The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.
In this latest piece from members of our Now Generation Network (NGN), Gugu Nonjinge from South Africa writes about human rights in the face of climate change.
Climate change is bringing to the forefront of the public conscience the critical issues about the linkages between human rights and the environment. African cities are at the mercy of the weather and other forces of nature, with the continent being vulnerable to frequent storms, cyclones, and droughts. As these extreme weather events become more common, there must be a more concerted effort to safeguard the rights of the most vulnerable.
Governments across the continent are falling behind in their obligations to protect the rights of persons in the face of climatic change. As a result, people – especially those displaced by armed conflicts or climate change itself – continue to suffer under despicable conditions and live with the harm caused by the harsh effects of climate change. There is potential here to descend into a dual crisis with human rights becoming a major concern, particularly if African governments cannot resettle this growing population through effective disaster response strategies and climate adaptation.
It is no secret that climate change has led to multiple human rights violations across Africa, with millions of individuals losing access to food, water, health, and other rights essential to life. Findings from the 2022 Ibrahim Forum Report show that 800 million people in Africa are already affected by moderate or severe food insecurity and 281.6 million are undernourished. Therefore, addressing the climate crisis is about more than just stopping new fossil fuel extractions, reducing pollution, and mitigating the impacts that global economic and energy systems have on the climate, but it must also be about protecting basic human rights through climate adaptation.
The African Union must encourage states to adopt and enforce existing environmental, climate change and human rights related declarations, conventions, policies, and mechanisms, considering the interrelated and indivisible nature of human rights. For instance, the Paris Agreement represents a positive universal agreement to tackle climate change as an urgent and serious threat to humankind, which for the first time ever almost all countries have signed up to, including African states. It includes references to a common target to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.
Article 7 acknowledges the link between mitigation, ambition and adaptation, and notes the need for enhanced support for the developing countries who are party to the agreement. Consequently, recommendation 2 of the 2022 Forum Report notes that mitigation alone cannot address the scope of the climate change problem in the continent and that governments need to increase focus on adaptation and ‘loss and damage’ compensation.
African governments should invest in such initiatives by providing adaptation and mitigation measures and support to vulnerable local communities in African cities. The ability of communities to cope effectively with a changing climate will of course require improvements to laws, policies, and mechanisms, however, first we must close the adaptation gap. This will require the mobilising of funds for developing countries. According to the 2022 Forum Report, in 2019 only one-quarter of climate finance mobilised globally was spent on adaptation with Africa facing a financing gap for adaptation of 80%. An indication that adaption is still not a priority.
Secondly, significant effort must be geared towards educating people on the impact of climate change, adaptation, and mitigation strategies, as well as its effects on human rights. Findings from Afrobarometer’s previous round of public-opinion surveys across Africa show a keen awareness of climate change in some countries but less than 3 in 10 (28%) are fully 'climate change literate'. For progress to be made, more must be done to build public knowledge around the issue.
Additionally, governments should work closely with local communities who are more suitable to provide vital information on how climate change is affecting them and how these effects can be mitigated or combated. This information can in turn inform adaptation measures.
Lastly, African states need to recognise that under existing international and regional human rights legislation the threat of climate change is real, and it is having a pervasive impact on their economies, development, human well-being, and natural environment. Therefore, the inclusion of a human rights-based approach to climate change adaptation would positively contribute to Africa’s climate resilience, vulnerability, and adaptability.