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Climate Change: A Threat to Human Rights

Updated: May 14


Introduction


In today’s multifaceted global landscape, individuals combat a spectrum of concerns ranging from mundane concerns to profound geopolitical tensions. Apart from the geopolitical conflicts unfolding across the world, there is a growing recognition that the climate crisis represents a formidable challenge with far-reaching implications for human rights. Amidst temperature rise, erratic weather conditions, and extreme and intense natural disasters, the impacts of climate change are felt far and wide. 


This essay undertakes a focused examination of the nexus between climate change and human rights, with a specific emphasis on the recent jurisprudential development within the Indian context. Central to the inquiry is the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that expands the scope of Articles 14 (Right to Equality) and 21 (Right to Life) – two of the six fundamental rights of the Indian Constitution, to include Right against Adversity of Climate Change. This judicial pronouncement represents a significant stride in the evolution of India's legal framework, elevating climate change from a peripheral environmental concern to a fundamental issue of human rights and social justice. This essay seeks to present the implications of this judgement given by the highest court of the land along with analysing the responsibility of the governments to ensure equal protection from the effects of the changing climate across the world.


Climate Change and its Impact


Commencing with the contextual backdrop, it is noteworthy to highlight that 2023 stands out as the warmest recorded year, surpassing the 20th-century average temperature of 13.9°C (57.0°F) by 1.18°C (2.12°F). This is a direct indication to the extent of ignorance and ruthlessness meted out to nature and also to the future prospects of the unadapted actions. 


Climate change has far-reaching effects on nature that have already been set in motion – shrinking of glaciers and ice sheets, shifting of plant and animal geographic ranges, and intense heat waves along with intense weather events. A report by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claimed that some changes caused by climate change are new to modern humans and others are even irreversible like atmospheric warming. In fact, the United Nations cited IPCC’s 2018 special report and its warning that ‘humankind has less than 12 years to avoid potentially irreversible climate disruption’, and that was five years ago.


Climate change also impacts human rights in some direct and indirect ways like lack of access to clean water and sanitation, lack of access to proper nutrition, air pollution, adverse health impacts — increase in heat-related illnesses, spread of vector borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever, and can worsen the health conditions of those with pre-existing illnesses) and forced displacement of certain groups due to climate change. Certain vulnerable groups like indigenous minorities and low income groups stand at high risk of these consequences. This vulnerability is created by a combination of factors including geographical locations; financial, socio-economic and gender status; and their access to resources and decision making power.


Indigenous communities are directly impacted by climate change due to their close relation with nature.  Their plight is worsened by a multitude of factors like land loss, involuntary displacement, discrimination and unemployment. Furthermore, the impact is felt disproportionately along the geographical lines too. For instance, glacial melts in the Himalayas affect hundreds of the dwellers residing along the region in the long run.


Protection Against the Adverse Effects of Climate Change: A Fundamental Right?


With eloquence and wisdom, the Supreme Court of India recently recognised the Right against Adverse Effects of Climate Change as an expansion of Article 14 (Right to Equality) and Article 21 (Right to Life) – two of  the six fundamental rights of the Indian Constitution. In this landmark judgement, the three-judge bench including the Chief Justice of India, Dhananjaya Chandrachud, Justice JB Pardiwala and Justice Manoj Misra drew a systematic connection between Articles 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution, and the climate crisis that is looming large. CJI DY Chandrachud also mentioned Article 48A and Article 51A which, although are non-justiciable provisions of the Constitution, highlight the importance of the natural world and the citizens’ duties towards the same.


This ruling is definitely a landmark judgement for a variety  of reasons. Firstly, the lack of a proper national institution to overlook protection of human rights under the light of climate change itself emphasises the weight of this recognition. Although this in itself, does not fulfil the need for a specific institution, it does make sure that human rights are being checked upon and people are empowered to procure healthy living conditions. Pertaining to Right to Life (Article 21), the court stated that without a clean environment suitable for the citizens, this right cannot be fully realised. Right to Equality (Article 14) protects the vulnerable communities and aims to provide everyone with equal opportunity to cope with the effects of climate change and environment degradation


Secondly, since it has been recognised as part of the fundamental rights, it effectively includes the concerns of the vulnerable groups of the country and gives an opportunity for these to be addressed. This means that just like any other fundamental right, this also allows moving the court in case of violations. Additionally, the mere mention of being recognised as a part of fundamental rights gives sanctity to the issue, depicting a sense of urgency which is much needed. Furthermore, this could have far reaching implications in bringing this issue in the limelight and informing the public, if used strategically. Since there is a serious need for climate consciousness, media and public conversations on this ruling could very well present a major platform to popularise this issue of climate crisis and the importance of equality and inclusivity in protection from its impacts. 


