While the international community’s attention is consumed by the COVID-19 pandemic and a myriad of crisis, from the wars in Syria and Yemen to the Middle East peace process, Brexit and a severe global economic downturn, climate change continues to wreak havoc on societies around the world, putting into question the very survival of future generations.
Greenhouse gases produced as a result of anthropogenic activity such as the burning of fossil fuels and industrial processes are being emitted at rates higher than at any point in the past 800,000 years. The resulting greenhouse effect is destabilizing the planet’s climate in hazardous ways. Extreme weather events are now more frequent and violent than ever. Heatwaves, droughts, blizzards, hail storms and floods are occurring with greater intensity, exacerbating poverty and forced migration. 2019 was the hottest year on record, with nearly 400 unprecedented instances of high temperatures reported in the northern hemisphere last summer alone.
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Aside from the loss of biodiversity, the disappearance of small island nations and the proliferation of new diseases, climate change is currently responsible for the death of 150,000 people annually, and will expectedly produce 250,000 fatalities per year between 2030 and 2050. This is a wake-up call for societies, lured into complacency by technological advances, that our lifestyle and consumption patterns are not sustainable.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to professor Ashok Swain, UNESCO chair of International Water Cooperation at Sweden’s Uppsala University, about the human rights impacts of climate change, the ensuing conflicts over resources, and the interplay between global warming and poverty.
The text has been lightly edited for clarity.
Kourosh Ziabari: According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, nations “have an affirmative obligation to take effective measures” to mitigate the impacts of climate change on human rights. With political, economic and security concerns that are consuming resources, coupled with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, do you think enough is being done to address climate change and its human rights implications? If states have an “obligation” to combat climate change, how is it possible to make sure they are living up to those commitments?
Ashok Swain: Both climate change and COVID-19 are global crises and [are] interconnected. Degrading ecosystems, unsustainable lifestyles and declining natural resources have led to a pandemic like COVID-19. Thus, the world should not forget the threats of climate change while confronting the pandemic. Adding to these two serious crises, human rights are increasingly under threat, and civil and political rights of people are growingly compromised in a world that is witnessing a democratic decline. Climate change has multiplied the human rights crisis in a more unequal and undemocratic world by causing threats to human health and survival, food and water shortages, and weather-related disasters resulting in death and destruction of property. A healthy and robust environment is fundamental to the enjoyment of human rights.
The world has been committed for 72 years to the observation and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and these principles have been at the heart of international agreements. Unfortunately, there is a huge gap that exists between the international commitments on human rights and climate change, and the national policies adopted by the countries. Climate change and policy responses to meet its challenges will have a significant impact on the human rights of millions of people.
The world is also witnessing the climate justice movement in a big way. Only comprehensive and collaborative actions by the states in line with protecting human rights will make it possible for the planet to meet these unprecedented challenges. Countries must commit to ambitious climate mitigation targets to keep the global average temperature increase within a manageable limit. Countries providing climate mitigation assistance and those receiving the support must commit to protecting human rights.
They must incorporate human rights norms into their domestic legal frameworks. While countries need to take important steps toward fulfilling their obligations at home, they need to work cooperatively with other countries to combat climate change and ensure the protection of the human rights of people across the world.
Ziabari: As reported by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 60% of the world’s population depends on agriculture for survival, and 12% of the total available lands are used for cultivating crops. In what ways does climate change impinge on the development of economies that are centered around agriculture?
Swain: Though the impact of climate change is very comprehensive, its effects on the agriculture sector are easy to notice. Changing rainfall patterns and rising average temperatures due to climate change affect agriculture and those who are dependent on it in a very big way. Floods, droughts, new pests and weed problems add more to their woes. Climate change brings food insecurity through its impacts on all aspects of global, regional, national and local food production and distribution systems. It severely affects the people who are already poor and vulnerable, and dependent on an agriculture-based economy, but the risk and vulnerability are gradually going to shift to other economies.
However, while most tropical, arid and semi-arid regions are likely to experience further agricultural production losses due to rising temperatures, food production in the temperate developed part of the world is expected to benefit in the short term from a warmer climate and longer growing seasons.
With climate change, increasing natural disasters, recurring droughts, salinity intrusion into water systems and massive floods are invariably affecting agricultural production and resulting in food shortages in developing countries. Increasing agricultural production for a growing population while facing climate change has become a major challenge for these agricultural economies as they already face serious shortages of freshwater supply and arable land. High concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reduces the number of nutrients such as zinc and iron in rice and wheat, and bring harmful effects on people in the countries whose diets are highly dependent on these crops.
