The Greatest Threat to the Human Right to Health: Climate Change

“A woman riding a mask rides a bicycle on the street during severe pollution in Beijing, China,” by Feng-Li/Getty Images

Health as a Human Right

“The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition,” according to the World Health Organization. Health as a human right, however, has been widely overlooked as it becomes increasingly threatened by the effects of climate change. The health effects are not only diverse but also overwhelmingly negative and wide-ranging. These effects being both direct and indirect will therefore impact all individuals as well as economies worldwide. Populations are pressured to change their diets, rapid changes to ice, snow, and land result in more life-threatening accidents, and natural sources of drinking water are disappearing and diminishing in quality. It is estimated that between 2030 and 2050, there will be 250,000 additional annual deaths resulting from heat exposure, malaria, diarrhoea, and childhood malnutrition. The protection of the environment has thus become a crucial part of the contemporary human rights doctrine. According to the Office of the High Commissions for Human Rights, “Human rights law requires each State to do more than merely refrain from interfering with human rights itself; it also requires the State to undertake due diligence to protect against such harm from other sources.” The State has a duty to its people to safeguard their well being even if it means regulating environmentally harmful corporations and industries. Therefore, it is the evident inaction by global institutions, such as governments, relating to the exacerbation of climate change that violates the fundamental human right to health.

Present and Future Health Risks

Humanity and therefore the health of individuals is naturally tied to the environment. Eventually, we will all endure the same suffering the Earth has felt. The main environmental effects of climate change include increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events, altered ecosystems, sea-level rise, and environmental degradation. Consequently, millions are increasingly exposed to thermal stress, food poisoning and unsafe drinking water, infectious diseases, impaired crop, livestock, and fishering yields, poverty and loss of livelihoods, respectively. As global average temperatures continue to increase  – heading toward two degrees Celsius – one billion people will see a severe reduction in water resources and 23 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa and 62 percent of the population in South Asia will face increased risk of death and poor health. Until the year 2050, the main adverse health risks of climate change are expected to be exacerbations of current health problems -disease, medical conditions, heat stress, etc.- as well as the expanding territory of diseases.

Those at Risk

Climate change is and will continue to affect morbidity and mortality on a global scale at varying rates based on a number of demographics such as race, ethnicity, age, gender, and socio-economic status. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), children, women, and those living in low-income areas and/or developing nations are most vulnerable. According to climate change experts, Smith and Woodward “The largest risks will occur in populations that are currently most affected by climate-related health outcomes”. These populations have a high extent of exposure, high susceptibility of the infrastructure around them, and the organizations and institutions -governments and corporations- that surround them are unlikely to prepare for and manage events effectively and efficiently. The climate change we experience today is man-made and it was avoidable. Unfortunately, the corporations we have so long supported and the leaders we trusted to protect us have failed us and are not only the root of these environmental issues that wreak havoc on the aforementioned groups but have also made them increasingly vulnerable.

Mitigation and Adaptation

For the sake of protecting the health, life, and well-being of humanity and the Earth, it is vital to address the issue of climate change. Economically and logistically speaking, the most effective way of doing so would be to place efforts toward mitigating climate change through moving away from fossil fuel usage, regulating environmentally harmful corporations, and pushing for greater environmental rights. However, as there are thousands whose health is already being affected, adaptation is necessary. With reference to adaptation efforts, it is imperative to address the basic building blocks of health systems including leadership and governance, health workforce, health information systems, essential medical products and technologies, service delivery and finance. Commitment by institutions, such as governments, to address the effects of climate change on health through policy change would contribute to the protection of every human’s right to health. However, these efforts will prove mostly fruitless without a radical change in the way we address climate change itself. The health of the environment and the health of humanity are not mutually exclusive concepts which is why government inaction is not only a betrayal of said institution to their citizens but a violation of the human right to health. Looking forward, a human rights-based approach to policy change tied to environmental rights regarding the current state of the environment will save millions of lives in the future.

Edited by Ghayas Osseiran


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By Ghislaine Fandel

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