Human rights must be put at the heart of global climate change fight, says Oxfam

“Climate change is a matter of international justice.”
Kate Raworth
Oxfam Senior Researcher
Published: 9 September 2008

Rich countries must start basing their climate change policies on existing human rights principles and stop using economic excuses to wriggle out of their responsibilities, says international agency Oxfam in a new report today.

Oxfam is submitting its report "Climate Wrongs and Human Rights" to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which is now reviewing the relationship between international human rights and climate change.

Oxfam says that rich countries’ excessive carbon emissions are violating the rights of millions of the world’s poorest people to life, security, food, health and shelter. “Climate change was first seen as a scientific problem, then an economic one. Now it is becoming a matter of international justice,” said report author Kate Raworth.

"Human rights principles give an alternative to the view that everything – from carbon to malnutrition – can be priced, compared and traded,” Raworth said. “These principles must be put at the heart of a global deal to tackle global climate change.”

Oxfam says that the current trade-off being made between the economic and human costs of tackling the problem is deeply unethical and risks the world failing to cut emissions to stay below the 2°C warming threshold.

“Rich countries, led by the G8, are proposing merely to halve global emissions by 2050. But we need a deal that guarantees a cut of at least 80% by 2050. They are using spurious economic arguments to do as little as possible when in fact morality, science and human rights demand much more from them,” Raworth said.

“The impacts of climate change are global so countries must be held accountable for the international consequences of their actions,” she said.

“Litigation is seldom the best way to solve a dispute. That is why we need a strong UN deal in 2009 to cut emissions and support adaptation.

However vulnerable countries do need options to protect themselves. Rich country polluters have been fully aware of their culpability for many years. If they fail to cut emissions and help people now, they could face legal action later.”

However, the report says that the authors of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights could never have imagined – sixty years later – having to deal with such a complex global challenge as climate change. Consequently Oxfam believes that human right laws and institutions must evolve fast to keep up.

“When vulnerable communities have tried to use human rights law for climate justice, it has thrown up major weaknesses,” Raworth said. “It is extremely difficult for people in poor countries to identify who to sue, how to prove the injury done, or even where to bring their case.”

Oxfam says that while lawyers should push to have international courts recognise future injury and joint liability for climate-change damage, existing human rights principles are clearly sufficient to guide rich countries’ policies to cut their emissions and finance adaptation.

Oxfam’s report identifies major “hot spots” where current climate-change policies are well off-track with existing international human-rights principles.

These include:

  • Rich countries’ failure to cut their emissions since 1992 have put the world at a high risk of exceeding catastrophic 2°C warming, which will cause widespread violation of rights that are enshrined in the Universal Declaration;
  • Adaptation financing is being woefully under-resourced: $2 billion is needed just to meet the most urgent and immediate adaptation needs of the 50 least developed countries but total contributions to that end now stand at just $92m – less than what people in the US spend buying sun-tan lotion in a month;
  • Rich countries are failing to deliver sufficient finance and technology to help poor countries shift to low-carbon pathways and realize their right to development. Contributions average around $437m a year – less than 10% of what Europeans currently spend each year buying vacuum cleaners – when for instance by 2030 around $176bn in investment will be needed.