Effort to hold governments accountable grows as climate impacts worsenHuman rights conventions and treaties carry legal obligations and there is a growing effort to hold governments accountable to both human rights and climate obligations. Photo Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

By Dana Drugmand

The impacts of climate change are accelerating, and human rights organizations are increasingly urging governments across the globe to uphold their human rights obligations by taking meaningful steps to curb climate change, according to a pair of recently released reports.

This could spur an increase in climate change-related litigation.

Climate harms are worsening as carbon emissions, global average temperatures and sea levels continue to rise, according to the 2018 “State of the Global Climate” report, released Thursday by the UN’s World Meteorological Association (WMO).  

Ocean heat is at a record high, and approximately 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide were emitted in 2018 – also a record high. Extreme weather impacted every continent and affected nearly 62 million people globally.  

The world is also failing to meet its climate goals as outlined in the Paris Agreement. At the end of 2015, 195 nations adopted the agreement, with the aim of keeping temperature rise “well below 2 degrees Celsius.”  The last four years were the warmest on record, according to the report.

In response to those rising impacts, human rights treaty bodies that monitor the implementation of United Nations accords, made an unprecedented number of recommendations last year regarding the legal obligations nations have to guard against climate harms, according to a recent report by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR).

While the Paris Agreement is not legally binding, human rights conventions and treaties do carry legal obligations, and there is a growing effort to hold governments accountable to both human rights and climate obligations.

Courts around the world are increasingly extending existing rights protections to include climate harms, according to a recent article by law professors Jacqueline Peel and Hari M. Osofsky.

“Human rights litigation may become an important tool to deal with the human impacts of failing to address climate change,” wrote Peel and Osofsky.

Courts in the Netherlands and Colombia have ordered governments to take stronger climate action based in part on human rights obligations.

Cases are currently pending in Germany, France, Ireland, Switzerland, the European Union, Canada, and the U.S. Citizens in these countries have filed suit against their national governments claiming violations of their fundamental rights due to the kind of accelerating climate impacts outlined in the new WMO report and other scientific warnings.

By clarifying these obligations, UN treaty bodies could provide indirect guidance for judges in climate litigation, said Sébastien Duyck, a senior attorney with CIEL.

The human rights treaty bodies have “an essential role to play in clarifying the extent of States’ human rights obligations in the context of climate change,” according to the CIEL report.

One treaty body, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), issued a statement in October 2018 coinciding with the IPCC’s Special Report on limiting warming to 1.5°C. The statement recognized that climate change severely threatens economic, social, and cultural rights. It also reminded countries of their human rights obligations and that “a failure to prevent foreseeable human rights harm caused by climate change” could amount to a breach of their obligations.

Another, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), said that nations must “take into account the greater vulnerability of women in the face of natural disasters and climate change” and “ensure access to justice for women.” This includes “ensuring the availability of effective [legal] remedies in case of human rights violations by private actors, occurring from activities both inside and outside a State’s territory,” according to CIEL’s report.

“By bringing a more traditional human rights lens to this we can look beyond emissions targets to assess whether a state is acting sufficiently [on climate change] or not,” said Duyck.

The WMO report details various indicators of this failure such as accelerated sea level rise, rising global average temperature and widespread and deadly extreme weather.

“The data released in this report give cause for great concern,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres wrote in a statement.

Guterres, who is convening a climate summit New York City later this year, is calling on world leaders to “come with a plan” rather than lofty speeches.

“There is no longer any time for delay.”

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