YJIL Symposium: Population Growth: The Sticky Wicket Of Climate Change And Human Rights

YJIL Symposium: Population Growth: The Sticky Wicket Of Climate Change And Human Rights

This post is part of the Yale Journal of International Law Volume 37, Issue 2 symposium. Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below.

[Robin Kundis Craig is a professor of law at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law]

Margaux Hall and David Weiss do all of us a great service in continuing the dialogue regarding the relationship between human rights and climate change in their article, “Avoiding Adaptation Apartheid: Climate Change Adaptation and Human Rights Law.” In particular, their article rightfully points out that the human rights implications for climate change adaptation may be significantly different from those for climate change mitigation, in terms of substantive content, legal viability, and procedural feasibility.

As I have argued in the natural resources and environmental law context, climate change adaptation is a different problem from climate change mitigation. By necessity, climate change mitigation—the steps toward reducing anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions with the ultimate goals of first stabilizing and then reducing their atmospheric concentrations—requires international cooperation. It also requires sacrifice on the parts of some peoples and sectors, at least until some transition away from a carbon-based economy becomes technologically and economically possible. As a result of both of these realities, climate change mitigation efforts are plagued both by feet-dragging and free-riding, both of which complicate the very thorny issues of equity in implementing mitigation strategies around the globe.

Nevertheless, as Hall and Weiss correctly note, implementing climate change adaptation strategies—that is, strategies for coping with the socio-ecological impacts of climate change—is a for more complex problem. For example, these strategies tend to be more focused on the local and regional scale, although at least some international coordination would be helpful for problems such as food and disaster aid and climate change refugees. Moreover, as Professor J.B. Ruhl at Vanderbilt has recently pointed out, climate change will produce winners as well as losers, complicating the potential willingness of all affected persons to embrace adaptation strategies, even in a small geographic location.

Adaptation efforts also have temporal complexities: actions that are good, reasonable, environmentally benign, equitable, and cost-effective adaptation strategies today (and maybe for the next decade) may be exactly the opposite three or four decades from now, and if the strategy involves expensive and long-lived infrastructure, the temporal element of adaptation should be a significant consideration. Two clear examples involve coastal armoring and the building of additional energy facilities in the coastal zone in areas vulnerable to sea-level rise. While both strategies can help to preserve and even improve the status of coastal population in the short run, they become ineffective and expensive liabilities the further the sea encroaches. As Hall and Weiss point out, prioritizing the allocations of the limited funds available for adaptation strategies should become one important means of promoting human rights in climate change adaptation, but that, too, becomes a complex problem when actions that promote human rights today might foreseeably be the cause of human disaster in a few decades.

The temporal adaptation issue is just one example of how complex a human rights approach to climate change adaptation could become. Another source of such complexity is the fundamental disconnect between human rights approaches and the realities of climate change. Human rights law assumes that the everyday lives of human beings throughout the world should be improving over time. The mechanism for achieving such progress is nations’ increasing willingness to protect core human rights and their increasing capacity to create and maintain supporting institutions. For example, in response to international human rights law, a nation may demonstrate its respect for the individual right to life through a rule of law that effectively limits murder, through provision of safe drinking water and sanitation, and by securing a food supply for all citizens.

Climate change impacts, however, are likely to be regressive, not progressive, for most people, despite the existence of climate change winners. Moreover, as Hall and Weiss point out, many of the nations least responsible for anthropogenic climate change—and least able to adapt independently—are likely to be hardest hit by its impacts, calling into question the very feasibility of human rights progress in a climate change era in the areas of the world most in need of real human rights. Perhaps the most extreme example of climate change interfering with human rights is when climate change destroys a homeland, plunging an entire people or nation into refugee status. Kiribati, a nation in the South Pacific, has been rumored to have purchased land for a homeland elsewhere in anticipation of the inundation of its islands from sea-level rise; Kiribati’s leaders deny the specific rumor, but they have still supported video pleas to the world seeking climate change adaptation funds. The Native Village of Kivalina in Alaska is similarly losing its ancestral home to sea-level rise; Bangalesh’s existence is threatened by increasingly frequent and severe flooding; the existence of several nations in Africa is vulnerable to spreading desertification. These are existential threats not only to individual humans but also to the nations that should be protecting their human rights. Refugees have historically not fared well in the world, suggesting that international recognition of “climate change refugee” status should be an important step in securing and protecting the human rights of peoples dispossessed of a home as a result of climate change.

Climate change also raises the specter of a combined mitigation and adaptation strategy that no one wants to discuss, in large part because of the human rights issues it raises: population control. The Industrial Revolution is generally fingered as the start of anthropogenic climate change because of the accelerated reliance on fossil fuels that the Revolution fostered. It began in roughly 1750, when world population was a paltry 700 million humans. A century later, the world’s population had increased to 1.2 billion people; a century after that (1950), it had more than doubled to 2.55 billion. In my lifetime, the world’s population has more than doubled again, increasing from roughly 3.2 billion in 1964, the year I was born, to 7 billion last year (2011). In May 2011, the United Nations reported that earlier indications that world population would level off at about 9 billion by 2050 were wrong; instead, it projects that world population will keep growing—albeit at a slower rate—to reach 10.1 billion people by 2100 (and keep growing thereafter).

Of course, anything that smacks of population control runs into a number of human rights objections, and rightly so. State-enforced population control interferes with the rights of self-determination, autonomy, and procreation, and—depending on exactly how the system is implemented—the right to life as well. In many parts of the world, state-enforced population control also interferes with religious practice and religious freedom.

Even if state-enforced population control is a nonstarter as a response to climate change, however, we should still acknowledge that there are very few aspects of climate change that wouldn’t improve if there were far fewer humans in our future. Overall greenhouse gas emissions would likely stabilize or decrease, even if people in the least developed nations increased their standard of living. Demands for energy and natural resources would decrease, potentially alleviating water supply shortages, reducing forest clearing, and reducing consumption of fossil fuels in many parts of the world as well as potentially easing the transition to non-fossil-fuel based energy supplies. Food security could be improved without increasing production, and more and more kinds of organic food production might be possible. Pollution would decrease, increasing the resiliency of ecosystems and human health. Populations that needed to be moved as a result of climate change would be smaller, and more fortunate nations would have more room to absorb them.

The question thus becomes: Are there ways to encourage (rather than mandate) reduced human population that do not violate—and perhaps promote—human rights? The answer is yes, and it flows from what Hall and Weiss recognize in their article: women and girls are likely to bear a disproportional burden in adapting to climate change, especially in developing nations. However, numerous studies attest to the trend that, when women enjoy basic human and political rights, including access to capital and an ability to run a business, they have fewer children. While the effect on overall population is complicated by the relationship between decreasing birth rates and increasing infant survival in most places, the overall trend is toward stabilizing or lowering populations.

In other words, ensuring that women in particular enjoy the full panoply of human rights could have many positive implications for climate change adaptation—and for climate change mitigation, as well.

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[…] Nevertheless, as Hall and Weiss correctly note, implementing climate change adaptation strategies—that is, strategies for coping with the socio-ecological impacts of climate change—is a for more complex problem.  […]