Human rights – help or hindrance to combatting climate change?

Each year, state representatives congregate in a chosen city to negotiate what they will do collectively to combat climate change. In December 2014 it was Lima; at the end of 2015 it will be Paris. Previous summits were held in Copenhagen and many other cities, but all these meetings appear to achieve is increasing frustration, disappointment and hopelessness as the international community fails again and again to reach a binding legal agreement to halt global warming. From climate change to the mass extinction of species, from desertification to deforestation, when faced with global environmental challenges the international community has been unable to cooperate effectively towards stemming harm.

While barriers to cooperation are manifold, they can be broadly characterized as falling into two categories: first, an unwillingness to address issues of environmental inequity and injustice between and within countries; and second, an inability to imagine alternatives to current patterns of economic development. In the face of these two daunting problems, can the discourse of human rights assist in bridging the discord, or is it part of the problem?

The first category of environmental injustice has to do with the poor and vulnerable facing disproportionate and increasing impacts of environmental change and resource insecurity. Their sense of injustice stems from a history of western colonialism fuelled largely by inequitable and unsustainable use of colonial resources. This was followed in the modern era by the onset of post-industrial western lifestyles of mass consumption and waste causing serious global environmental harm. In the postcolonial era, as non-western states seek to replicate similar development pathways, a small but growing share of people in these states are also contributing to environmental degradation.

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From climate change to the mass extinction of species, from desertification to deforestation, when faced with global environmental challenges the international community has been unable to cooperate effectively towards stemming harm.

Environmental summits are characterized by a divide: on the one side those who caused the problem but insist that everyone participate in the solution; and on the other, those who did not cause the problem and thus refuse to tolerate any limits placed on their development choices. The inability to bridge this divide has meant that environmental problems keep worsening. As environmental impacts play out disproportionately, this serves to escalate the sense of injustice and further entrench divisions over time.  

Within this context, human rights discourse operates in various ways. Developing countries have asserted their citizens’ right to development, and peoples across the global south have asserted their right to a clean and healthy environment, their right to clean air, water and food, and their right to livelihoods. Rights-discourse is also harnessed to demand fair treatment. Further, the universality of human rights places environmental injustice in a global context instead of state-based assessments of environmental problems. For instance, today China and the United States are the two leading contributors to climate change due to high greenhouse gas emissions. But a rights-based discourse draws attention to the fact that the average Chinese citizen has a much smaller carbon footprint than his or her American counterpart.

Human rights discourse also points to disparities within states, where increasing economic inequality is accompanied by a huge disparity in ecological footprints along the lines of class, race, and other parameters. That is to say, if we all possess an equal right to development, and this inevitably entails a certain minimum ‘right to consume and pollute’, then this suggests a convergence between the ecological footprints of the rich and poor. 

Environmental crises are leading to a collapse of the planet’s ecosystems, posing an existential threat to the human species

However, though initially appealing, articulating environmental struggles in the language of rights may not be helpful for more effectively addressing ecological concerns. The difficulty lies in the second of the barriers to cooperation noted above: the inability to imagine development alternatives. When dominant development patterns continue to demand infinite economic growth on a planet with a limited productive and adaptive capacity, the result is inevitable ecological decline. Alongside ecological degradation, current development patterns also exacerbate economic inequality between and within states, creating systemic global economic and environmental injustice. In such a context, articulating the problem in terms of achieving a balance between competing rights (the right to development and the right to a healthy environment) is unconstructive unless a substitute is found for the underlying economic system that demands limitless growth.

Thus, the human rights framework may not help to reconcile globalization with its ecological limits. A more serious concern, however, is whether this framework may be part of the reason we struggle to imagine sustainable ways of life. The phenomenal growth of rights-based discourse has happened alongside ever-expanding fossil-fuel dependency, pollution and waste; modern freedoms are increasingly understood as being contingent on a resource-intensive, mass-consumption lifestyle. Today, increasing numbers of people understand themselves through a rights philosophy that privileges particular types of human entitlement and systemically devalues the non-human. Such a philosophy is the epitome of an obsessively anthropocentric worldview. It helps to propagate and entrench a particular abstraction of the ‘human’ that is profoundly disconnected from knowing ourselves as a species inextricably interconnected with other organic and inorganic life.

In an intertwined state of being, where each entity’s survival depends on its relationship with others within an ecosystem, the distinction between human and non-human is untenable; the non-human ‘other’ is essential for human life. Whatever we do to the other we are also doing to ourselves.

Environmental crises are leading to a collapse of the planet’s ecosystems, posing an existential threat to the human species. The modern understanding of ideas such as law, economy, culture, and the ‘human’ take for granted the stability of the underlying natural order. But the consequence of these modern worldviews has been to destabilize some of the fundamental conditions for life. As such, the situation demands a reconceptualization of law, economy, and other disciplines, whereby humans are understood within the context of our environment, rather than separate from it.

Environmental crises may serve to do nothing more than accentuate the existing inequities of globalization, adding environmental degradation to the litany of sufferings already inflicted on the poor. Alternatively, if we meet environmental challenges with a fundamental reassessment of our assumptions about ourselves, and our place in the world, then we may find that there is a link between the way we treat the non-human environment and the way we treat each other. If so, in seeking a solution to environmental crises we may also find our humanity.