Is the Ecological Crisis the Human Rights Concern of the Century Essay
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The ecological crisis has now become an important topic throughout the years. Even so, toward the end of the last century, the issues of such crises became a focal talking point of governments, international organisations and scholars. This most likely is, as Leigh (2005) discusses, an increasing acceptance that such ecological disasters affecting mankind has been one of “the most critical turning points” that the world has ever encountered. Such crises are experienced when our environment is modified in ways which undermine our continued existence.
As the environment and its ecosystems are in a constant state of being damaged, its quality is vastly ruined and this has major effects on the lives that are dependent on it. Magdoff and Foster (2011) suggest that for the ecological crisis to be understood, it must be looked at in the sense of the boundaries of the planet. They go on to indicate that ultimately the Earth has several thresholds which it must remain in in order to preserve the gentle conditions that the Earth has experienced in the past century.
These thresholds include loss of biodiversity, climate change, a depleting ozone layer, world-wide freshwater and chemical pollution. Unfortunately, the planet has already passed two of these, including loss of biodiversity and climate change due to our damaging activities that cause environmental disparities. Until recently, the ecological crisis and its subsequent effects have been discussed mainly in the scientific disciplines as merely an environmental issue. It has also been made into an economic concern.
However, it is now more than ever in the 21st century being debated and referred to as a subject for human rights. This essay seeks to examine the issue of the impact of the ecological crisis, its human rights implications, and how it has come to be considered the human rights concern of the century. The Ecological Crisis The end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st has seen a remarkable increase in the number of environmental catastrophes that the Earth has experienced.
These disasters have not been just limited to one eographic region but they have affected nearly every single part of the planet. Some have included climate change, which in turn has been affected by the greenhouse effect and gases ; the advent of peak oil; loss of biodiversity and therefore diminished quantities and quality of food supplies; plus deforestation, chemical pollution and oil spills. These in turn have had a knock-on effect on the way of living for man and caused such issues as rising sea levels, floods, reduced food resources, droughts, and polluted air and water supply.
As mentioned, the Earth’s threshold for climate change and biodiversity loss has been passed and this has already been causing irreparable harm to the planet’s ecosystems and the environment. It is still possible, however, to stop such effects from permanent harm to the environment, which is why the ecological crisis has become such an important matter for discussion today. Climate Change “Of all the environmental issues that have emerged in the past decades, global climate change has been the most serious and most difficult to manage” (Dessler and Parson, 2006).
Like with the above quote, it is thought by many scientists and scholars that climate change is and will be the biggest threat to the environment mainly because of its potential to bring about such brutal destruction. Oxfam International (2008) stated that some of the 23 richest countries in the world (comprising Canada, Australia and USA) where just fourteen percent of the entire world population inhabits, produced almost sixty percent of the planet’s carbon emissions since the 1800s. The Earth’s climate is changing. In fact, it has always been varying from time to time.
However, the degree of change is now the big worry. The Great Warming (2006) defines climate change as an alteration in the “long-term climate” of a particular area. It is further stated that humans contribute to this climate change by discharging greenhouse gases and sprays up into the atmosphere while also modifying the land we live on. Dessler and Parson (2006) debate the forecasts for climate change in the 21st century are more or less unclear, nonetheless, this uncertainty can work either way in that the climate may increase or decrease.
The prospect of such unknowns makes this question a lot graver. Many of the activities that individuals carry out on a daily basis has contributed significantly to the greenhouse effect, the depletion of the ozone layer, and therefore climate change. As The Great Warming (2006) put it, the inhabitants of the Earth are constantly burning fossil fuels for heating of houses, for production of electricity and to run machines and vehicles. All of these activities have been adding to the warming effect on the atmosphere.
The UNDP (2007) report on fighting climate change established that since the start of the industrial age, the temperature of the Earth has risen by about 0. 7 degrees Celsius and this increase seems to be speeding up with time. The report went further in determining that if a threshold of 2oC is broken, we hazard the idea of greater irreparable damage to the environment. Magdoff and Foster (2011) quotes the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stating that by the end of the century in 2100, the most probable temperature increase worldwide will be in the 2. to 4. 6oC range.
