Friday, July 11, 2008

Global Warming: A Threat to Human Rights

Global warming caused by human activity is not just a danger to the environment or to endangered species of plants and animals, but it is also a threat to human rights. Indeed, the process of climate change has already begun to alter the environment of human populations and so dramatically reconfiguring their way of life that this trend is leading towards widespread, systematic human rights abuses in a variety of avenues. At this time most of the world’s human population have not yet directly experienced adverse environmental, economic or political changes produced by the planetary rise in temperatures. Though some societies are already suffering unprecedented resource shortages and increases in conflict and violence that individuals are seeing their universally-recognized natural and civil rights being violated, and this disturbing trend is expected to become much worse as global temperatures rise ever more rapidly.

Among the people who are already bearing the brunt of climate change are those whose environment is being heated into oblivion, namely the Inuit of northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland. With only a rise of 5 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 30 years,[i] the waters of the Arctic Ocean have warmed so much that 38,000 square miles of sea ice are lost every year, with sea ice expected to completely disappear by 2040.[ii] As a result polar bears are not the only mammals on the road to extinction[iii] – the thawing of the Arctic is all but devastating populations of humans, namely Inuit society.

Indeed, Inuit culture is all but predicated on the extreme cold, and the northernmost regions of the planet have become so much more temperate that not only is ice and permafrost melting but many Inuit can no longer find enough hard-packed snow to build their traditional igloos.[iv] And such adjustments are more than just a question of style. Arctic snow is thinning to the extent that Inuit are oftentimes unable to run which makes meat harder to come by as hunting traditional game becomes especially difficult.[v] And as ice is becoming thinner than usual, Inuit hunters are falling through and the risk of broken legs and ankles is becoming progressively more common[vi] – a serious threat to the survival of those who find themselves immobile and exposed to the unforgiving elements of Arctic weather.

“These are issues of life and death”, says Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier, “We go out to hunt on the seas ice to put food on the table. You go to the supermarket.”[vii] This is the basis of the Nobel Prize nominee’s case which she and has brought before the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; that global warming is destroying the traditional Inuit way of life that it is a violation of their basic human rights.

Martin Wagner, the Earthjustice attorney arguing Watt-Cloutier’s case before the OAS, maintained that, “The effects of global warming interfere with the realization of the right of life, physical integrity and security. It is destroying lands and ecosystems to which indigenous cultures throughout the hemisphere are tied. In order to survive, (they) are thus forced to assimilate with other cultures in ways and on a schedule that they have not chosen.”[viii]

stresses the region’s need for sustainable economic development which both provides the Inuit population with sources of income while still minimizing the destruction of the Arctic environment. “A number of Inuit want to live in Western houses and find jobs in the oil or shipping industries, and they have every right to do so,” he explains, “but in addition to promoting economic modernization, governments and corporations must protect the rights of those who want to preserve their traditional lifestyle.”[ix] Economic growth is indeed needed among the Canadian as well as American and Greenlandic Inuit particularly because these populations all suffer extremely high unemployment and poverty rates, not to mention the rampant depression, alcoholism and drug abuse which ensues.[x]

The problematic aspect of much of the Arctic’s current fossil fuel-based industrialization is that so far it has not only capitalized on destructive climate change but has also reinforced it further in an autocatalytic loop. Indeed, the ever more common use of electricity, airplanes and trucks powered by oil and gasoline emits particulate matter into the air, and when it settles the particulate makes ice and snow much darker and conducive to the absorption of solar radiation, which only intensifies the melting process even more.[xi] And though the loss of sea ice is seen by a boon to some – namely the shipping companies that are preparing to make ready use of the Northwest Passage which is expected to completely thaw within the near future,[xii] the frozen environment of the Inuit is even more imperiled. As the Doug Struck writes in The Washington Post, “More ships will bring the risk -- the certainty, some say -- of accidents and black oil spills smeared on the white Arctic.”[xiii]

However, the economic development of the Arctic and the advent of additional prosperity need not destroy the frigid environment which is so crucial to traditional Inuit life. Even without utilizing alternative fuel technologies, Wagner suggests that businesses operating in the region can become more Inuit-friendly by becoming more energy-efficient or by installing scrubbers in the smokestacks of their ships and in the tailpipes of their trucks in order to minimize air pollution.[xiv] Though the effects of global warming are being felt the hardest by the people of the Arctic region, its causes are truly derived by worldwide trends – and so for the human rights of the Inuit to be secure there must be a concerted effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the people of every country on the globe.

