum is expected to bring together human rights cities, human rights organizations, international organizations, city associations, and human rights NGOs to provide a venue for discussions on various human rights issues caused by climate crisis and ways to collaborate among human rights activists in the view of the ‘Human Rights Approach in Responding to Climate Crisis’. Especially when climate crisis has been currently incorporated in our daily lives to the root, not as a future threat, we need to disseminate discussions and actions to protect human rights of all.