This, we can see, is far higher than the previously mentioned threshold of 2oC, and as the authors mention, is a major cause for concern and panic. Such drastic climate change can ultimately lead to ice caps melting, sea levels rising, droughts, forced migration of peoples, a reduction in food produce, and danger to coastal regions. This can lead to reduced health and welfare of the population while also causing serious issues with atmospheric pollution. Other forms of the Ecological Crisis
Climate change has not been the only crisis the environment has faced. There has also been widespread degradation with other human-driven activities. Goodhart (2009) explains that the ecosystem has been affected by severe exhaustion of its resources. This includes deforestation which has led to erosion and land slippage and thus pushed people out of their habitat. Oils spills have been a major source of concern, according to Goodhart, which has threatened the survival of certain oceanic species that are a vital source of food for man.
The ecological crisis will affect the entire world population if nothing is done to stop the effects of all these contributory factors. This has led international organisations such as the United Nations (UN) to establish various agencies and protocols that will guide international actors in dealing with the crisis. These include the IPCC, as well as the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The UN has also held several conferences over the years to tackle the problems including the Earth Summit in Brazil and the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change (UNFCCC) .
As will be seen in the next section, some of these mechanisms have begun placing more emphasis on and framing the environmental issues as human rights concerns. Relationship between the Ecological Crisis and Human Rights “As the world marks the 60th anniversary of the UDHR, High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay points out that a wide range of universally recognized rights including food, life, water and adequate housing are under a direct threat as a result of climate change” (OHCHR, 2008a). The destruction of the environment and its consequent effects on humans is leading to grave human rights concerns.
In its resolution on climate change, the UN Human Rights Council stated their concern for climate change posing a direct danger to communities in the world, further suggesting that this ecological crisis has consequences for the “full enjoyment of human rights” (HRC, 2008) . Framing of the issues in human rights terms has been a very useful tool for creating greater awareness of its impacts and ensuring that the subject reaches new actors and activists, ultimately influencing the process for the better. Human rights are now frequently referred to as “universal and indivisible”.
For this reason, Hawkins (2010) suggests that every human being is “entitled to every basic right by virtue of their humanity”. As climate change is possibly the biggest ecological concern of late, many scholars refer to it the most when focusing on the human rights implications. However, there are still very deep human rights concerns for the other contributors to the crisis. Depledge (2007) mentioned that there are, at present, no organisations such as the UN that blatantly suggests a right to a healthy environment. Nevertheless, he proposes that the human right to health covered under the UDHR directly implies a link to the environment.
This is because the way in which the environment is kept can and does affect the security of people. Therefore, we see truth in Commissioner Navi Pillay’s words in mentioning these rights. Hunter (2009,p. 7) also suggests that climate change can have an impact on the right to self-determination. One example of the effect of the crisis on this right is that of the Inuit people of Alaska who in 2005 submitted a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights suggesting that their “way of life” was being hindered by climate change which in turn influences their continued existence and culture.
Climate change, if continued on its current path will increasingly raise the Earth’s temperature. This will further affect the water sources, our food, and cause major disease outbreaks. These activities are bound to result in significant human rights violations under the various charters and treaties. Firstly, the right to health will see a drastic rise of malnutrition in children. There will also be a threat of major increases in droughts and flooding around the world (Oxfam, 2008). Another right that needs to be preserved during this process is the all-important right to life and security.
Article 3 of the UDHR asks for the “right to life, liberty and security of person”. These rights are in serious danger of being breached from the issues of the ecological crisis. Goodhart (2009) maintains that the depletion of environmental resources like clean water and oil has “been a cause of violent conflict in several areas around the world” and this is of extreme distress because of the occurrence of, say, peak oil. Climate change can greatly affect the security of people around the world.
As a result of the rising sea levels, the increased temperature and therefore the damage to land, inhabitants of the Earth will experience more flooding, droughts and fires, heat waves and higher occurrence of storms. All of these can ultimately lead to death and an increase in numbers. Another important right affected by this crisis has been the right to food as stipulated in Article 11(1) of the ICESCR . Current trends are not a good sign for people’s right to food under this treaty. Oxfam (2008) suggests that any further warming of the planet is bound to expose fifty million more people to hunger by the year 2020.
Within another 30 years in 2050, that number could vastly increase to 132 million. These are extremely high numbers that would be detrimental to the survival of many regions and populations. The Oxfam report cites the case of Africa, where land for cultivation is being reduced by climate change causing the season for growing crop to decrease thereby producing less crop for food. The International Council on Human Rights Policy (ICHRP) categorically mentions that climate change creates violations of human rights due to the constant harm that we are inflicting on the environment (ICHRP, 2008).
