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Climate change has become a human rights crisis

In a new study, experts have presented evidence that climate change is impeding the human rights of people living in the Pacific. This revelation, which links environmental degradation to human rights infringement, could potentially reshape the global discourse on climate change accountability.

The paper substantiates a submission to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the legal responsibility of countries to act on climate change, said the study authors. They argue that nations are legally bound to take action against climate-related human rights violations.

Fundamental human rights 

Dr. Ross Westoby, a research fellow at Griffith University, said the report explores how climate-induced loss and damage in the Pacific is already occurring and outlines what can be done in response.

“Our findings show loss and damage to fundamental human rights is already occurring, will worsen, and undermine the right to a life of dignity,” said Dr. Westoby. “Bringing a human rights lens to climate change is new and seeks to shift the focus and attention onto the individual experiences of those suffering its impacts.”

“If we don’t share the burden of mitigation and adaptation, we must share responsibility for violating someone’s human rights.”

“At the national level, human rights impact assessments can inform national and sectoral policy planning and budgeting, ensuring climate policies align with affected peoples’ needs and rights and that effective redress is established with transparency and accountability.”

“The detailed findings on the nature of and the experiences of loss and damage should inform climate policy, guiding international and national activities on what should be funded and targeted for effective redress and adaptation.”

Standard of living

The Pacific, particularly the islands that make up the nation of Vanuatu, serve as a microcosm of the larger issue, illustrating the severity of the climate crisis. 

The research points out that the fundamental rights to a healthy environment and the ability to maintain and develop lands are being eroded. The report articulates how climate change impairs the right to property and the standard of living.

Climate-induced losses

The researchers noted several examples of what climate change is taking away from people of the Pacific. These climate-induced losses range from the destruction of traditional medicines to the loss of cultural heritage sites, including:

  • Loss of traditional medicines that impact people’s identity, health, human life, and well-being
  • Loss of infrastructure and precious cultural heritage such as gravesites due to flooding of low-lying areas, which also causes salinisation of freshwater tables and impinges on potable water
  • Reef degradation, increased coral bleaching and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish are a result of increased ocean temperatures and ocean acidification, which cascades into diminishing fishing resources and marine wildlife losses
  • Loss of identity and loss of traditional and cultural food sources is a result of the cascading effects of climate change affecting people’s diet, and human health

Cultural food sources

One of the most symbolic illustrations provided by Dr. Westoby is the threat to the yam – a staple food in Vanuatu. 

“An example and symbol of the cascading effects of climate change on human rights is the destruction of the yam,” said Dr. Westoby. “The yam is a traditional root crop and staple food widely used in Vanuatu and elsewhere in the Pacific Islands region and is the primary commodity of value for exchange.”

“Rituals, rites, and customs of the yam are the main social fabric that binds kinship groups, tribes, communities, and society.”

Study implications 

The authors call for a multifaceted approach to address these impacts. They recommend strategies such as investing in education to bolster resilience, documenting and protecting Indigenous knowledge, promoting cultural continuity, enhancing post-disaster recovery planning, and preserving socio-ecological systems that are fundamental to the community’s well-being.

“Our findings show that loss and damage to fundamental rights is already occurring and will worsen, undermining the right to a life of dignity,” wrote the study authors. 

“The future loss and damage fund, and other initiatives, should integrate a human rights restoration package that includes recording and safeguarding Indigenous knowledge, promoting cultural continuity, restoring the socio-ecological system, building back better and investing in education.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

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