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Blog Post Written by: Colleen Theron

Paris has been at the center stage of global news over the past two weeks. The issue has not, however, been climate change but the threat of terrorism. The spotlight is turning to the city again as the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) is starting in Paris and the world is talking about climate. It is a crucial conference, as participants will need to achieve a new international legal agreement on climate that is applicable to all countries, with an aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.

Last week I joined a Sedex and UN Global Compact UK (UNGC UK) webinar discussing climate change, human rights and supply chain issues. Joined by some eminent panelists, Steve Kenzie from the UNGC Network UK, Tom Smith, Director of Strategy and Planning at Sedex, and Luke Wilde, Chief Executive of twentyfifty, we looked at the topic from different but connected perspectives. My focus was to look at whether climate change is a human rights issue.

Mary Robinson, President of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, recalled that “2015 presents a unique opportunity to set the global community on a new path; […] More than any other challenge we have ever faced, climate change confronts us with the reality of our interdependence. […] a focus on rights can inform and strengthen our response and maximise the effectiveness of our local, national and international climate actions.”

The 5th Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) confirmed that climate change is real and that human-made greenhouse gas emissions is the primary cause. There can be no doubt that the increasing frequency of extreme weather events and natural disasters is as a result of climate change.

Climate change as a human rights issue?

Whilst the impact of climate change on the environment has been widely documented, there has been less emphasis on whether climate change is a human rights issue.

Many communities already at a disadvantage owing to geography and poverty, occupying low-lying coastal lands, are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change. These people have less ability to prevent, adapt or otherwise respond to extreme weather events. In many indigenous tribes it is the women and children who will suffer most from the impacts of climate change. They are the ones who have to find fuel and food for their families. Where drought and floods become more frequent they have a much harder task to find what the family / community requires. ‘Climate justice’ is a concept that seeks to combine climate change with human rights and forms part of a growing movement to help safeguard the rights of the most vulnerable people.

Climate change can also lead to a risk to development. For example, in Bangladesh an estimated 2-3% of potential GDP is lost due to climate change impacts.

Climate change as a moral issue

The President of the Republic of Kiribati (an island in the Pacific Ocean if you, like me had no idea where it was), President Tong, sees climate change impact as a moral issue. Climate change has had such an impact on the nation that the people face a future of possible statelessness.

Climate change as a legal issue

It might seem obvious that the impacts of climate change affect internationally agreed human rights directly and indirectly. For example, the right to life is affected where there are severe water shortages or pollution. These effects can be characterized as ‘rights violations’. The more difficult issue is whether international law can act as an avenue of redress for harms. Currently there is no direct redress for climate change violations. Although some links between human rights obligations and climate change can be traced to efforts to establish a right to a healthy and clean environment, there is still a challenge on how to link climate change to the international human rights framework. Difficult legal issues such as causation, who are the duty bearers, whether we should have an ‘environmental right’ have to be addressed.

Whilst the legal issues are not yet resolved we have also seen a slow take up at policy level to make the connection between environmental climate change and human rights issues. In 2009 the Human Rights Council first noted the effects of climate change on the enjoyment of human rights.

Climate change and business

A key development internationally on tackling human rights in relation to business has been the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). The UNGPs affirm that States must have a duty to protect persons from human rights and businesses also have duty to ensure they respect and protect human rights. Whilst the UNGP is not a legal framework it is seen as a game-changer for business. Companies looking to embed the UNGPs into their businesses will have to take adequate measures in relation to climate change.

Practically this means participating in climate change mitigation and adaptation issues. They will also need to understand their supply chains and the impact on communities. If a legal agreement is reached in Paris to reduce the effects of climate change impacts, business will have to respond and adapt its practices accordingly. This will challenge the current status quo of working in silos in many businesses without any understanding of human rights risk.

It was interesting to listen to Luke’s story of ‘Rishi’ and his offer to stay put to farm in his homeland India. There is definite consensus around the table that these things cannot be tackled in silos but that collaboration is going to be key.

So what will Paris bring us? Will we see more talk about climate change as a human rights issue? I suspect the outcome of the Paris meeting of the parties is going to depend on self interest, both personally and professionally. What I hope is that it will mark a change in approach.

Find out more about the impact of climate change on humanity and climate change in the Sedex & UNGC UK webinar recording below.