Costa Rica Acts on Human Rights Link to Climate Change

Country is striving to become carbon neutral as sea levels rise.

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During a United Nations session on human rights last month, Earthjustice’s U.N. representative applauded Costa Rica for acknowledging the link between its carbon emissions and climate change-induced human rights violations like the ones occurring in Tuvalu.

Representative Yves Lador was part of a coalition of NGOs that took the floor at the U.N. Human Rights Council to support an important step in the protection of environmental human rights. The session was the U.N.’s periodic review of the status of human rights in the tiny atoll nation.

Tuvalu, with a maximum height of just three meters above sea level, is poised to become uninhabitable in the next 20 years because of climate change impacts, including rising seas, salt-water inundation of cropland, loss of freshwater, coastal erosion and stronger storms. Earthjustice noted in a submission at an earlier phase of this process that this will violate human rights guaranteed to the people of Tuvalu under international law. These include rights to be free from hunger, to a means of subsistence, to an adequate standard of living, to water, and to a healthy environment.

During the debate on Tuvalu’s human rights, Costa Rica recognized the serious implications of climate change, and that this situation is amplified in countries like Tuvalu where climate change is already causing serious damage. In terms of its human rights obligations, Costa Rica noted that it is on target to become the first carbon neutral country by 2021.

Since 2005, Earthjustice has consistently advocated for international recognition that major emitters of global warming pollution are responsible for the effects of climate change on human rights, whether those effects occur within their territory or somewhere else.

In numerous submissions to the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of the status of human rights around the world, we have argued that international law requires countries to take responsibility for the effects of climate change in proportion to their historic and current emissions of global warming pollutants. This responsibility requires them to reduce their contributions to climate change and to contribute to the cost of adapting to its effects.

The efforts of Earthjustice and others led the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2009 to publish a report on climate change and human rights. The report concluded that climate change threatens the enjoyment of a broad array of human rights; that human rights obligations provide important protections to individuals who are affected by climate change; and that countries have obligations to ensure that actions within their control do not violate human rights, whether the harm occurs within their territory or beyond.

Despite the U.N. reports, and despite the growing evidence of the direct effect of global warming pollution on human rights around the world, most major emitting nations continue to refuse to acknowledge any human rights obligation for the effects of their emissions. Costa Rica is a welcome exception.

Jessica Lawrence is a conservation biologist who has worked with Earthjustice since 2008 researching and presenting the most recent and compelling science for our international climate and energy cases. She also supports environmental coalitions advocating for better protection for UNESCO World Heritage sites including Waterton Glacier International Peace Park (Canada/USA), Papahānaumokuākea (USA), Great Barrier Reef (Australia), Lamu Old Town (Kenya), and the Sundarbans (Bangladesh).

The International Program partners with organizations and communities around the world to establish, strengthen, and enforce national and international legal protections for the environment and public health.