Q&A with Helena Bennett
Paris – The planet is heating up. Droughts, wildfires, insect outbreaks, coastal erosion, species extinction and a decline in water, health, energy and agricultural resources are all connected to the current climate change crisis. Millions of people are already being impacted by the effects of climate change and many more will continue to suffer and die if world leaders and governments idly address the issue and allow big corporations to remain unaccountable for their contribution to the crisis.
In 2020 alone, the world has seen natural disasters like wildfires and floods intensify, leaving in its wake a devastating wreck of destruction including death, homelessness, unemployment, famine, poor sanitation, lack of health services and exposure to other life-threatening illnesses. Roughly 8,200 wildfires devastated California this year and nearly 8,000 structures have been destroyed. About 53,000 people across California have been evacuated while 31 people have been killed since August.
Authorities in Sudan declared a three-month state of emergency this September, classifying the country a “Natural Disaster Zone” after flooding killed scores of people and destroyed infrastructure. The Minister of Labour and Social Development, Lena el-Sheikh reported that floods caused the deaths of 99 people, injured 46 and impacted more than half a million people, including the total and partial collapse of more than 100,000 homes.
Climate change is evidently affecting human beings and governments have an obligation to not only prevent the foreseeable calamitous effects of climate change but also protect those already impacted by it. Just like the human rights framework requires governments to enforce domestic laws and ensure their implementation are consistent with international human right standards, international and national environmental and climate policies need to be integrated into the human rights framework since our fundamental human right to exist is increasingly under peril by the environmental crisis.
Climate change is more than a political and economic issue, it is a human rights issue – and one that needs to be confronted now.
Climate Change and Human Rights Activist Helena Bennett explains to l’Association Francophone pour les Droits de l’Homme (AFDH) why climate change is indeed a human rights issue.
What does climate change have to do with human rights?
Everything. Climate change has been described as “the greatest human rights challenge of the 21st century”; it infringes on almost every human right laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights both directly and indirectly. Ultimately, climate change is responsible for the loss of life, livelihood and humility of millions of people around the world and will continue to wreak havoc on people’s right to decent lives until it’s solved and temperatures are brought back down.
How can human rights be integrated into climate-change-related actions?
Many solutions we create around the climate crisis ignore the very real and tangible impacts on humans. For example, many tree planting schemes and renewable energy programmes (like hydroelectric dams) uproot indigenous communities who have lived in harmony with their local environments for thousands of years. What right do we have to infringe upon their rights to “save the planet,” especially as these communities have typically contributed the very least to the problem.
Additionally, the pollution of our air and water should be seen as an infringement on human rights; access to safe, livable environments for all is a fundamental human right. Therefore, excessive and irreversible polluters should be called out as violators of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a practice we need to start seeing more frequently in the climate action space.
Do you know which human rights are being affected most by climate change?
Across the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the following generic “Rights” are violated by climate change:
– Right to Life
– Right to Health
– Right to Food
– Right to Water and Sanitation
– Right to Housing
– Right to Self-Determination
– Further Oppression of Marginalized Groups
The violation of these rights of course inadvertently leads to further rights being violated, such as access to justice.
What role do human rights organizations need to play in recognizing the link between climate change and human rights?
Until very recently, human rights NGOs have seen climate change as a separate issue from human rights. Thankfully, awareness is being spread of the impacts of climate change on people’s lives and livelihoods, and human rights organizations are starting to pick up on this, with some, such as Amnesty International, creating whole teams of people who focus solely on climate change as an independent issue. By lobbying for climate action through the lens of human rights, these groups could bring real change to the fore, so I really do hope this is a trend we’ll continue to see rising going forward.
Are the biggest polluters responsible for these human rights violations and how/are they being accountable for it?
Not really. If they were, they’d probably change their ways. There are groups lobbying for justice to be served to large polluters and states but it is expensive and tiresome to create large scale campaigns that capture the public’s attention enough to mobilize mass action against a particular brand or state.
Could holding corporations and governments accountable in a court of law be an effective solution for addressing the climate change/human rights crisis? How else can we stop these corporations acting with impunity and focusing only on profits?
Absolutely. This is already happening in some cases and I hope we see more cases in the future. Sadly, many large polluting countries already break international human right law on a regular basis, so it’s unlikely that action against states would be hugely successful unless there’s a large budget behind the campaign. But holding corps accountable is easier and more effective.
If there were a way to force businesses to act with impunity then surely they would all be respectable and ethical organizations already! Boycotting can be a good solution, and raising a fuss on social media to hold perpetrators to account can also be effective.
What is our role as individuals in the climate/human rights crisis?
Learning about the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable who are already experiencing the direct and indirect impacts of climate change. Elevating their voices and sharing their stories in order to promote the idea that human rights are being impacted today, rather than seeing the climate crisis as a distant and far off issue that we don’t need to tackle for 10 years.
Helena is an intersectional environmental and climate activist, currently studying for an MSc in Global Environmental Policy at Imperial College London. Her research focuses on climate justice, climate refugees and the human rights violations of marginalized communities and indigenous peoples. Previously, Helena worked as the Sustainability Lead for the Disruption & Innovation team at PwC. Helena writes a monthly environmental column for BeKind magazine and is a Thought Leader and Influencer for the Green Party.
For more content from Helena:
Instagram – @earthbyhelena
Patreon – https://www.patreon.com/helena_