The fight for climate justice

Essam Shiha , Tuesday 1 Nov 2022

Climate justice for developing countries and those suffering from the brunt of climate change is a real and legitimate demand but one that has not yet been put into practise, writes Essam Shiha

A shepherd gathers his sheep on arid land on the edge of the desert of Iraq s central city of Najaf.
A shepherd gathers his sheep on arid land on the edge of the desert of Iraq s central city of Najaf. (Photo: AFP)


Not only has Egypt put its full weight behind environmental protection and climate action, it has also spearheaded the defence of the rights and interests of the African nations which, like other Third World countries, have become the victims of a crisis that is not of their own making.

Africa suffers more than other continents from the loss of resources and sources of income, forced displacement and migration, a lack of basic needs and, indeed, deprivation of the right to life when some Africans find themselves caught between death in vast arid deserts and drowning off the coasts of Europe.

It has been amply demonstrated that climate change is related to these ills, raising numerous questions: Is there a direct connection between climate change and various types of social injustice from racism to disparities in the distribution of wealth? If so, does this have to do with the fact that the rich countries that are responsible for the lion’s share of climate deterioration suffer the least from its effects? In short, is the need for climate justice an illusion?

The answers to the first two questions are a definitive yes, while the answer to the last one is an unequivocal no: climate justice is a very real and legitimate demand.

Human rights are based on the inherent dignity of all human beings. These rights are fundamental, indivisible, inalienable and must apply equally without discrimination to all individuals and peoples, including those most harmed by the adverse effects of climate change. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) defines climate change as “a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere.” It follows that climate action should be carried out in a framework consistent with the commitment to universal human rights principles and obligations.

The world is now experiencing abnormally high temperatures, the spread of drought and water scarcity, increased forest fires and violent storms, the melting of the polar icecaps, and rising sea levels. It has been scientifically established that these mounting disasters are due to climate change. It is equally clear that the detrimental impacts of climate change threaten food production, water security, the degradation of biodiversity and, hence, human life.

The foregoing realisation has given rise to numerous international agreements, the most important of which are the UNFCCC, the Paris Agreement adopted by 197 nations in 2015, and the Kyoto Agreement of 1995. The first international conference on climate justice took place in the Hague in 2000 with the purpose of clarifying the rights and responsibilities involved in climate action.

Climate justice seeks to ensure that all peoples are equal in their rights and that the principle of fairness prevails in actions taken to counter the negative effects of climate change and safeguard the welfare of future generations. In this framework, the participants at the Hague meeting established that climate justice also meant that countries that were not primarily responsible for harmful greenhouse-gas emissions, yet were the most vulnerable to their adverse effects, should be compensated through the international financing of the necessary adaptation and mitigation projects.

Climate justice is a rights-based approach to climate change and action. It is distinct from the purely environmentalist approach in that it holds that governments should strengthen the foundations of human rights in the face of the mounting challenges due to climate change. In emphasising the link between human rights and climate change, climate justice advocates seek to drive home the need to ensure social justice and equality among all and, accordingly, the need to safeguard the rights of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities and social sectors.

They also maintain that this vulnerability should be understood in its broadest possible sense as the product of an array of interrelated social, economic, cultural, environmental and geographic factors. Numerous UN-sponsored studies have observed that low-income communities, people with disabilities, women and the elderly are the groups most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change and, therefore, that they merit greater attention in efforts to promote climate justice.

Achieving climate justice requires the redistribution of resources. In addition, the most vulnerable sectors of society should be included in proposing, formulating, and adopting solutions. Other considerations should also be taken into account in the decision-making processes, such as the above-mentioned regional differences in the impacts of climate change and disparities in the resources to deal with them. It follows that climate action must be collective and well-coordinated at the local, regional, and global levels in order to realise climate justice.

Likewise, the principle of fairness necessitates the redistribution of the burden of climate action. As we know, the industrialised nations mentioned in Annex I of the UNFCCC bear the greatest responsibility for the greenhouse gases produced by human activities. Yet, poor and developing nations have sustained the greatest share of the adverse impacts of the climate change those emissions have caused.

Article 3 of the UNFCCC addresses the disparities when it says that (1) “The parties [to the UNFCCC] should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof; and that (2) “The specific needs and special circumstances of developing country parties, especially those that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, and of those parties, especially developing country parties, that would have to bear a disproportionate or abnormal burden under the convention, should be given full consideration.”

Already in 1972, the Stockholm Declaration recognised the organic relationship between the environment and human rights. Its first principle states that: “Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being, and he bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations.” Although the universal human rights conventions do not specifically mention the right to a safe and healthy environment, they all recognise the intrinsic link between the environment and the realisation of such human rights as the right to life, health, food, water and housing.

Translating these principles into action is a huge challenge. Unfortunately, thus far all national climate change strategies have approached the problem from the environmental and ecological perspective. They do not devote attention to how the adverse effects jeopardise human rights, which means much work has yet to be done to identify the most vulnerable segments of the population and the steps needed to protect climate-related rights in general and the rights of the most vulnerable in particular in the framework of climate justice for all.


The writer is head of the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights.

A version of this article appears in print in the 3 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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