In addition to the inhabitants of the coldest environments on Earth, people who live in the climatic antipode are also suffering widespread human rights violations as a result of global warming. Due to shifts in weather patterns the declining precipitation levels of North and Central Africa has led to the rapid expansion of the Sahara Desert. The ways by which human rights are going to suffer as a consequences are not merely subjects for future speculation, for the ramifications on water rights for drinking, sanitation and irrigation purposes are already abysmal.
For example, 40 years ago Lake Chad was the sixth-largest lake in the world, straddling the borders of Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Nigeria and providing ample water supplies to the human population throughout the region. But since global warming caused by human activity has desiccated the region, the lake has shrunk to only one-twentieth of its original size – and the humanitarian consequences have been devastating.[xv] Not only have the vast majority farmers and ranchers who once depended on Lake Chad’s water for their livelihoods given up their lands and emigrated moved to already-overcrowded cities, but those who have kept their farms are in such cutthroat competition for scarce water resources that low-level conflict has broken out for the fertile lands of the former lakebed. Internecine firefights erupted when fishermen from Nigeria followed the retreating shore lines into Cameroon, and violence has been precipitated by farmers over property rights in the bottom of what was once Lake Chad.[xvi]

Following the link between desertification and resource conflict, some observers have concluded that global warming is causally related to one of the world’s worst ongoing violations of human rights, the Sudanese government’s campaign of genocide in Darfur. No less an influential figure than United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon wrote in a Washington Post editorial that “the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change.”[xvii]
Two decades ago, the rains in southern Sudan began to fail. According to U.N. statistics, average precipitation has declined some 40 percent since the early 1980s. Scientists at first considered this to be an unfortunate quirk of nature. But subsequent investigation found that it coincided with a rise in temperatures of the Indian Ocean, disrupting seasonal monsoons. This suggests that the drying of sub-Saharan Africa derives, to some degree, from man-made global warming.[xviii]
Indeed, there is little doubt that global warming is one of the leading causes of rapid desertification, and particularly the expansion of the Sahara Desert. But Moon’s conclusion that there is causation and not merely correlation between global warming, desertification and the Darfur genocide is significantly more controversial.
It is no accident that the violence in Darfur erupted during the drought. Until then, Arab nomadic herders had lived amicably with settled farmers. A recent Atlantic Monthly article by Stephan Faris describes how black farmers would welcome herders as they crisscrossed the land, grazing their camels and sharing wells. But once the rains stopped, farmers fenced their land for fear it would be ruined by the passing herds. For the first time in memory, there was no longer enough food and water for all. Fight broke out. By 2003, it evolved into the full-fledged tragedy we witness today.[xix]

The Secretary General’s understanding of the genocide’s origins in global warming-induced desertification, however, do not come without controversy. Some critics, most notably Sudan scholar Eric Reeves, argue instead that “decades of severe political and economic marginalization, along with the NIF regime’s politically expedient targeting of the African tribal groups of Darfur, are the real cause of conflict in Darfur.”[xx]
Regardless, many experts fear that the conflicts like that unfolding among farmers and herders in Darfur could be replicated throughout the Middle East and North Africa, because the growing human populations in these regions and their demand for food and water are straining among the most limited water supplies in the world. The average annual rainfall in Darfur has dropped by almost 50 percent over 86 years to 7.48 inches when the conflict began in 2003, while over the past 40 years Darfur’s population has increased sixfold to 6.5 million.[xxi]

Indeed, potable water sources will only become increasingly scarce as rainfall is declining steadily in these areas, and there is the strong possibility that the change in precipitation patterns is related to global warming. “The consciousness of the world on the issue of climate change has to change fast,” said Muawia Shaddad of the Sudan Environment Conservation Society. “Darfur is just an early warning.”[xxii] But as paltry steps are being taken – the Sudanese government has planned a pilot project to spend $10 to construct dams and plant trees, Ismail al-Gizouli of the High Council for Environment and Natural Resources demands, “We need the richer countries to realize desertification is the emergency and help us.”[xxiii]

The expansion of the Sahara Desert is a complicated issue in regards to corporate responsibility, for in addition to global warming there are numerous other artificial causes which contribute to desertification, including overcultivation, overgrazing, and inadequate irrigation.[xxiv] Unlike the shippers poised to take advantage of the thawing Northwest Passage, however, there are no means by which it can be foreseen that any particular corporation might actually reap windfalls from the existence of more uninhabitable, unusable land; so the problem in this case is not necessarily that companies should refrain from capitalizing on environmental degradation which contributes to the violation of human rights, but that in their operations in North and Central Africa they should conduct business with their eye fixed on long-run rather than short-run interests. The most significant measure which business firms could take would be to promote techniques of land and water conservation so that sustainable agricultural methods become more prevalent – benefiting both the companies themselves as well as the individual farmers on the cusp of being overwhelmed by the Sahara sand. But for the international markets for farm goods to shift from the raising of livestock to crops would kill the two proverbial birds with one stone by both reducing water consumption as well as greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to desertification in the grander scale of environmental human rights concerns.

