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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Statement by Kate Gilmore United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Panel discussion on climate change and Right to Health

Climate change and right to health

03 March 2016

3 March 2016, 09:00 – 10:00 Room XX,
Palais des Nations, Geneva

Mr. President, excellencies, colleagues and friends,

It is a privilege to be with you this morning. On behalf of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, thank you for this important panel discussion of the impacts of climate change on the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

I particularly want to pay tribute to the esteemed panellists and to our key note speaker, Dr Chan and thank her for her leadership specifically with regards to WHO’s remarkable work for the SG’s Strategy for EWEC and for its associated  work on climate change and its implications for health.

Late last year, people around the world rejoiced in the passage of the first universal, legally binding agreement to mitigate climate change and adapt to its impacts.  In the face of what - on many other fronts - was a bleak year for the international community, the Paris Agreement stood out – alongside the SDGs - as a landmark achievement and an essential milestone in the long struggle to rally humanity to defeat the scourge of climate change.

The Paris Agreement does not shy from embrace of human rights’ role in this struggle.  Its Preamble calls explicitly for States to respect and promote human rights, including the right to health, in climate actions.

Still, Paris was but a first - even tentative - step. Its ambition does not match our need - two degrees of warming will be too much warming.

Mr President,

2015 was the hottest year on modern record, a full 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels. 

But it was also the year that the international community finally acknowledged what had been clear for some time, that the impacts of climate change began some time ago, that they are with us today and they will acerbate tomorrow: Those impacts kill, those impacts destroy lives, devastate communities, wreck local economies, eradicate traditions and culture.  No matter how challenging addressing these realties is our common responsibility, and it is a matter of human rights.

For many, the Paris achievement has come too late.  In 2012, a group of more than 20 States - under the banner of the Climate Vulnerable Forum – commissioned a study on the impacts of climate change that found already 400,000 deaths worldwide are linked to climate change each year.

Premature deaths alone would be cause for alarm and a grave moral prompt for immediate action.  But these figures do not tell the full story. 

For climate change endangers the underlying determinants of health at every level. And it disproportionately affects those who have the least, women, children, older persons, indigenous peoples, minorities, migrants, rural workers, persons with disabilities and the poor - exacerbating existing threats to their lives and livelihoods.

As the High Commissioner and others have pointed out, climate change is a threat multiplier.

When there are gendered inequalities in access to economic, social and cultural rights, women suffer from higher rates of mortality as a consequence of natural disasters – with a direct correlation observed between women’s status in society and their likelihood of receiving adequate health care in times of disaster and environmental stress.

According to a recent World Bank report, a 2°C increase in average global temperature (the current target for international climate mitigation efforts) would put between 100 million and 400 million more people at risk of hunger, and may result in 1 – 2 billion people not having enough water to meet their needs.

Other studies link climate impacts to diseases like malaria and the Zika virus.

A world of unchecked climate change is a world where forests burn and islands disappear beneath rising tides, where glaciers and tundra melt away and coral reefs are bleached white as the bones of the long deceased.  But this means it is also a world where hundreds of thousands die prematurely, where millions go hungry or are driven from their homes,  where conflict proliferates and desperation breeds. It is a graveyard for entire ecosystems, entire peoples and entire ways of living.

But this need not be our future. But to avert it, we must recognize that climate change and its consequences are not an accident of nature, but  the result of choices made by human beings in both the public and the private spheres.  And thus, we must recognise that new and different human action can and must be taken - ambitious, concerted action in line with State human rights obligations. Indeed, international human rights law places affirmative legal obligations on all States, acting individually and collectively, to take the necessary steps in law, policy, institutions, and public budgets to protect human rights from climate harms and redress them where they occur.

How? By protection and empowerment of the vulnerable. Through free, active and meaningful participation of civil society and affected communities. By ensuring justice for those harmed by climate change. Upholding non-discrimination and equity in climate policies. Requiring accountability for breach of human right obligations. Remedy for climate harms.

Such climate action in which human rights are fully integrated - must be evidence-based, scaled up, and designed to promote human dignity.

But States do not bear sole responsibility for averting climate change and its impacts. In particular, many in the private sector have disregarded their responsibility to respect human rights and in some cases intentionally obfuscated the truth about climate risks. They must be responsible and accountable partners in climate sensitive development that respects human rights.

As no doubt this year’s World Humanitarian Summit will emphasize while the private sector are key partners in change, our solutions must also be local and locally empowering.  Studies suggest that deforestation rates are substantially lower when forest rights are vested in local communities as compared to large business interests.

In Guatemala and Brazil, recognition of local land tenure has led to deforestation rates 11-20 times lower and in parts of the Mexican Yucatan, the findings are even starker – 350 times lower.

When communities have ownership over their land and natural resources, their livelihoods, traditional practices, human rights and health are protected and often so is the environment.

Mr President

This is but one example of what this morning’s panel and discussions must address and support - concrete action for protection of the human right to health against the onslaught of climate change.

In moving forward from Paris, we must enable the world to take smart, evidence-based climate actions that will effectively protect both human rights and the environment.

Right here, right now, we can commit to such action – to managing the inter-connections and inter-dependencies between people, planet, peace and prosperity, which is exactly what the world’s leaders committed to do in Agenda 2030. 

We know that change is urgent, necessary, possible and for our children’s children’s sake, we must make change doable.  That is the only way that we can have truly inclusive and thus sustainable development and beyond our life time too.

Thank you.