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Climate change and human rights

~Atiq Rahman

GLOBAL climate change has emerged as the greatest threat facing humankind today. The long arm of climate change impacts is likely to undermine various fundamental human rights and basic securities. These rights and securities include the right to life, food, safe water, health, home, land, properties, livelihoods, employment and development.

Climate change affects almost all ecosystems, societies and economies. But the effects are different, depending on their location, economic status, history of development and governance patterns. The poor in developing countries would be most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and extreme climatic events such as frequent and prolonged floods, cyclones, tidal surges, salinity intrusion, sea level rise and drought. Climate change will increase global poverty and human insecurities (food, water, health, energy, shelters and social securities), enhance regional disparity and violate sets of basic human rights if urgent actions are not taken now by the global communities.

Climate change, sea level rise and the associated risks may displace over 200 million people in the near future. This will increase the number of climate refugees, particularly in the small island states, low lying deltas and the developing world, which will again enhance rural to urban migration and international migration. The internally displaced people (IDP) and externally displaced people will create new socio-political instability in many parts of the world. Millions of poor are already living in urban slums in Asia, Africa and Latin America without employment, adequate income, food, water, shelters and basic amenities. The extreme climatic events and sea level rise will push millions of displaced to the city slums and thus violate their set of human rights including right to food and water, right to development and right to live in their own societies and culture.

Climate extremes and enhanced insecurities
The enormous, forceful and devastating cyclone Sidr that hit the coast of Bangladesh on November15, 2007, not only killed over 10,000 people but also devastated the lives and livelihoods of over 30 million people. The next devastating cyclone Nargis generated in the Bay of Bengal spared Bangladesh but severely hit the Myanmar coast on May 4, 2008, killing more that one hundred thousand people and injuring millions. Most recently, cyclone Aila hit the coasts of Bangladesh and India on April 25, killing over 300 people and displacing thousands. Many people of coastal districts were made homeless for weeks and suffered from serious food and water insecurity. Thousands of them were thrown into extreme poverty. Diarrheal diseases spread amongst many affected communities.

Thus, the poor in the developing countries are the worst affected by those climate extremes, they are in the forefront of climatic disasters and have very little capacity to cope with the risks. Currently, over 860 million people are suffering from severe food insecurity and chronic malnourishment. About 95% of them are in developing countries. Inequitable access to food is the major factor behind this, but global warming and climatic events are also contributing to food insecurity.

Climate refugees and migration
The frequency, intensity and impacts of climatic and natural disasters have increased in recent years, and possible sea level rise will affect low lying and coastal countries. Millions of people will be displaced from their homes, occupations and livelihoods, and many will be thrown into poverty by increasing salinity and sea level rise across the world. Bangladesh is already experiencing higher level of tidal inundation in the coastal districts. A 45cm rise will not only affect the vast coastal ecosystems and hamper agriculture and food production, but may also dislocate about 35 million people from 20 coastal districts by the year 2050. Bangladesh is already an over populated country. The climate refugee will create new housing and settlement problems as well as enhance competition and conflict for scarce resources including land, water, fisheries and forests.

Key challenges and urgent actions
Climate change is a result of unequal development and consumption, and is enhancing inequity across the world. The impacts are also unequally distributed, where the poor in developing countries are becoming the victims. Mitigating climate change, eradicating poverty and promoting sustainable and equitable economic growth as well as political stability demand concerted and coordinated efforts. To ensure that the rights of the vulnerable communities are protected, emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) must be reduced urgently and immediately. The key challenges for all of us are:

-To stop climate change through urgent mitigation measures and create effective framework for post 2012 commitment with greater participation of both developed and developing countries;

-To explore how to live and adapt in a warmer climate, which will be unavoidable and more risk prone; and

-To promote low carbon sustainable economic development and modify the life style of the rich, who do the most harm through luxuries and over-consumption;

-In addition, to address the issues of threatened rights and securities the following urgent actions are required:

-To support the vulnerable communities with food, shelter, safe water and health services;

-Planned migration of the displaced populations, both internal and external;

-The climate induced refugees must have the right to abode in countries which are the major emitters and bear the responsibility i.e. Annex 1 countries under UNFCCC;

-To ensure the above rights, the relevant UN agencies will have to develop new policy framework and programs in the context of emerging climate refugees;

-The specially vulnerable small island states and countries with low lying deltas and coastal areas deserve special attention from the international community;

-The developing nations must formulate appropriate strategies and plans to address the rights of emerging climate refugees based on the principal of "common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities;"

-In the not too distant future, a separate protocol on climate migrants and refugees will need to be developed to ensure their fundamental rights; and

-Stronger actions on mitigation, adaptation, finance and technology transfer will be required to reduce the number of affected people as well as to ensure their fundamental rights.

Dr. Atiq Rahman is the Executive Director of Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS), Dhaka and the Winner of the UN Environmental Award- the Champion of the Earth 2008.

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