Human rights and climate change

2009-06-01

in Economics, Law, Politics, The environment

Rabbit near Mud Lake

Over at Grist, there is a discussion about whether human rights are a useful perspective for thinking about climate change, as well as how they might be applied at the legal or institutional level to improve climate change outcomes. For instance, future generations could be appointed guardians within the legal system, in the same way in which children have legal guardians appointed to represent them in court.

The idea is a nice one, but it overlooks the degree to which legal and political decisions largely emerge as the products of political and economic influence, neither of which is possessed by future generations, within today’s political system. As such, these guardians would likely end up unpopular (for trying to block projects that would benefit those living and influential now) and powerless (for the lack of a real constituency to back them).

My general position on human rights is that they do not have moral force in and of themselves – they are just a shorthand way of encouraging good outcomes. For instance, it is the consequences of protecting free speech that make it a moral imperative to do so, not some metaphysical characteristic embedded in human beings. As with other areas of ethical thinking, human rights can be a useful heuristic when dealing with climate change, but what really matters is developing the mechanisms of thinking and action that will prevent the worst possible outcomes, while also seeking to secure the complimentary benefits that could accompany a global transition to carbon neutrality.

Report a typo or inaccuracy

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan June 1, 2009 at 1:32 pm

Milan,

The transition into a carbon neutral world is not politically easy, but it is still essentially a technical problem. So, like any technical problem, it could be solved by any number of different political arrangements. Certainly it seems likely that the transition to carbon neutrality will involve political re arrangements. Do you really just not care which political arrangements the world abides by, 20, 50, 100 years from now – or only that the technical problem of carbon neutrality is effectively solved? Carbon neutrality could be reached alongside the liquidation of populations, alongside regression into slave labour cultures, along side lots of institutional developments that are by all our standards immoral. Does the fact the happy to coincide with solving the carbon problem mean we need not evaluate them other than with respect to the carbon imperative?

I really get the sense you tend use global warming as an excuse to apologize for, or at least shift attention away from, immoral political arrangements.

Tristan June 1, 2009 at 1:36 pm

“For instance, it is the consequences of protecting free speech that make it a moral imperative to do so, not some metaphysical characteristic embedded in human beings.”

Incidentally, it is plainly obvious that it is some metaphysical character of the human being that is the reason behind any notion of some consequence being better than another. One consequence being superior means you value it over another. But there is no value in nature. Thus, all value is essentially an act that exceeds the physical.

Milan June 1, 2009 at 1:37 pm

Obviously, climate change isn’t the only problem we need to deal with. I do think, however, it is the issue where there is the largest gap between what must be done and what is actually being done now.

The destruction of the Earth’s ability to sustain human life is basically the worst possible outcome imaginable. Avoiding that is the first thing we need to do, though it is not sufficient in itself for any future course of history that includes it to be acceptable and desirable. Our current approach is akin to undertaking a slow global nuclear war, with strong understanding of both how dangerous it is and how we could avoid it.

I really get the sense you tend use global warming as an excuse to apologize for, or at least shift attention away from, immoral political arrangements.

Can you provide an example of what you mean?

. June 1, 2009 at 3:09 pm

Conference examines human-rights side of climate change

By Vivian Luu
June 1, 2009

More than 40 legal experts gathered at the UW School of Law last week to look into how future laws and policies could affect victims of climate change.

Photo by Courtesy Photo.

From left, Michele Storms, Jeni Barcelos and Jen Marlow speak during the second day of Three Degrees.

Legal scholars, leaders of non-governmental organizations (NGO) and policy makers convened for “Three Degrees: The Law of Climate Change and Human Rights Conference” to confront the humanitarian crisis that could come hand-in-hand with climate change. The conference aimed to influence policy makers who will attend the U.N. Climate Change Conference later this year in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Conference panelist Alex Steffen is founder of Worldchanging, an online publication about sustainability. He said that although environmental sustainability is a design and engineering problem, there is more to the issue.

R.K. June 1, 2009 at 4:56 pm

As such, these guardians would likely end up unpopular (for trying to block projects that would benefit those living and influential now) and powerless (for the lack of a real constituency to back them).

One factor to appreciate is that we simply don’t have the option of carrying on as usual. Both climate change and the depletion of fossil fuels mean we simply must reform our society.

It’s something we may not do for the welfare of those in future generations, but which we will be driven to do for the lack of an alternative.

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: