This is a guest essay by Dr. Wolfgang Sachs, author and research director at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, and Energy. Sachs (together with Timan Santarius et al) has just published a collection of essays called Fair Future: Resource Conflicts, Security, and Global Justice. This is part of a series on climate equity.

Wolfgang SachsTulun and Takuu, two tiny islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea, are close to being swallowed up by the Pacific Ocean — victims of global climate change. The government has sent emergency food supplies to the islands, as the inhabitants have had to live on fish and coconut since salt water flooded their fields. Many fear that a distinctive culture will vanish if the people of Tulun and Takuu are forced to give up their native land.

Who are the winners, and who the losers in climate change? Burning fossil fuels (and forests) produces both huge benefits and huge burdens. As to the first, access to fuel combustion conveys economic power; therefore we see in the negotiations for a post-Kyoto agreement nations scrambling for allowances to use the atmosphere as a dumping ground for greenhouse gases. Climate equity in this regard is about equality among nations. As to the second, however, making the dumping ground overflow gives rise to numerous climate threats, possibly to degree that fundamental rights might be violated. Climate equity in this respect is about human rights.

Dangerous to whom?

As is well known, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change calls for the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations at levels that, "… would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system" (Article 2). However, what increase in global mean temperatures is tolerable — and for whom?

Lurking behind this key question are basic issues to do with the coexistence of people and nations on earth. For the bitter effects of climate change will intensify global poverty and deepen social divisions; they affect the poor more than the rich. In particular the countries of the South, especially rural groups who directly depend upon nature, will come to feel the destabilizing effects of global warming much more abruptly than the industrial countries and urban populations.


When the earth’s atmosphere grows warmer, nature becomes unstable. It is no longer possible to rely on rainfall, groundwater levels, temperature, wind or seasons — all factors which, since time immemorial, have made biotopes hospitable for plants, animals, and humans. It is obvious that a rise in sea level will make some of the most densely populated areas of the globe impossible to live in. Less evident is the fact that changes in humidity and temperature will trigger changes in vegetation, species diversity, soil fertility and water deposits — not to speak of possible natural disasters.

It is also likely that the environment will become unhealthier: that more harvests will be stricken by vermin and weeds, and that more people will fall ill with malaria, dengue fever, or infectious diseases. Studies have shown that if emissions result in a moderate global temperature rise of 2 degrees, by the year 2050 some 25 million additional people will be threatened by coastal flooding, 180 to 250 million by malaria, and 200 to 300 million by water shortages. Far from being simply a conservation issue, climate change is pretty certain to become the invisible hand behind agricultural decline, social erosion, and the displacement of people.

Human rights

When people lack the basic capability to support themselves with dignity, their human rights are under threat. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 is remarkably straightforward: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and wellbeing of himself and his family, including food, clothing, and housing." As it happens, climate perturbations are likely to be superimposed on economic insecurity. They are likely to aggravate the living conditions of people up to a point where their basic rights are in jeopardy. It is the compounded effect of economic insecurity and climate stress that turns climate change into a human rights issue.

In the light of human rights, climate policy acquires new urgency. First, human rights are absolute rights; they cannot be traded for higher incomes or disregarded because of a majority opinion. Rights to subsistence come before desires of affluence. As a consequence, social institutions — including energy systems — need to be shaped in such a way that they do not structurally and permanently undermine fundamental rights. Furthermore, rights cannot be maintained universally, unless the duty of observing them is shared by all powers, including corporations and the like. As interactions across borders intensify, they provide a minimum moral ground for the recognition of universal basic rights in the emerging world society.

Adaptation and mitigation

Human rights considerations call for vigorous measures to facilitate adaptation to unavoidable climate change. These may range from upgrading health care, to investments in construction, to the building of dams. Recent calculations suggest that 10-40 billion dollars annually will be required to finance such adaptation measures. And of course, the polluter-pays principle requires that high-emitting nations offer compensation for damages caused.

Compensatory payments are necessary, but they leave the causes of pollution untouched. Cuts in fossil fuel use are imperative not only to protect the atmosphere but also to protect human rights. Since the Bill of Rights was won during England’s "Glorious Revolution," freedom from physical harm has been the core of the basic legal canon that states have an obligation to guarantee. Yet millions of people are in the process of losing this core of civil rights: food, shelter, and an infection-free environment. Only here, the threat of physical harm comes not from the state but from the cumulative long-range effects of energy consumption in the prosperous parts of the world. The need for low-emission economies in the South and the North is therefore far more than a question of an appeal to morality; it is a core demand of cosmopolitan politics.