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Category: Politics, Environment

Climate Change is a Human Rights Challenge

| August 13, 2008

At the recent G8 Summit, the leaders of the world’s economic superpowers met and agreed that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must be reduced to mitigate climate change.  Their “target” was ambiguous, but for the Bush administration—which for a long time questioned the science behind global warming and rejected the Kyoto Protocol, the only legally binding international agreement to combat climate change—this was a huge step.

Upon his departure from the summit, however, Bush undermined his own commitment:  “Goodbye from the world’s biggest polluter,” he joked.  This statement from the president of the United States reminds U.S. voters once again how critical the upcoming election is—and that we must look to the U.S. presidential candidates for a real leader on climate change policy.

For the first time in U.S. history, both presidential candidates have recognized climate change as a major issue that must be addressed during the next administration.  Each candidate has recommended emissions reduction targets for 2050, proposed market-based solutions to achieve these targets and analyzed how the economy could benefit from their platforms’ climate change strategies.  But climate change, a largely market-driven problem, cannot be solved in markets alone. Neither candidate has yet to truly humanize climate change, even though climatic changes are powerfully affecting populations around the globe.  Moreover, neither candidate has acknowledged one of the groups most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change—as well as most equipped to lead toward climate change solutions: women.

Human production of GHGs have caused the earth to warm and, in turn, have caused the global climate to change.  Erratic rainfall, flash flooding, prolonged droughts, heat waves, vector-borne and respiratory diseases all result from and increase in the face of climate change.

Women around the world, in particular, suffer from climate impacts more often and more acutely than men. As they collect water, prepare food, and gather sources of fuel, providing for themselves, their families and their communities, women immediately witness the changes to the environment around them. Spending longer hours searching for water sources, wood, or food, women therefore have less time to participate in income-generating activities.  This means that climate instabilities further entrench women in the cycle of poverty.  Moreover, because women’s economic status is documented to be lower than that of men’s, women are excluded from the market-based climate change mitigation strategies—even though we know that women contribute less to GHG emissions than men and have indigenous climate change knowledge due to centuries of having to adapt to swift changes in their environment.

A global issue, certainly, climate change is also a reality in “developed” countries—including the United States. The wild weather patterns over the past year have deeply affected poor communities.  Hurricane Katrina left thousands of impoverished Americans—particularly women—struggling to make ends meets, to put food on their tables in a time of increasing food and fuel costs, and to secure housing.

What U.S. leaders and presidential candidates have yet to acknowledge or confront is that climate change is a human rights issue.  The United States has a responsibility to the rest of the world as the largest producer of GHGs per capita, therefore the largest contributor to climate change, to become a leader on mitigating this problem.   Those impoverished persons around the world who contribute very little to global warming are the most vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change. Therefore, the United States and other developed nations contributing must help poorer nations to cope with their current and future climate change issues, as well as drastically reduce emissions to non-dangerous levels.

Both candidates have championed cap and trade as a primary climate change mitigation strategy.  By definition, cap and trade is a market-based system that places a cap on the total amount of GHG emissions to meet specific emissions reduction targets.  A company would be assigned GHG emissions based on how many GHGs it is producing and would be required to reduce its emissions below a certain level.  However, a company would also be given GHG emission allowances, allowing it to produce a certain amount of GHGs as long as it falls within the total cap on emissions.  This system assumes that companies will have more cost-efficient methods to reduce emissions than others and will be able to sell their allowances to other companies, establishing a market price for carbon.  Unfortunately, cap and trade only focuses on the market and, because of its business approach, inherently excludes the most impoverished communities from participating in or benefiting from this market.

In fact, it has not yet been proven that a cap and trade approach will even reduce emissions to targeted levels in a projected time frame.   A more successful strategy would incorporate a human rights approach so that all groups will be considered in mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Our presidential candidates have to recognize climate change as an urgent human rights issue—not just a market issue.  They might start by recognizing the gender-specific impacts of climate change—and that the solution, as well as the most impacted, will have a woman’s face.