11/26/2015 05:22 EST | Updated 11/26/2016 05:12 EST

Climate Change Is A Human Rights Issue

ASIT KUMAR via Getty Images
An Indian man carries a container of water on his head as he walks in a dry pond in a hot afternoon on the outskirts of eastern Bhubaneswar on April 28, 2014. Many Indian cities face severe water scarcity especially in the summer season as summer temperatures soar above the 40 degrees celsius. AFP PHOTO/ASIT KUMAR (Photo credit should read ASIT KUMAR/AFP/Getty Images)

The 2014 Germanwatch Climate Change Performance Index ranked Canada dead last in its evaluation of the world's 58 top emitters. Canadians are expecting exactly what has been absent on climate change these past several years: a vision of a Canada, no longer content with the status quo, ready to lead.

There is no question that the new Prime Minister has signaled unequivocally his commitment to providing this kind of leadership. He is taking premiers and other political leaders from across the country as part of his delegation to Paris, and has committed to expanding the focus of the Ministry of Environment to Environment and Climate Change. He has charged all his ministers with making substantial progress in climate change mitigation. To this end, part of this project must focus on the threat that effects of climate change pose to human rights.

Humanizing the impacts of climate change makes the case stronger for taking action. In a speech given just a few weeks ago at Lloyd's, the Governor of the Bank of U.K., Mark Carney, emphasized that the cost of being unprepared for climatic changes will always outweigh the investment in proactive, emergency planning. It can also be argued that the human cost, reflected in threats posed to human rights, could be considered all but infinite. So, while the climate change debate has focused on scientific and economic factors, we must not disregard the consequences for human rights.

It has become clear that climate change will disproportionately impact the world's most vulnerable because they are heavily dependent on resources that will be affected by climatic change. Whether by virtue of socio-economic status, conflict, gender or geography, certain groups are more liable than others to be negatively impacted by climate change, which directly implicates the question of human rights. How will this differentially influence people's lives, living conditions and livelihoods, and who are the most vulnerable?

Water scarcity burdens communities with the task of moderating competing domestic, agricultural and industrial interests, constraining both economic and social development and elevating civil tensions. Increasingly extreme weather patterns will result in a new set of challenges for communities living in shifting landforms around the world. Canada's northern communities, for example, are experiencing a rapidly changing landscape, which in turn has implications for their livelihoods and their cultures. Ice pathways will become less reliable, and the logistics of ensuring adequate food during winter months will become an increasingly difficult and even more expensive undertaking.

Food scarcity will jeopardize the sustainability of communities the world over, but will be felt acutely in rural, developing regions, where women are traditionally responsible for up to 75 per cent of domestic and agricultural work. In 2014, the Pentagon released a report that addressed another feature of the impacts of climate change, which also has implications for human rights: climate change poses a global security risk due to the increased likelihood of conflict.

The message is clear: climate change threatens to exacerbate existing, and give rise to new, humanitarian crises.

In comparatively privileged North America the effects of climate change are too-often framed as a challenge facing communities abroad, rather than at home. While it is difficult and uncomfortable to imagine our communities under threat from various effects of climate change, it is imperative that we dispense with the view that climate change only affects 'other' people in 'other' places. Incorporating human rights into the climate change agenda can help us do that: commitment to a common good that transcends social, economic, political and regional barriers can and should inform our response to climate change and its effects, which are already being felt dramatically.

Humanizing the impacts of climate change is an important part of the way forward for a new Canadian and world vision -- one that the global community must champion together. Delegates at the Paris conference should not only focus on the economic and environmental dimensions at play, but should also take serious action to ensure that basic needs are met, fundamental rights are protected, and human dignity is prioritized. Canada and Prime Minister Trudeau will play an instrumental role in this debate.

Senator Mobina Jaffer is former Chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights

Senator Grant Mitchell is former Deputy Chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources


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