Investors Press Climate Change as a Human Rights Issue
A safe, healthy, and just environment serves as a prerequisite for enjoying all human rights, rendering the climate crisis a pervasive threat to the rights of billions of people around the world. The Paris Agreement, a landmark United Nations accord aimed at keeping global temperature rise well below 2°C, explicitly states in its preamble that “parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote, and consider their respective obligations on human rights.” Given that corporations have been among the greatest contributors to the climate crisis and its subsequent impacts on human rights, investors have a unique role to play in leveraging their voices to encourage companies to address climate change as a human rights issue.
A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identifies consequences like rising sea-levels, floods, heat waves, droughts, increasing frequency of extreme weather events and natural disasters, desertification, water shortages, and the spread of diseases as pervasive threats even if we contain warming to 2°C. Each one of these events, traditionally viewed only as weather events, impacts communities’ way of life, access to resources, and their physical safety. The UN has identified the rights that are most impacted by the climate crisis as the rights to life, water and sanitation, food, health, housing, meaningful and informed participation, self-determination, culture, and development. We cannot separate the climate crisis from its impacts on human rights. The loss of arable land from climate disasters and unsustainable agriculture may cause food insecurity, poverty, and displacement for millions around the world. Droughts alone have affected more than 1 billion people in the last decade, and extreme temperatures are driving illness with rising death tolls like heat stroke and hypothermia. The climate crisis is predicted to cause 38,000 additional deaths per year as of 2030, and nearly 100,000 additional deaths per year as of 2050.
Moreover, these human rights impacts are disparately distributed. Those most vulnerable to climate impacts as a result of factors like discrimination, age, income, geography, and disability are among the first to face direct consequences, and are often least able to adapt. Worldwide, three out of four people living in poverty rely on agriculture and natural resources for their livelihoods. Extreme weather and rising temperatures can lead to mass crop failure and increasingly violent competition for resources, exacerbating existing challenges and inequities. These populations have also often done the least to contribute to climate change in the first place. For example, many Indigenous Peoples are living examples of low-carbon, sustainable lifestyles. Due to their dependence on and close relationship with the environment and its resources, these communities are among the first to face direct consequences of species extinction, temperature change, and pollution.
Corporations have been among the greatest contributors to the climate crisis throughout history, with just 100 companies producing 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. Ongoing environmental and human rights harms like deforestation, exposure to hazardous pollution, and poor labor conditions are exacerbated by climate change, disparately impacting vulnerable and marginalized communities. In the US, more than 100 toxic spills to land, water, and air from industrial facilities occurred during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. From one chemical plant alone, nearly half a billion gallons of industrial, carcinogenic wastewater leaked into stormwater that contaminated residential neighborhoods. Though companies are increasingly recognizing the need to adapt their business models to a changing climate reality, respect for human rights should be central to corporate climate decisions. Human rights due diligence, a risk management framework for companies to identify, prevent, mitigate, and remedy their adverse impacts on human rights, should be fully integrated into climate assessments and other business decisions. For example, companies should assess whether their operations disparately burden communities of color with pollution, conduct robust consultation with stakeholders before and throughout the lifetime of a corporate project, and ensure that communities have access to remedy where human rights have been violated.
Many investors have pioneered early climate work by engaging companies across sectors on developing strategies to measure, monitor, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to position themselves strategically to thrive in a carbon constrained economy. However, as the climate crisis is increasingly and more noticeably impeding on human rights, investors have the opportunity and responsibility to use their voices to address climate change as a human rights issue. Investor Advocates for Social Justice is launching a new initiative on Climate & Environmental Justice to engage portfolio companies on business impacts to the climate and marginalized communities. The campaign will focus on the most salient risks to environmental justice communities from industries like chemical manufacturing, mining, material production, and utilities.
The climate crisis is one of the most pervasive threats to human rights faced by society today. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) asserts that this threat “should be addressed in a way that is fair and just, cognizant of the needs and risks faced by the vulnerable groups, and adherent to the principles of non-discrimination and equality.” From devastating wildfires to deadly floods, the most vulnerable and marginalized will bear the brunt of dangerous climate impacts. As countries, corporations, and communities join together to take climate action, it is crucial that human rights take center stage.