An Important, but Imperfect, Agreement by an Unprecedented Coalition (December 18, 2016)

Republished from US News

By Joseph Amon

The climate change agreement negotiated last week in Paris is an important milestone. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t automatically put us on a path to success. But it’s a critical step forward.

International agreements can do certain things. For example, they reflect a shared understanding. One hundred and ninety-five nations have now agreed that we must act decisively to slow global warming. For the last remaining climate deniers, it’s game over: Politics has caught up with science, and the cries of critics that we should do nothing can be ignored.

International agreements also define concrete commitments and obligations. The climate agreement creates a framework for benchmarking efforts by nations and a timeline for reviewing and strengthening commitments. In advance of the meeting in Paris, countries submitted national action plans to address climate change. The agreement mandates that future plans should be submitted every five years, that these plans should be no less ambitious than existing ones, and that there should be annual funding of at least U.S. $100 billion for developing nations by 2020.

The Paris agreement also includes the strongest language on human rights in any climate change treaty to date. The agreement says that countries should “respect, promote and consider” human rights in their response to climate change and specifically the rights of indigenous peoples, women, migrants, children and those in vulnerable situations. However, calling on countries to respect rights does not ensure that they will, and it will require real vigilance to hold governments to these commitments and make them real.

Addressing human rights in the response to climate change is important for two reasons. First, climate change threatens basic rights such as the rights to health, food, water and livelihood. Our response to climate change is not only about protecting biodiversity. It is also about protecting these rights. Second, in many countries, mitigation projects have at times been the cause of human rights abuses. Developing “green energy” alternatives, such as biofuel or hydropower, should not be at the expense of food security or the cause of unlawful forced displacement, and funding for climate change should be applied without discrimination and with consultation and participation of affected populations.

Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch released a report on the impact of climate change on the human rights of people in the Turkana region of Kenya. People we interviewed told us that they faced increased difficulty in getting water, and that many water sources had dried out, making every day a struggle for survival. Women and girls said that they often had to walk longer distances to dig for water in dry riverbeds. Parents said that their children become sick because they are unable to provide them with sufficient food and safe water for drinking and hygiene.

Our report included key recommendations to the Kenyan authorities, as well as donor countries, on integrating climate change into development plans, identifying communities and individuals most affected and moving forward with a climate change law that can provide a framework for a coordinated government response. Among our most important recommendations was for governments to include affected communities in the planning process.

And that is what I also saw in Paris: an unprecedented coalition of independent groups – including labor, women’s and children’s rights groups, environmental and indigenous peoples’ groups and human rights organizations working together, advocating for a joint position and for a strong agreement. The pledges by nations signing the agreement are only one part of what makes the Paris agreement so important. Engaging the private sector, local governments and a range of independent groups and the communities involved will help to ensure that the governments that came together in Paris are held to account for the sometimes lofty, sometime tortuously legalistic, language of the agreement and that progress toward combating climate change is achieved.