The adverse effects of climate change on food security, health and economic wellbeing in the agriculture-dependent countries are undermining their ability to achieve their sustainable development goals in a big way.
Ziabari: Small size, remoteness, insularity and susceptibility to natural disasters are some of the challenges faced by island nations. Last year, the Maldives’ environment minister warned that for small island nations, climate change is not only a threat, but its impacts are already being felt. What is at stake for the island nations as a result of global warming and extreme weather conditions? Do you agree that for these regions, climate change poses an existential threat?
Swain: If the present trend of greenhouse gas emission continues, the UN climate science panel warns against the possibility of sea-level rise up to 1.1 meters by 2100. The rise of the seawater level to this magnitude will not only inundate large areas in the highly populated low-lying countries but also can potentially submerge many small island states in the Pacific and Indian oceans. Way back in 1987, the then-president of the Maldives, Maumoon Abdool Gayoom, made an emotional appeal at the UN General Assembly that a sea-level rise of only one meter would threaten the life and survival of all his countrymen. More than three decades have passed, and the threat of several small island countries disappearing from the global map altogether looks more real than ever before.
While they are not underwater yet, these small island countries are already facing the impact of climate change in various ways. In these countries, most human settlement and economic activity take place in coastal areas. Climate change-induced coastal erosion has already brought significant changes in their human settlement patterns and socioeconomic conditions.
Coral reefs play a big role in the wellbeing of the small island countries by supplying sediments to island shores and restraining the impact of waves. Unprecedented coral bleaching due to increased water temperature and carbon dioxide concentration are adversely affecting the reef systems, which is critical for these small countries. Changing rainfall patterns, decreasing precipitation and increasing temperatures have also presented critical challenges for the freshwater supply on these islands and to their food security.
Frequent climate change-induced natural disasters like hurricanes and floods are also bringing devastation to their economy and infrastructure. And also, these severe weather-related events affecting their key tourism sectors. Climate change will affect every country in the world, but small island nations are most vulnerable to its impacts.
Ziabari: Is it accurate to say that climate change effects are disproportionately burdening the developing and low-income countries, and that nations in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia are making up for the shortcomings of the developed, industrialized world in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions to achieve the goals set by the Paris Agreement?
Swain: Despite disagreement and debates, science is now unequivocal on the reality of climate change. Human activities contributing to greenhouse gases are recognized as its primary cause. It is a serious irony that people and countries that suffer most from climate change have done the least to cause it. The 52 poorest countries in the world contribute less than 1% of global carbon emissions.
The poor and the powerless have very little say in the actual climate negotiation process. Several disagreements had kept the countries of the world away from a global treaty. The primary contentions had been over how much and how fast countries were going to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and, upon reaching an agreement, who would monitor it. However, to address global climate change, 194 countries of the world have finally come to an agreement at the Paris Climate Conference on December 12, 2015. [To date, all of the world’s 197 nations have signed the accords, with the US set to rejoin the agreement after the Biden administration assumes office next year. — Fair Observer] In Paris, industrialized countries also promised to mobilize $100 billion to support carbon emission cuts and climate adaptation.
The Paris Agreement signals the turning point for the world on the path to a low-carbon economy — not only to cut the carbon emission but also to provide financial and technological support to poor developing countries for climate mitigation. However, the withdrawal of the USA from the Paris Agreement has been a serious setback, but, hopefully, it will return to it soon after the change of administration.
Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, in which only rich industrialized nations had climate mitigation targets, the Paris Agreement includes every country. Though the ratifying countries to the Paris Agreement enjoy the independence on how to lower their carbon emissions, it is binding on them to report their progress. It is true that developing and low-income countries are asked to do their part to mitigate climate change even if they had no role in contributing to climate change. However, the global fund [created] by rich industrialized countries is going to somewhat address this injustice by providing financial support to the most vulnerable countries and also helping them with clean environment technologies for climate change mitigation.
Ziabari: Water stress levels are high in parts of northern Africa, Iraq, Syria, Iran and the Indian subcontinent. How can the lengthy periods of drought and variability of water supply in these regions lead to conflicts and violent uprisings? Can we think of water as a determining factor in the political stability of nations in the 21st century?
