This past year, International Human Rights Day, December 10, fell on the same day that negotiators gathered in Lima, Peru for the United Nations Climate Summit. It has long seemed that human rights and environmental justice are in two different arenas. The tactics to address the issues and strategies to ease negative impacts of each have remained separate. Human rights and environmental sustainability, however, could not be more connected.
Our most basic rights, particularly the right to adequate and nutritious food, depend on sustained environmental justice. The discussions that took place last week were not just about climate change as a threat to the environment, which we might view separate from ourselves, but as an enormous threat to our quality of life and continuance as a diverse human race.
Food insecurity, when people lack access to adequate nutritious food, often leads to violence. It can spark civil conflict, protests, and riots. It is no coincidence that 75 percent of the world’s food insecure people live in just seven countries, six of which have experienced recent civil conflict: India, Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Ethiopia.(1)
Food security, in turn, can have natural or manmade causes; both instances will be increasingly negatively affected by climate change. Already, we have seen that countries with high corruption, poor resource management, inadequate public services, political instability, and great economic disparities are enormously impacted by environmental stressors.
Syria and Iraq, for example, have suffered the warmest and driest winter on record. Between 2003 and 2009, the region lost the fresh water equivalent to the Dead Sea. This left the region facing the second greatest loss of water in the world.(2) The map above shows water shortages in the region from 2002-2008. The dark red areas suffered the most severe water shortages.(3)
Water shortages dry up the land. This leads to more erosion and less fertile soil. In these conditions, rural farmers are forced off their land. Agricultural out-put stagnates, causing a greater drag on food stores. In Iraq, as shown below, the entire country suffered loss of productive crop land.(4) The darker areas on this map lost about 50 percent of productive farmland.
On a global scale, we know that climate change will negatively impact food production. Climate change cannot be taken as an isolated incident. It is a factor that will increasingly come into play in human rights work, particularly through the availability of adequate nutritious food and food related crises. The map below projects changes in agricultural production in the next quarter century due to climate change.(5) The darker red regions stand to suffer the greatest loss in productivity.
The way the world chooses to address climate change will not only affect agricultural production, but ultimately global poverty, corruption, weapons proliferation, gender inequality, and public services like health care, sanitation, and education.
On Human Rights Day, we celebrate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. December 10, 1948 was a truly historic day that gave the world a new set of tools and standards with which to promote and protect human rights. The outcome of the negotiations in Lima laid the groundwork for talks in Paris at the end of next year, when the agreements will be finalized and signed.
(1) UN food report
(4) Climate change in Iraq, Inter-Agency Information and Analysis Unit, June 2012.