Climate change and human rights

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Klaapse Klopse dance group at the Human Rights Day celebrations in Mbekweni, Paarl in the Western Cape. (Photo: GCIS)

Thursday was Human Rights Day in South Africa. We had a lot to think about. Like, how much progress can we truly say we have made in the country since 1994, when violence towards women continues at horrific levels? When lesbians are raped and murdered as “corrective” measures? When police open fire and kill 44 striking miners at Marikana? When … well, you get the picture. It is hard to stay positive in these brutal days.

At least all of these issues were highlighted in the media on Thursday. Perhaps we can still solve the problems that we talk about. But there is a silent and more far-reaching – if that seems possible – human rights drama playing out under the radar, which only gains air space around big international conferences, like COP17. Not only is climate change the biggest market failure of our times, as Nicholas Stern said, but it is gathering steam to become the largest social justice failure we have yet managed to engineer. Have a look at Donald Brown’s blog on Ethics and Climate Change,for good discussions on how this is a moral and human rights issue, and practically what this should mean for policies and practice.

By failing to respond with urgent and substantial emissions cuts, developed countries are making sure that present injustice will grow, as those countries with the lowest levels of adaptive capacity, who are likely to be hardest hit,  are usually least responsible – historically – for the accelerating changes in our climate. Failure to act is also rapidly foreclosing options for future generations, and robbing them of the opportunity for basic human rights to be met: rights to health and to life; rights to food, water, shelter and property; cultural rights and those linked to personal security in the event of conflict, migration and resettlement. There is no justice in consigning future generations to a dangerously haywire climate.

In South Africa, with our high per capita carbon dioxide emissions, we have both moral and practical motivations to act with commitment and bravery. The Climate Action Network recently warned the United Nations Security Council that climate change is a driver of poverty, hunger and conflict. South Africa’s existing high levels of inequality, and multiple shortcomings in meeting human rights, make us even more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

We need to start including climate justice in our human rights dialogues, and we need to act. But,as Kumi Naidoo, head of Greenpeace, pointed out recently, “neither President Zuma nor any other African political and business leaders speak about the link between climate change and economy”, far less about climate change and human rights. We cannot  hope to solve the problems we do not talk about. Of course, talking is not enough, not at this late stage, not when every year the world keeps increasing greenhouse gas emissions.  So let’s start talking, and let’s start acting. Let’s take our future seriously. Let’s take human rights seriously. Let’s really surprise ourselves.

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