Human Rights and Climate Change in the Wake of Haiyan

On Friday the 8th November 2013, Haiyan, the strongest recorded storm in history devastated vast swathes of the Philippines, leaving in its wake, death, destruction and tragedy. Three days later, representatives from 190 states gathered in Warsaw, Poland for the 19th annual Conference of the Parties (COP 19) climate conference and Filipino Climate Chief Yeb Saño delivered an emotional plea for stronger action against climate change.

 At COP 18 in Doha last year, a few days after the Philippines were battered by typhoon Bopha, Saño asked the representatives “If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?”

 This year, he says, the conference begins with the same dry questions. He ‘dared’ politicians, climate-sceptics and those living in developed countries to get down from their “ivory tower” and to see the destruction caused in the climate vulnerable communities in the low island states of the Pacific, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, in the highland mountain regions of the Andes and the Himalayas, in the deltas of the Amazon and the Nile, in the dry grasslands of Africa and Australia and, now, in the typhoon-wrecked Philippines.

 In a closing statement, Saño proclaimed that he was beginning a voluntary fast, in solidarity with his “brothers” in the Philippines and would not eat during the COP19 until ambitious targets were set and negotiators were brave enough to lead the world to the future we all want, hope for and deserve. His calls went unheard.

 On Friday 15th November at the conference, Japan drastically announced that it was cutting its emissions reduction target from 25% (against 2005 figures) to just 3.8%. Climate activists called the move a “slap in the face” for poorer and developing nations who are already struggling to adapt to and cope with the detrimental effects of climate change. Meanwhile, three youth observers at the conference were removed and banned from attending COP events for five years for unfurling a banner voicing their solidarity with the Philippines.

 In 2009, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report urging immediate action on climate change. The report was not based on scientific research, of rising sea levels and melting of ice caps, but instead focused on human rights violations. Specifically, events such as typhoon Haiyan and other extreme weather events pose a threat to the rights to life, adequate food, water, health, adequate housing and self-determination. They cause a scarcity of resources which in turn leads to corruption and conflict. It seems, however, that the greatest human rights violation presented by climate change is both the threat and the reality of global inaction.

 To refuse to act, to display political apathy, is to condemn those in the most vulnerable areas, to tell them that their lives and those of their children do not matter to us.

 With the COP decision draft document to be tabled for discussion this week, it looks as though this conference will prove to be as disappointing for climate change and human rights activists and professionals as Copenhagen, Doha and every other climate talk that has been before.

 We must take action. Not tomorrow but now.

 As I write, people are starving, dying of thirst, losing their crops, livestock, livelihoods and loved ones. It is not enough to stand in solidarity with the Philippines, or to donate to one of the (admittedly worthy) appeals for financial aid for the Philippines. It is not enough to occasionally turn off a light, or to sometimes walk to the shop instead of driving. We must demand ambitious climate action and we must stand together to fight for the future the world deserves because to do anything else is to say “we don’t care”.

 Laura Tyrrell 

This article has been adapted from an essay on human rights and the ecological crisis, submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the MA Understanding and Securing Human Rights 2013. Please contact laura.m.tyrrell@googlemail.com for further information, or for sources.

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