World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Climate Justice and Human Rights

Presentation on Climate Justice and Human Rights by Theodor Rathgeber at the meeting of the WCC Working Group on Climate Change held immediately before the IEPC in Kingston.

17 May 2011

Presentation by Theodor Rathgeber at the meeting of the WCC’s Working Group on Care for Creation and Climate Justice

Kingston, Jamaica, 15-17 May 2011

The reality of human induced climate change is beyond doubt, although discussions on the nature of understanding – comprehensive or rather in terms of technical management – are ongoing. There is sufficient evidence to state, that currently millions of people are threatened to lose livelihoods, to be displaced by force, to face conflicts on access to water, land and natural resources resulting in increasing hunger and poverty. Even the World Bank estimates that climate change will drive between 100 and 400 million people into hunger, and between one and two billion of people may not have enough clean water in the near future.

This means, there is an immense challenge and urgency of the situation. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its institutions are currently insufficient to adequately address those impacts. So, how to deal with this challenge in the perspective of the threatened people? Where can we find a comprehensive framework of accountability?

Climate Justice

The concept of fairness contends that there is a fundamental right to a dignified existence and a right to have access to the resources that sustain this existence. Within this concept, many efforts are made and more than one approach on facing earth warming has been chosen. The concept of “justice” is considered by the author as a critical principle, as climate change is a problem for everyone while the responsibilities are distributed unevenly. ‘Justice’ in this context means that no one has more right to use a common global asset as e.g. climate than anyone else. ‘Justice’ also means that people and countries who are affected by poverty and marginalisation should not only be treated differently with respect to their contribution to climate protection, but should also be given additional development support.

The Greenhouse Development Rights (GDR) framework seeks to acknowledge the right to development for the developing nations and its people. The right to development is codified in terms of a development threshold, below its minimum standards individuals are not required to shoulder the burden of solving the climate problem. People above the minimum limit of development are taken as having realised their right to development, and as bearing the responsibility to preserve that right for others – in accordance with the UNFCCC’s principle of „common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities“ (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change). Thus, industrialised countries must face their responsibility of causing the climate crisis and provide financial, technological and other support to bridge the gap in the developing world. The minimum standards are to be defined according to the standards of the human rights treaties. Human rights norms and instruments are based on binding international law with jointly agreed language, and are, therefore, not a matter of charity for the poor.

Human Rights

The impact of climate change on the enjoyment of human rights is meanwhile well established and reflected in the international human rights system as e.g. the UN Human Rights Council and its sub-bodies, and mandate holders of the UN Special Procedures. The Council called on the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) to conduct an analytical study on climate change and the enjoyment of human rights. The study of 2008 shows that climate change interferes with a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, water, food, shelter, and work. However, climate change does not only affect material livelihoods. When entire nations are threatened by rising oceans, questions of citizenship and, in general, the guarantee of civil and political freedoms are also at stake.

By initiative of the Republic of Maldives, the Human Rights Council, by consensus, adopted resolution 7/23 in 2008 and resolution 10/4 in 2009, both on climate change and human rights. The Council noted that climate change poses an immediate and far-reaching threat to the full enjoyment of human rights. Again in 2010, the UN Human Rights Council's sub-body Social Forum focused on climate change and human rights. Even the 16th session of the COP to the UNFCCC that met in Cancun in December 2010 provide a role for the human rights in terms that the Parties to the Convention should establish explicit human rights protection in the evolving climate regime echoing the resolutions of the Human Rights Council.

In light of the linkages between climate change and human rights, core elements of the Right to Development acquire special importance. First: respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms. Second: the Right to Development calls for particular attention to equity and justice in the development process. Third, the Right to Development underscores the need for international cooperation. So far the general aspects.

Human rights norms and mechanisms provide in particular poor and vulnerable people with an appropriate instrument, in order to articulate their concerns, interests and demands by their own. In addition, the UN human rights systems comprises several complaint procedures at the level of the Human Rights Council as well as at UN Treaty Bodies, open for individuals and communities in order to demand protection of their rights and to go for fair compensation in the international context. Thus, human rights introduce a framework of accountability into the climate change context that is essential for assessing the consequences and impacts of climate change on the weakest members of society.

