Opening Remarks by Ms. Navi Pillay at the Human Rights Council Seminar “The Adverse Impacts of Climate Change on the Full Enjoyment of Human Rights 23-24 Febuary 2012

23 February 2012

Madame President,
Distinguished Participants,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Climate change, also referred to as “global warming”, is one of the issues of our times – it is without question the most urgent environmental issue facing humankind today. Increasingly we are feeling the effects through more devastating natural disasters, such as landslides, droughts, floods and hurricanes, and we are also witnessing the long-term threats in gradual degradation of the environment.

Climate change is destroying our path to sustainability. The “Future We Want”, as compared to the ‘future we’ll get’, will depend largely on how well we address climate change. In your deliberations and preparations for the United Nations World Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, I ask all delegations present, to please recall that all of the events of the past decade, all of your special memories, all of your personal highlights and low lights, all such events have something in common – they all took place during the hottest decade ever recorded since humans began keeping temperature records about 150 years ago.

Understanding climate change may be a work-in-progress for the scientific community, however the risks that climate change already poses to global communities mean that mitigation and adaptation efforts command the expertise of economists, development 3 agencies and policy makers alike. The breadth of the range of challenges posed by climate change on a global scale has made it an international and interdisciplinary concern.

At the Conference of Parties (COP17) held in Durban last December, countries agreed on a timetable for a binding accord in which all nations would pledge to reduce emissions. We have a collective responsibility to deliver by 2015 because Mother Nature will not wait while we negotiate. In that spirit, the United Nations Secretary General has prioritised addressing climate change in his ‘Five Year Action Agenda’. Madame President, Ladies and Gentlemen, Climate change debates traditionally focused on the scientific, environmental and economic aspects, with little attention given to human rights concerns.

But as the immense human consequences have become more evident, increasing attention is being paid to the human and social dimensions of climate change. Climate change is a social, economic and political issue with profound implications for social justice and gender equality, as exemplified by the Human Rights Council in its resolutions 7/23 and 18/22. Climate change-related impacts have a range of implications for the effective enjoyment of human rights. Global warming will exacerbate so-called natural disasters, which killed approximately 296,000 people in 2010 alone, mainly in the developing world. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts an increase in human suffering from death, disease and injury from natural catastrophes such as heatwaves, floods, storms, fires and droughts.

But more often than not, the adverse effects of climate change will be cumulative and unspectacular and have an indirect and gradual effect on human rights, such as in agriculture and food security, and on biodiversity, ecosystems and water resources. Slowly and incrementally, land will become too dry to till, crops will die, rising sea levels will flood coastal dwellings and spoil freshwater, species will disappear, and livelihoods will vanish. Mass migration and conflicts will result, and then only gradually will these awful consequences touch upon the lifestyles and activities of those who are most responsible for global warming.

Madame President,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

My Office conducted and presented to the Human Rights Council in March 2009 an analytical study on the relationship between human rights and the climate change. The study highlighted the striking “climate injustice” that many of the least developed countries and small island States, which have contributed least to global greenhouse gas emissions, will be worst affected by global warming. The report pointed out that these countries are vulnerable due to their low capacity to effectively adapt to climate change and underlined the need for international cooperation to address the unequal burden falling on those who are least able to carry its weight.

The study noted that climate change cannot be considered simply in terms of environmental and economic aspects. It provided an analysis of the implications of climate change for the right to life and economic, social and cultural rights such as to adequate food, 5 to safe drinking water, to health and to adequate housing. Furthermore the study showed that if we build human rights criteria into our future planning, we will better understand who is at risk and how we should act to protect them. Let me share with you some examples.

The effects of climate change will be most acutely felt by those segments of the population whose rights protections are already precarious due to factors such as poverty, gender, age, minority status, migrant status and disability. Certain groups, such as women, children, indigenous peoples and rural communities, are more exposed to climate change effects and risks. The poorest women and men in the developing South – who have contributed least to global warming – find their livelihoods most threatened, yet have the weakest voice and least influence on climate policy. As it happens, the most dramatic impacts of climate change are expected to occur in the world’s poorest countries where rights protections are too often weak. Under international human rights law, States are legally bound to address such vulnerability in accordance with the human rights principle of equality and nondiscrimination.

The human rights perspective underlines the importance of empowerment and meaningful participation in decision-making processes. It also emphasizes the necessity of access to safe water, food, education, health services and adequate housing, all of which are important for reducing the vulnerability of individuals to climate change threats. There is no doubt that women and men do not experience climate change equally. In many developing countries, economic constraints and cultural norms that limit women’s careers or even prohibit them from receiving paid employment mean that their livelihoods are particularly dependent on climate-sensitive sectors, such as subsistence agriculture or water 6 collection. Women make up most of the world’s farmers and produce more than half of the world’s food, so their knowledge and capacity are crucial for successful climate change adaption policies.

However, gender inequality and discriminatory laws and practices in the distribution of assets and financial opportunities mean their choices are severely limited in the face of climate change. There is much work to be done to devise policies and measures to address discriminatory practices and to empower women so they become part of the solution to increasing their communities’ capacity to cope with extreme weather events. Climate change policies and processes will be neither effective nor fair unless they become more gender aware.

While the precise relationship between climate change and migration is hard to quantify, there is no doubt that environmental factors are already affecting mobility patterns, particularly in relation to the movement of vulnerable and marginalized groups of people. Migrants who are compelled to leave their homes as a coping strategy will often remain in a precarious position throughout the cycle of their journey; they will be vulnerable to human rights violations as they move across borders, and they will frequently be in an irregular situation.

The Global Migration Group, comprised of 16 UN and other international organisations, recently called on the international community to recognize that migration and displacement induced by environmental degradation and climate change require urgent action. I call on States to ensure that their migration policymaking is premised at all stages on fundamental human rights standards. I recognise further the critical need for more research and better data on the complex links between climate change and migration.

Madame President,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

In conclusion, we must find ways to repair and restore our environment enabling human beings to escape a life of poverty, insecurity and violence.

Thinking about climate change from a human rights perspective is not only a fundamental necessity in terms of guiding our international development policy framework, it also offers us an opportunity to reappraise the most pressing needs of a highly inequitable global society, with greatly differing social, environmental and economic levels of development.

Mitigating climate change while furthering development poses even greater challenges where resources and/or the political will to fulfil basic human rights are lacking. As we take steps to address climate change, we must not do so at the cost of the most vulnerable and discriminated members of the world’s communities.

Only then can we begin making meaningful progress towards the ‘Future We Want’. I wish you a successful outcome for your deliberations over the course of the next two days.

Thank you.