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Updated: March 24, 2014 22:08 IST

A bid to link climate change to human rights

S. Gopikrishna Warrier
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Green Governance and Human Rights
Green Governance and Human Rights

In March 2012, President Anote Tong of Kiribati, an archipelago nation in the Pacific, informed international journalists that his Cabinet has endorsed a plan to buy 6,000 acres on Fiji’s main island. This was not for real estate speculation, but for more humanitarian reasons. The land in Fiji would help Tong’s government to repatriate its citizens if sea level rise due to climate change was to submerge the Kiribati islands.

This year in February, Tong’s counterpart in Fiji, President Epeli Nailatikau, reassured Kiribati citizens by saying, “if all else fails, you will not be refugees. You will be able to migrate with dignity. Fiji will not turn its back on our neighbours in their hour of need.”

In recent years, and especially since the 2009 Copenhagen Conference of Parties to the Climate Change Convention, the leaders of the small island states have loved the dramatic. Mohammed Nasheed, the then President of Maldives, organised a much-publicised Cabinet meeting under water. On Kiribati, scientific opinion is divided whether it would sink or not. And, Fiji, with its existing bag of ethnic tensions, is unlikely to be wholeheartedly welcoming immigrants from Kiribati.

However, the issues that a Kiribati-like situation raises are far more complex. Venkateshwaran Lokanathan’s paper in this book, Green governance and human rights quotes the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, which is held as a standard for fixing national territories. Under Article 1 of the Convention, nations must have a permanent population, defined territory, a government and a capacity to enter relations with other states. If Kiribati were to sink, how would it satisfy the first two conditions?

He suggests that it would be more effective for environmental activists to communicate to policy makers the perils of increasing conflicts due to altering coastlines and national boundaries.

Lokanathan has contributed one of the best papers in the book, which has contributions of varied quality. The book is a compilation of papers presented at a national seminar on climate change, organised by NSS Hindu College, Changanachery, Kerala.

Even if the book does not stretch the envelope, it does lay out all aspects of the current climate change discussions. Through the prism of climate change, the papers look at environmental rights and human rights, governance, public policy perspectives, access to water resources, health, gender and food security.

In addition to looking at various aspects of the climate change discussions, the book sets out to anchor them to the concerns of human rights. That is a difficult task even for a volume compiled through a rigorous process of acceptance, peer-review and publication of papers. For the book under review, which is more of a casual compilation of papers presented by speakers from a very geographically-limited area (mostly Kerala and Tamil Nadu), this attempt becomes facile in most of the chapters.

In fact, there is no need to weigh all climate change discussions with human rights considerations. It is true that it becomes important when discussing the impact of climate change on the accessibility of the poor and marginal communities to water, both for drinking and domestic use.

“The impact of global warming on the human right to water is clear and evident,” states Reinhart Philip in his chapter. The impacts are two-fold. The quantity of fresh water could decline and also the quality could become worse with sea level rising and more aquifers turning saline.

However, when discussing about the conservation of sacred groves for their larger ecological services there is no human rights dimension. These groves are the vestige of forest-like clump of trees in non-forest areas. Though they add to the larger carbon neutralisation picture, they are usually such small growths that they do not provide any protection of human rights.

An interesting paper is by Asha Ajith discussing the gender linkage to climate change. “The discourse on climate change does not pay adequate attention to women, either at the local project level or in international negotiations. Women are unable to voice their specific requirements even though the impact of climate change affects women and men differently.

Ajith suggests linking women’s concerns at the grassroots to the instruments that have emerged in the recent years from the international climate change negotiations. Women’s groups should be financially supported through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD).

It is not as if what Ajith is suggesting has not been implemented yet. Through small projects, CDM and REDD have been successfully used to pay women’s groups for their environmental services. But what Ajith manages to do is to link international discussions with local action. This spark is missing in most of the other chapters.

The weakness of Green governance and human rights is in the process that was used to create it. It can be imagined that the symposium was organised to give a broader exposure on climate change to academics and students in a limited area. To that extent the papers in the volume serve their purpose.

However, what it misses out is rigour in the process of its creation. Chapters are stacked haphazardly, their scope moving from local to global without any order. They are poorly edited and have inconsistent styling. Even the title for the compilation is generic and weak. It does not reflect the fact that most of the chapters deal with climate change.

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