Climate Change – A Dangerous Threat to Human Rights and National Security

By Ena Cefo

On October 14, 2014 the Department of Defense (DoD) released a report warning about the effect of climate change on global political instability, poverty, hunger and conflict through the lens of the U.S. armed forces and their military tasks. The report gives the U.S. military a better understanding of how climate change will impact its bases, military missions, relief efforts, training, and infrastructure. Increasing global temperatures, changing and extreme weather patterns, and rising sea levels are set to cause future food shortages, infectious diseases, and mass migrations. These catastrophic results will be the leading factors in an immediate threat to national security and global political unrest.

Recently, experts have tied the role of climate change and lack of access to basic necessities with the rise of extremist militant groups. This link is exemplified through the rise of the Islamic State in Syria following a drought in the region. A combination of the widespread drought that caused mass relocations of farmers within Syria and the Syrian government’s inadequate response to the problem prompted young Syrian men, farmers and kids to become politicized and radicalized. This danger of increased radicalization as a result of a lack of basic necessities becomes even greater with the increasing role of climate change in world politics.

The DoD’s report, written by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, is a hopeful sign of greater U.S. understanding of the multitude of negative human rights and national security consequences of climate change. The report may even signal an increase in domestic support for a new international initiative against climate change. This shift is especially important since the United States refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1997. The Kyoto Protocol would have required the United States and other large world economies to commit to reducing their fossil fuels to set emission targets.

The report from the DoD seems to show some U.S. acceptance of prior statements by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which adopted its first resolution on human rights and climate change in 2007.  In 2009, the OHCHR published a detailed report on the relationship between climate change and human rights. The OHCHR’s report denounced the unequal burden of climate change – the much greater emission of greenhouse gases by wealthy, industrialized nations and the much more severe impacts on developing nations who emit the least amount of greenhouse gases but continue to pay the lion’s share of the price.

The OHCHR cautioned that an increase of diseases, hunger, refugees, and climate change violates basic human rights on a large, global scale: the right to access to water, the right to food, the right to life, the right to health, the right to adequate housing, and the right to self-determination for low-lying island nations. The increasing danger of climate change also poses an obstacle to countries’ obligations to combat disease and malnutrition and to ensure clean drinking water for children under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The commitments under the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) that guarantee the right to health and a healthy environment will also be impaired. To top it all off, women, children and indigenous populations will be disproportionally affected due to existing inequalities, inhibiting gender roles, discrimination, and the unique vulnerabilities of these groups.  The OHCHR’s message in 2009 was clear – the most innocent and most vulnerable players in climate change will be the ones who suffer the most and thus, any lasting resolution to the problem must be achieved through international cooperation.

A United Nations convention on climate change is currently taking place in Lima, Peru and a new international climate change agreement will be signed in 2015 in Paris. With the acknowledgement of climate change from the DoD, there is hope that the United States and other major world powers will join together to battle climate change.


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