Swain: The world is already experiencing a serious global water crisis. More than 40% of the global population is suffering from water scarcity and, by 2050, an additional 2.3 billion people from Asia, Africa and the Middle East are expected to live in serious water stress. Climate change is expected to seriously aggravate the water scarcity problem in these regions. Moreover, the increase of global surface temperature due to the greenhouse effect is expected to lead to more floods and droughts due to more intense, heavy precipitation. Not only floods and droughts are going to be frequent in the future, but even recent studies have also confirmed that climate change is already contributing to more intense precipitation extremes and the risk of floods.
As climate change brings changes to water supply and demand patterns, the existing arrangement of sharing water resources between and within countries in arid and semi-arid regions are likely to be more and more conflictual. There is no doubt that the projected impacts of global climate change on freshwater may be huge and dramatic, but they may not be at the same intensity and follow a similar periodic pattern in each region.
Climate change is also likely to cause extreme weather events, changing sea levels or melting glaciers that can generate serious threats to existing freshwater management infrastructure. It is easy to foresee that climate change will force comprehensive adjustments in the ongoing water management mechanisms as they need to have the flexibility to adjust to the uncertainties. The emerging unprecedented situation due to changes in climatic patterns requires countries and regions to cooperate and act collectively. There is no doubt that climate change poses extreme challenges to water sharing, and it has all the potential to create political instability and violent conflicts. Thus, climate change requires countries to have more flexible, hands-on politically smart management of their water resources.
Ziabari: Walk us through the interplay between climate change and poverty. Does the current pattern of the Earth getting warmer and extreme weather episodes unfurling more frequently have the potential to tip more people into hunger, unemployment and poverty? What do scientific forecasts say?
Swain: With sea-level rise, the world is also expected to witness serious storm surges in regular intervals as tropical cyclones will combine with higher sea levels. This is likely to enhance the risk of coastal high flooding, particularly in the tropics. Climate change also threatens to change the regular rainfall patterns, which can potentially lead to further intensive flooding, drought and soil erosion in tropical and arid regions of the world. Food production is going to be further affected due to extreme weather, unpredictable seasonal changes and wildfires. The Fourth National Climate Assessment Report of the US Global Change Research Program in 2018 warns that heatwaves, drought, wildfire and storms will increasingly disrupt agricultural productivity, bringing serious food insecurity and loss of farming jobs.
Different countries and societies are responding to and will cope with climate change-induced food insecurity and economic decline differently. Existing cultural norms and social practices will play an important role in formulating their coping mechanisms. Some countries and societies are better at planning and implementing adaptation strategies to meet the hunger and unemployment challenges posed by climate change. The effectiveness and coping abilities of existing institutions of the countries also play a significant role.
No doubt that the adverse impact of climate change will be more severe on the people who are living in the poor and developing economies. Climate change will not only force more people back to poverty, but it can increase the possibility of more violent conflicts, particularly in societies and countries affected by poor governance, weak institutions and low social capital.
Ziabari: Since 2008, nearly 24 million people have been displaced annually on account of catastrophic weather events. One of the concerns scholars raise about these climate refugees is that they lack formal recognition, definition and protection under international law. What is the most viable way to help them?
Swain: Global warming leads to sea-level rise and that is taking away the living space and source of livelihood of millions of people. There are many estimates regarding the size of the climate-induced population migration the world is going to witness in the future. For the last two, three decades, several forecasts have been made, but there are no reliable estimates of climate change forced migration as the future forecasts vary from 25 million to 1 billion by 2050. Not only there is a lack of any agreement over the numbers on climate migration, there is also no clarity on how many of them will move beyond their national borders. But there is no doubt that climate change will displace a large number of people and will force them to move to other countries in search of survival.
However, climate or environment-forced migration is not included in the definition of a refugee as established under international law, which are the most widely used instruments providing the basis for granting asylum to persons in need of protection. International refugee agencies in the past have not been able to save the lives of many environmentally displaced people in the south due to the absence of their mandate.
In this context, the recent ruling of the Supreme Court of New Zealand is quite significant. Though the court recognized the genuineness of a Kiribati man’s contention of being displaced from his homeland due to sea-level rise, it could not grant him refugee status, reasoning that he wouldn’t face prosecution if he would return home. So, there is a need for the definitional fiat of “refugee” to be expanded to address the increasing challenge of climate-forced population displacement and possible international migration.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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