The right to keep cool: Human rights and climate change are inextricably linked

Leestijd 4 minuten — Di 22 november 2011

Human rights and climate change are separate policy agendas. Does it make sense to connect them? Teresa Fogelberg, Deputy Chief Executive at the Global Reporting Initiative of the UN, advocates the latter. The challenges regarding climate change are of great importance to human beings, because the living conditions of people around the world are affected. In this, indigenous people are hit the hardest. Their living conditions change the most. Also, it is most difficult for them to influence international politics. Moreover, their identity is often closely linked to the climate. This can be illustrated by the Inuit's. They know 'the right to keep cool' and use the same words for climate and interpersonal concepts as 'soul' or 'mind'.

Fogelberg points out that the position of women is extremely important - being the cause of CO2-emissions, and victims of climate change, and also in terms of effectiveness. In many communities, women are the ones who cut the trees for cooking and who work on the land. They are the ones who will implement innovations. Also in the slums, women are key to generating a change in behavior. Therefore, women should be heard in the discussion on the effects of climate change and get involved in finding solutions.

The role of institutions and international treaties
Fogelberg explains that human rights and climate change were regarded as unrelated, both by scientists and policy makers who negotiate in the international arena. Climate change was a topic for natural scientists and those building climate models. It was supposed not involve humanities. Later, nature and the environmental challenges became economical issues. Currently it is acknowledged that people play a role in causing climate change. However, the effects of a changing climate on human beings are still not automatically included in climate change negotiations.

The UN Climate Treaty was established twenty years ago. The measures listed in the Kyoto Protocol, which resulted from this treaty, do not offer a lot of ways compensation of local communities that suffer from climate change can be helped. For this we do need to look at the Convention of Human Rights can be helpful in this way. Two years ago in Copenhagen, the momentum for binding agreements and measures to compensate for example small island states, was left unutilized.

While the Kyoto Protocol will expire in 2012, there is no new protocol yet. In particular China and the United States do not want to give in. The result will probably be a series of smaller agreements, which do not possess the legal and moral power of the existing Kyoto Protocol. Again the poorest countries and especially the indigenous people, suffer. They lack the knowledge and the experts to stand up successfully in the complex structure of international negotiations. Western delegations often come with forty to fifty specialized negotiators. Fogelberg herself is involved in capacity building for small delegations. And of course, it is up to all of us, even from the sideline, to make our governments aware that we desire a fair outcome.

Non-state actors and a different mentality
The first attempt to deal with human rights violations caused by climate change is to look at existing treaties. Meanwhile realizing that both the UN Declaration on Human Rights and the Convention on Climate Change are only legally binding for nation states. They are limited in use because governments can only protect citizens in their territories, but have no control over activities outside their territory. Non-state actors such as multinational enterprises therefore play an important role. Professor Ruggie, the United Nations Special Representative on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises, recommended that companies in any case should not violate human rights, and also stated recommendations, contained in the Ruggie-principles, on how companies can promote human rights. These principles are included in the guidelines of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for multinational companies. Every state has a national contact point (NCP) that monitors enterprise behavior and reports violation of environmental and human rights objectives by multinational enterprises. Furthermore, the UN's Global Reporting Initiative develops guidelines for corporate reporting on people, planet and profit.

The above-mentioned initiatives are morally binding frameworks, but have no legal power. Their philosophy is 'measure, manage and change'. By monitoring, companies are able to manage and change their behavior. In part this is already happening and in this way a common language is developed to describe these issues. NGOs can report violations to their government more easily, because of increased transparency. The question is whether this is enough, regarding the nature of the problems we face. During the lecture the audience warned for green washing and voluntary regimes lowering the urgency for legislation. Still the political tide seems not to be right even though the severity of these issues requires collective action. Politicians will probably not be the first to act.

Is it possible for 'ordinary' citizens to be a change in this matter? Yes, Fogelberg argues. It all starts with engaging yourself. A good example is the English student of Sustainable Development, who started the blog Forest Peoples with information and facts about the impact of climate change 'from his garage'. Now, it is consulted worldwide and no government or company wants to be mentioned here in a negative way.

Besides this message, the students also received the Frame of Reference for corporate social responsibility (CSR). This frame reflects the vision of CSR for the Dutch CSR Platform (MVO Platform), a coalition of Dutch civil society organisations. The CSR Frame of Reference has been drafted for use by business, the government and non-profit organisations alike. From the CSR Platforms perspective, corporate social responsibility is not a grab-bag of options to pick and choose from at will. More importantly, they believe that CSR should be rooted in national legislation, internationally adopted standards and widely accepted principles of good governance and responsible corporate behaviour. This Frame of Reference describes and defines these basic standards and principles.

Next week Harm Dotinga will discuss the relationship between climate change and international law. You can watch the lecture of Teresa Fogelberg here.