Climate change is robbing people of their rights, writes Andrew Hewett

Media Releases, Opinion article written on the 18 Sep 2009

Around the world climate change is becoming a defining human tragedy of this century. In Micronesia, people are facing the prospect of moving from islands that will soon be underwater. In the Southern Philippines, 2000 people are still homeless from an unexpected typhoon that hit in spring 2008 and on the plains of western Zambia, where the annual rains used to signify prosperity, today their unpredictable arrival causes widespread hunger and devastation.

The real injustice at the heart of climate change is that those least responsible for causing climate change – the world’s poorest communities with the lowest emissions – are experiencing its worst impacts.

People in developing countries are adapting their lifestyle to meet the many challenges related to climate change, and at Oxfam it’s causing us to change the way we look at our development work. For example, we are working hard to help people grow food for their families as changing weather patterns make farming more difficult. We’re also incorporating education on preparing for natural disasters into more of our programs, supporting villagers in their efforts to save food, swim, and build boats – skills that save lives.

Why does an international development agency focus on climate change? Oxfam’s work has the overall outcome of improving the lives of people living in poverty. At the heart of everything that we do is what’s called the ‘rights-based approach’ to development: the notion that every man, woman and child has fundamental rights that cannot be denied. Climate change is preventing people from realising these rights.

Our rights are outlined in key human rights covenants and conventions and across the world. For example the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 11, ‘recognise(s) the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger…’ Future climate change is expected to put close to 50 million more people at risk of hunger by 2020, and an additional 132 million people by 2050.

Article 12, recognises ‘the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.’ The World Health Organisation estimates that climate change has contributed to an average of 150,000 more deaths from disease per year since the 1970s,

Australia, like most countries, is a signatory to all key human rights covenants. This means we have agreed to take legislative, administrative, budgetary, and judicial measures towards the full realisation of people’s rights.

Australians pollute more per capita than any other country – more than Americans and two and a half times as much as someone who lives in the UK or Japan. Our mission to reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions needs to be guided by our commitment to protect people’s right to life, security, food, subsistence and health.

Australia needs to help people adapt to the effects of climate change, and overcome disasters. We need to support vulnerable communities so that floods, droughts, and unpredictable weather do not automatically undermine their food and water supplies, health, housing, culture and safety. And we need adequate scale of financing over and above our existing aid commitments, for mitigation and adaptation to help developing countries onto a low-carbon path to development. This climate finance needs to be administered through a fair and transparent global fund.

In the political arena, the language of climate change centres around carbon trading, emissions reductions and offsets. And while we welcome the emergence of climate change as an increasingly prominent political issue, often when framed this way, economics determines the response.

Economic approaches to decision-making weigh up competing costs and benefits, and are focused the allocation of resources. But economics can only get you so far.
Sir Nicholas Stern, in his 2006 review of climate change, said that when people do not pay for the consequences of their actions we have market failure. He called climate change “the greatest market failure the world has seen’.

However, if we hinge this debate on each person’s right to life’s essentials – such as food, water, shelter, and security – we move away from the assumption that everything can be priced, compared, and traded. And then climate change becomes an issue about people. While human behaviour may have caused climate change, human behaviour can also solve it.

This is an excerpt from the University of Newcastle Human Rights and Social Justice Lecture, published in the Newcastle Herald on Friday September 18, 2009

For media enquiries, or interview with Andrew Hewett on this address please contact Sunita Bose on 0407 555 960.