The most serious effects of the ecological crisis will usually and unfortunately be experienced by the people whose rights and protections are currently not being respected and so occurrences like climate change, tar sands, and pollution will have a greater impact on the more disregarded populations. This includes the poor and usually indigenous peoples around the world. As Havermann (2009) put it, the indigenous peoples around the world are some of those that are most susceptible to these crises while being the ones who have the smallest responsibility for them.
For example, the oil and gas expansion by multinational corporations around the world is having severe effects on climate change and the environment, leading on to issues for human rights particularly with indigenous peoples. As Karliner (1991) noted, oil and its excavation has an overwhelmingly negative effect on the economic stability of these groups. Also a huge concern, as a result, is their health which tends to suffer from these activities. The problems faced by many countries with deforestation have also been exacerbating the situation for the realisation of human rights around the world.
Many of the forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. The boomerang effect is thus a reduction in the all-important biodiversity that the forests contain and that is necessary for the continued livelihood and survival of those dependent on it. This includes, according to ICHRP (2008), the over fifty million tribal inhabitants of forests around the globe who are constantly affected with their food safety harshly curtailed.
If the present rates at which such deforestation and the previously mentioned rises of climate change, oil spills and pollution continue, it is thought that a majority of the rainforests on the Earth will have vanished even before the 21st century has ended. Concern of the Century? Many environmentalists and human rights defenders have framed the ecological crisis as one with a human rights dimension. This is because most see it now as a serious inhibitor to development, to the daily living of man and to fulfilling the rights that have been laid out in the various international instruments.
The ecological crisis has seen a large number of environmental problems over the years and its effects are now being debated fiercely on the world stage. Some world leaders, scientists and the general population are all trying to engage in finding solutions to the problem while others still question and underestimate the gravity of the phenomenon. The issue has become a major concern, not just for the planet physically, but also in a human rights context because the ecological crisis single-handedly affects a range of different human rights as seen above.
In many instances, its effects can breach more rights than some of the other current rights violators. In addition, while most abuses of human rights can generally be halted voluntarily, if these environmental problems are allowed to linger untreated then at some point in time the destruction of the environment would have become irreversible. This in turn would result in more human rights violations. As Hawkins (2010) argues, the resources of the planet are limited and so to continue with the existing trend will place humanity in peril.
Also, the atmosphere cannot distinguish between the greenhouse gases that affect climate change by the region it comes from (UNDP, 2007). Climate change, for example, is non-discriminatory and unlike other rights violations being perpetrated around the world, it can affect just about anyone. This is why such a huge international human rights advocacy process has now been implemented. In a statement in 2007, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon referred to climate change as “the greatest emerging humanitarian challenge of our time” which is “menacing the whole human family”.
As the UNFCCC acknowledged in the framework, the universal reach of the effects of climate change requires the “widest possible co-operation from all countries” (UNFCCC, 1992). It is evident that the human rights implications of the ecological crisis is a great concern for many people especially in the recent efforts by NGOs to publicise the matter, while a number of measures have been put in place by international organisations such as the UN to tackle the problems – through summits, conferences and protocols like the Kyoto protocol.
In 2008, a resolution was passed by the Organisation of American States (OAS) on human rights and climate change (ICHRP, 2008). The commitments set forth in the 1997 Kyoto protocol are soon to end in 2012. Neglecting to meet these obligations will cause us to reach even closer to further crisis. In December 2011, Canada officially pulled out of its commitments to the protocol (Carrington and Vaughan, 2011). The backlash and criticism from world leaders and actors was astounding and this showed the level that the ecological crisis and its implications for human life have reached in this century.
Conclusion Going forward without confronting this global challenge that is the ecological crisis with the seriousness that it deserves will result in countless human rights violations around the globe. The climate change, deforestation, oil spills and rising sea levels will cause a massive increase in the destruction of habitats, reduced water supply, island and coastal regions vanishing, and greater health concerns. These in turn are destabilizing many peoples’ rights to food, health, security, life and livelihood.
It is imperative that the principles and norms of human rights are continuously applied to these crises so as to halt the irreparable destruction of the environment and the future of humankind. As noted by the UNDP (2007), the 20th century saw leadership disasters resulting in two world wars in which masses of people suffered. In this the 21st century, the destructive nature of the ecological crisis has become the new and preventable disaster.