If looked closely, being protected from serious effects of climate change and being able to live with sufficient sanitation and suitable environmental conditions is a highly basic and foundational need of every individual. Thus, recognising this need is not as monumental as the future prospects it may carry in driving future climate-related policies. However,the effectiveness cannot be fully understood yet, not without the proper realisation of this principle which would come about once this  acknowledgement gains popularity and support, and is fully adapted into the future proceedings.


What is the Accountability Check?


Although the recent judgement clearly paves the way for legal responsibility for actions that undermine equal freedom from climate change impacts, it also raises questions regarding the mechanisms which would ensure equal protection and accountability of government actions regarding the same. Additionally, it urges scrutiny regarding the citizens’ position to challenge ineffective policies in either their formulation or implementation, or both. A related challenge that emerges is related to the lack of empirical evidence and the complexity of proving cause-effect relations in many scenarios of climate change  impact. These inquiries call for a deliberate discussion on the judgement, defining its implications. Eventually, when the  jurisdiction of this right  unblurs, it will give  us an idea of its recommendations and limitations in a clearer light.


In a similar ruling later in April, the Supreme Court of India also related Article 48A of the Constitution that indicates the protection of the environment, to citizens’ right to life. It further recommended the government to protect the wildlife and forests to reduce climate change and its impact in the country. Thus, although the recommendations are noticeable and explicit, the effectiveness will be ensured only through an effective implementation of the same.


Litigation Around the World


Internationally, activists have turned to courts questioning their government’s efforts to tackle climate change. In August, 2023 in Montana, during a case with young activists claiming that the state agencies were violating their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, the court ruled in their favour. This ruling adds to the small number of legal verdicts around the world that have established a government duty to protect citizens from climate change. 


The European Court of Human Rights on 9th April this year, ruled that the Swiss Government had violated the human rights of the citizens by not doing much to combat climate change. However, this was among the three kindred cases, rest of which were dismissed by the courts. Meanwhile, the case won by the Swiss women was successful in examining whether climate change policies stand effective in ensuring human rights to the people. The Swiss women claimed that the government was failing to cut the emissions in line with the policy to limit global warming to 1.5C (2.7F) to fend off the most adverse consequences of climate change.  


Even though the other two such cases, one in Portugal and the other in France, were also similarly holding the government accountable for their climate inaction which in turn violated the right to life of people, their cases were not taken up by the court. Nevertheless, we cannot trivialise the importance of the ruling in favour of the Swiss women for it clearly indicates the urgency of not only climate action by governments, but also legalising this duty. 


Conclusion


To sum this up, the gravity of the climate crisis and the immense role reserved for the government in ensuring equal protection to the people from its consequences is thoroughly understood. The reality of climate change, even though gaining popularity, is recognised by few. Recently, UN Climate Chief, Simon Stiell warned that the world has only two years left to avert climate catastrophe. This should be warning enough for the people, the governments and their actions. The most vulnerable groups like indigenous populations and people with meagre resources bear the brunt of climate change and require sufficient attention. 


The Supreme Court of India, with unwavering resolve, made a ruling expanding the scope of two fundamental rights – Right to Equality (Article 14) and Right to Life (Article 21), including the right against adverse effects of climate change. This ruling may change the course of climate action in India with the goal of equal protection to all. It also shows the effective interpretation of the Constitution by the Supreme Court which is evolving with the needs of the present time. Furthermore, if used strategically, it can also function as a way to alert the people of the situation’s urgency. One of the organs of the government, the judiciary - has performed its duty in upholding human rights, now it is time for the other two organs to follow through. Many cases around the world have provided a confusing picture about the support for climate activists. However, there have been various important judgments made in favour of environmentally informed people  in the struggle for appropriate climate action and protection from climate change impacts.




The author is a student at Ramjas College, University of Delhi.





References


CBS news, Montana judge rules for young activists in landmark climate trial


Climate.gov2023 was the warmest year in the modern temperature record


The Times of India, Earth doesn’t belong to man, forests must be protected at all costs:SC


Indian Express, Right against adverse effects of climate change part of rights to life, equality: SC


NASA, The Effects of Climate Change


Times, Only two years left to save world from catastrophe: UN climate chief


REUTERS, Swiss women win landmark climate case at Europe top human rights court 


U.N., Only 11 Years Left to Prevent Irreversible Damage from climate change, Speakers warn during General Assembly High-level Meeting, UN 28 March 2019


United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Indigenous Peoples, Climate Change.


World Bank, Social Dimensions of Climate change


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