With these civilizational crises already playing out with the modest temperature change that have already been incurred, one can only imagine what humanitarian disasters await as the atmosphere becomes even warmer. With only modest warming of the oceans, hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons are becoming stronger and more destructive, indicating that the rare intense storms which can wreck havoc on densely-populated urban settings like Hurricane Katrina might soon become more and more common.[xxv] And even if global warming is mitigated so that sea levels rise by only a few feet, by bringing shorelines even slightly further inland residential corridors which were once thought to be safe will become susceptible to extreme flooding.[xxvi] And in places where water levels are already a concern, of course, the risk of flooding is only going to become even worse.

If the Antarctic or the Greenland ice sheets were to melt completely – an event which would raise sea levels by 20 feet due to the added volume of additional liquid water in Earth’s oceans. In such a scenario which is indeed projected if the production of greenhouse gas emissions continues to grow at their current rate, entire neighborhoods of New York, London and Tokyo would become submerged, with those high points which could escape permanent engulfment at least vulnerable to extreme flooding.[xxvii] Low-lying cities like New Orleans and Miami would be completely underwater.[xxviii] Granted, this would be a relatively gradual process playing out over the course of many decades, but preempting a failure of imagination, this should nevertheless develop into an unprecedented humanitarian disaster.

The problem of rising sea levels is going to do much more than force people to abandon their coastal homes and villages; a number of low-lying nations will be rendered into uninhabitable. Indeed, even if the Greenland ice sheet were to only partially melt, sea levels will rise so much that countries such as the Maldives – an archipelago of small islands where the highest elevation is only 8 feet, will literally have to be wiped off the map. Though unintentional, the complete and utter destruction of the sine non qua landmass of a nation-state effectively translates into creating a nation in diaspora with no hope of restitution and – depending on how liberally one is willing to interpret the word – tantamount to genocide.

Considering the difficulties that the United States government has faced over the past two years providing for the more than 200,000 persons displaced by Hurricane Katrina,[xxix] it is quite foreseeable that the number of displaced persons in this country alone would completely overwhelm the capacity of our existing social welfare services. The problems which global warming would pose for countries in the industrial West, however, are almost negligible when compared to the results of an additional 20 feet of seawater in the overcrowded cities of the developing world. If the Greenland ice sheet were to melt, it would ultimately turn more than 20 million people from Beijing and the surrounding areas into refugees, 40 million from Shanghai and its environs would have to be evacuated, and 60 million would have to be evacuated from Calcutta and Bangladesh (which are already susceptible to massive flooding even with the Greenland ice sheet in a solid state). The Christian Aid agency likewise predicts that there will be 1 billion people displaced by global warming by the year 2050;[xxx] to say the least, a crisis without even the remotest analogy in the annals of history.

The human rights violations which are projected to be caused by global warming are essentially in two layers, for not only are the people of Florida, Louisiana, China, Bangladesh as well as the entire nations of Vanuatu, Tonga and the Maldives going to be deprived of their ancestral homeland, but the hundreds of millions if not a billion internally-displaced persons and refugees are going to become among the most vulnerable groups to further victimization. In comparison, the United States – which accepts by far more refugees than any other country, has drafted its budget for the Fiscal Year 2008 to accept a maximum of 70,000 refugees in that year.[xxxi]

Even in periods of global economic expansion, exiles can usually be expected to be greeted in their adopted countries by exploitative job markets and xenophobic political climates (look no further than the treatment of illegal immigrants in the United States). In a study issued by the United Kingdom, the socioeconomic destruction produced by climate change is expected to result in a contraction of annual worldwide GDP between 5 and 20 percent,[xxxii] a depression which is all but assured to create environments of vast overcrowding, unemployment and shortages of water and food commodities in which no government is going to be willing to accommodate such a massive influx of refugees. The exact means by which the rights of hundreds of millions of unwanted persons are going to be repressed has of course yet to be determined, but it is all but certain that those displaced by global warming will have a future of war, poverty and outright persecution.

