Can seeing climate crisis as rights issue up action?

Hunger-stricken women sit by the roadside to seek for food items from passersby at Oropoi village near Kakuma, Turkana County. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

There are no words for “climate change” in the language of the Turkana people in northern Kenya, something that prompted campaigner Ikal Angelei to take a different approach when she began environmental activism.

Rather than framing climate change as a global environmental risk, Angelei explained how decreasing rainfall and parched riverbeds threatened local’s basic right to access water. “It really is the impact on people’s lives and livelihood that allows them to interact with the term climate change,” said Angelei, 41, co-founder of Friends of Lake Turkana.

From worsening droughts to rising sea levels, climate change is increasingly seen as a human rights risk and more climate litigation cases invoking basic rights are on against governments and firms.

Legal experts said the shift in the narrative on global warming - to focus on the risks it poses to fundamental rights - had been crucial in forcing governments to acknowledge need for action.

Climate change intersects with issues such as poverty, health, gender inequality; and its impacts need to be examined holistically, Angelei said. “It’s the only way everyday citizens start to understand or to even have a conversation around climate change,” she said.

Angelei, speaking on climate change as a human rights risk at a two-day Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual Trust Conference, says she has led communities to fight the construction of a massive dam on Lake Turkana.

She petitioned the government and international banks to halt the project, and won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2012 for her campaign.

Angelei said the rise of climate change lawsuits could be a potential game-changer and “open up space” to hold governments accountable for their climate inaction, potentially setting important precedents.

But she added that climate litigation was not a magic bullet, warning that the process is time-consuming and costly.

The number of climate change-related lawsuits has soared worldwide especially since 2015, when nearly 200 countries around the world negotiated the Paris Agreement.

Green groups have racked up key legal victories, such as a landmark Dutch court ruling against Shell in May that ordered the energy giant to make deep emission cuts - but there have been setbacks in other cases.

Advocates say a new United Nations resolution - while not legally binding - could help shape policy.

In October, the UN Human Rights Council declared access to a clean and healthy environment a fundamental right. It also created the post of UN special envoy on climate change and human rights - a key demand of climate-vulnerable nations.

Reframing climate change as a threat to fundamental human rights has helped unleash the wave of climate litigation cases, said Dutch environmental lawyer Jorian Hamster.

“In principle, governments are free to choose whether they want to enact climate change laws - they can decide to do it, they can decide not to,” said Hamster, a senior associate at international law firm DLA Piper.

“But most governments cannot choose whether they should respect or protect human rights,” he said by phone from Amsterdam.

As the litigation trend gains momentum, Hamster said his work increasingly focuses on advising companies to keep both climate impact and human rights issues in mind.

“That is the missing part of the puzzle, and it has made all the difference,” he said.