What do we expect from establishing a mandate of the UN Special Procedure on Climate Change and Human Rights? Such a mandate could:

  • consolidate the voices of rights holders / victims;
  • monitor the impacts of climate change and climate change measures on human rights;
  • clarify legal issues; e.g. the responsibilities of States in the area of adaptation, mitigation, technology transfer and financing, both at national and international levels, derived from their respective international human rights law commitments;
  • provide input to the UNFCCC and other relevant forums on ways in which human rights principles can contribute to the development of the climate regime;
  • undertake fact finding missions.

Role of Churches

Some general remarks in brief: The care for creation has been a crucial element in the Christian theology, irrespective of the debate on the potential anthropocentric bias. Churches have been emphasising too a ‘we-identity’ as a learning process for groups and individuals in order to gain trust among each other, to enable a face to face communication, and to experiment with cooperative behaviour. Churches further offer a vertical architecture which directly and inclusively link the level of grass root with political decision making.

The ecumenical work on climate change is rooted in the wholeness of creation and the biblical imperative of the commitment for justice which pays special attention to the poor, empowering local communities, to give local people a chance and a voice to articulate their demands by themselves. The climate issue has been emerging within the World Council of Churches from the discussion on sustainability starting in the 1970s. Further, Justice, Peace and Integrity of the Creation are main concerns of the ecumenical movement since 1990 to identifying the major threats to life.

Challenge I – A radical shift in thought and action is required

Ethics in relation to victim’s concerns is a core contribution churches can make. Within the context of climate change, churches are highlighting that a fundamental transformation of the economic patterns and structures is required that have been set up since the dawn of industrialisation. Climate and the entire natural environment are part of the infrastructure of society and not a mere input into economy. Thus, the ‘Rio+20’ process has two themes: governance for sustainable development and Green Economy. Lastly, the shift in thought and action requires an understanding of the problem which goes beyond a pure disaster-management and technical handling.

Challenge II

Avoid routine in transferring language and methodology on environment into climate change issues. Obviously, there are a lot of overlapping phenomena, and environmental degradation is genuinely a cause of climate change and earth warming. Nevertheless, in conceptual terms, climate change evolves with the understanding of irreversibility and urgency in particular within the context of enforced displacement and refugees.

Challenge III

A comprehensive understanding on climate change by the churches starts with language, the way of conceptualising and lastly the methodology of identifying the problem. Churches always have been dealing with the truth. In analogy to scientific methodological approaches, we would speak of a long-term observation on human beings and their relationship with their spiritual environment. Long-term commitment and ‘observation’ are fundamental mechanisms for assessing the essence of life on earth as well in relation to climate change issues. In addition, focussing on poor people, churches are challenged to support developing a genuine narrative of these people and making their language a recognised standard of assessment. We need to learn that all our perspectives are radically incomplete. Make people’s reality an acknowledged reference point.

Challenge IV

Giving poor, underprivileged people a voice, their own voice, implies challenging existing power relations. In order to deal with, churches are requested to particularly make poor people familiar with the instruments and language which provide protection and mechanisms for demanding; i.e. human rights, their complaint procedures and the specific implications of the concept of ‘vulnerable people’. Churches are additionally requested to make best use of its vertical architecture, i.e. to bring the concern of the grass root level to the level of political decision making and vice versa.

Recommendations:
  • dealing with climate change from a church’s viewpoint, a different mode of life style needs to be promoted;
  • insist on a human rights based approach to scope the dimension of impacts and to give the victims / rights holders a voice;
  • systematise and disseminate the complaint procedures of the UN system on human rights towards the rights holders;
  • develop a platform for discussing and deliberating a genuine shelter for refugees based on climate change impacts;
  • go for a mandate at the UN Special Procedures.