Of course, the best thing which corporations could begin to do now in foresight of this dismal outlook would be to find ways of reducing their carbon footprint; reducing consumption and promoting the conservation of energy, obtaining what energy is necessary to run a profitable business from renewable sources, etc. so that perhaps the process of global warming can be mitigated if not halted altogether. Unfortunately, the business community should take into account that some if not all of the aforementioned consequences of global warming will probably become reality within the 21st century and adopt their operations accordingly so as not to contribute to or take advantage of the human rights violations which will inevitably ensue.

The appropriate response of the political and corporate leadership is best articulated by Maldivean President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who might eventually be left without a country to govern if current trends in greenhouse gas emissions continue. “My message is a simple one – take global warming and climate change more seriously. Act now, before it becomes too late to save not only the low-lying islands but the entire planet.”[xxxiii]

[i] Struck, Doug. “Melting Arctic Makes Way for Man.” The Washington Post. 11/12/2006
[ii] Sample, Ian. “Arctic Ice May Lose All its Ice by 2040, Disrupting Global Weather.” The Guardian. 3/16/07
[iii] Eilperin, Juliet. “Study Says Polar Bears Could Face Extinction.” The Washington Post. 12/19/04
[iv] Watt-Cloutier, Sheila. “Global Warming and Human Rights.” Testimony Before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. 3/1/2007
[v] Watt-Cloutier, Sheila. “Global Warming and Human Rights.” Testimony Before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. 3/1/2007
[vi] Watt-Cloutier, Sheila. “Global Warming and Human Rights.” Testimony Before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. 3/1/2007
[vii] Gelbspan, Ross. “Slow Death By Global Warming.” Amnesty Magazine. Summer 2007
[viii] BBC News. “US CO2 Emissions ‘Violate Rights.” 3/1/2007
[ix] Wagner, Martin. Interview: 8/16/2007
[x] Williams, Sandra. “The Forgotten Inuit Culture.” Suite 201. 2/8/2007.
[xi] Wagner, Martin. Interview: 8/16/2007
[xii] Krauss, Clifford, Steven Lee Myers, Andrew C. Revkin and Simon Romero. “As Polar Ice Turns to Water, Dreams of Treasure Abound.” The New York Times. 10/10/05
[xiii] Struck, Doug. “Melting Arctic Makes Way for Man.” The Washington Post. 11/12/2006
[xiv] Wagner, Martin. Interview: 8/16/2007
[xv] Gore, Al. An Inconvenient Truth.
[xvi] Gore, Al. An Inconvenient Truth.
[xvii] Moon, Ban Ki. “A Climate Culprit in Darfur.” The Washington Post. 6/16/07
[xviii] Moon, Ban Ki. “A Climate Culprit in Darfur.” The Washington Post. 6/16/07
[xix] Moon, Ban Ki. “A Climate Culprit in Darfur.” The Washington Post. 6/16/07
[xx] Reeves, Eric. “On Ban Ki-moon, Darfur, and Global Warming.” The Guardian. 6/20/2007
[xxi] De Montesquiou, Alfred. “Experts: Darfur Faces Environmental Crisis.” The Associated Press. 6/22/07
[xxii] De Montesquiou, Alfred. “Experts: Darfur Faces Environmental Crisis.” The Associated Press. 6/22/07
[xxiii] De Montesquiou, Alfred. “Experts: Darfur Faces Environmental Crisis.” The Associated Press. 6/22/07
[xxiv] Helldén, Ulf. “Desertification Modification: Is the Desert Encroaching?” Desertification Control Bulletin. 1988
[xxv] Roach, John. “Is Global Warming Making Hurricanes Worse?” National Geographic News. 8/4/05
[xxvi] Natural Resources Defense Council. “The Consequences of Global Warming.” 1/9/06
[xxvii] Randerson, James and Ian Sample. “World’s Sea Levels Rising at Accelerating Rate.” The Guardian. 2/2/07
[xxviii] CBS News. “Miami, New Orleans Face Warming Threat.” 3/23/06
[xxix] Christie, Les. "Growth states: Arizona overtakes Nevada: Texas adds most people overall; Louisiana population declines nearly 5%." CNN. December 22, 2006.
[xxx] Lyon, Alistair. “Global Warming to Multiply World’s Refugee Burden.” Reuters. 6/18/07
[xxxi] Submitted on Behalf of the President of the United States to the Committees on the Judiciary; United States Senate and United States House of Representatives. “Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2008.” United States Department of State, United States Department of Homeland Security, United States Department of Health and Human Services.
[xxxii] Eilperin, Juliet. “Warming Called Threat to Global Economy.” The Washington Post. 10/31/06
[xxxiii] Gardner, Simon. “Sea May Swallow Maldives if Global Warming Unchecked.” Reuters. 2/3/07

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