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Environmental justice and adaptation to climate change

Dan Farber, professor of law | April 4, 2011

I’m beginning to wonder whether we need an “Endangered People Act” to ensure that the most vulnerable get the protection they need from climate change impacts. Climate change will disproportionately affect vulnerable individuals and poorer regions and countries, as I discuss in a recent paper comparing adaptation efforts in China, England, and the U.S.

For example, by the end of the century, the number of heat wave days in Los Angeles could double, while the number in Chicago could quadruple, with corresponding increases in deaths. Elderly poor people are more vulnerable to heat stress; they are especially at risk when they are socially isolated. Another example is provided by coastal fishing communities around the world, such as Louisiana’s Cajuns, who will be swamped by rising sea levels.  Internationally, millions of inhabitants of river deltas like the Mekong are at high risk from climate change.

We can combat the insidious tendency to downplay the needs of vulnerable individuals and communities with a requirement that planners identify marginal or disempowered groups or communities and ensure that their actions do not jeopardize the lives, homes or livelihoods of those people if possible — and where not possible, that every step is taken to respect the rights of the affected individuals. The White House task force on climate adaptation has made a recommendation prioritize the needs of vulnerable individual and communities, but it is yet to be seen whether the recommendation will be effectively implemented. A stronger mandate should be considered.

In the international arena, we should be thinking about possible connections between climate change and human rights. Human rights law could be at least a valuable source of inspiration: A human rights focus can redirect attention to people who are otherwise likely to be ignored or unheard. Where communities are already living in precarious circumstances (shanty towns, polluted or otherwise fragile environments), posing human rights questions may help to locate some of the hazards posed by climate change — from desertification, water salination, sea level rise, and so on — as well as those who are most at risk from them.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.

Comments to “Environmental justice and adaptation to climate change

  1. It’s 2018 and judging from what has come out from the Bonn Climate change meeting(Hosted by Fiji) the greatest challenge is with getting the financial commitment to see the Paris climate agreement through. If we had an act to protect the most vulnerable how would it be enforced?

    In Africa the impacts of climate change are already being felt with blistering droughts followed by extreme flooding. Pastoralism as a livelihood is severely endangered and one of the immediate responses in the migration of the youth from the pastoral communities to urban centers in search of a new means of survival.

    Much as I support the suggestion of legislation, additional advocacy action to have scientists, policy-makers and community members in the thick of the climate change crisis meet for better understanding may lead to more engaged action

  2. Is protecting our newest generations from suffering the totally unacceptable consequences of out of control climate changes, that we are already beginning to experiene throughout California, America and the world, within the next 50 years a dead issue?

    Except for your efforts Prof. Farber, no one seems to be Berkeley Blogging with any frequency, dedication and leadership at all about how to protect future generations with immediate implementation of required solutions.

    The human race desperately needs Berkeley’s preeminent scientists and resources to assume the role of worldwide climate change leadership, implementing the required solutions, because the U.N. has failed completely and Washington politicians are marginalizing every effort as if global warming isn’t an urgent problem at all.

    Thank you for your efforts Prof. Farber, will you assume that leadership role and make the right things happen with the urgency required?

  3. I’m with Anthony St. John, but also feel that the professors and scientists need to step out from behind the lecturn, or computer scene, and start screaming in the form of civil actions. Its much too late to handle this thing on blogs.

  4. Prof. Farber, I wish you the best on your human rights efforts.

    Increasing numbers of preeminent scientists, such as Martin Reese of the Royal Society, are stating in no uncertain terms that the human race is likely to become extinct at its own hand within the next 100 years as we continue to exhaust resources and experience out of control population growth. More and more are questioning whether we are smart enough to use what we’ve learned to save ourselves.:

    Cal truly has the resources to protect the human race, resources that are superior to any other university in the world. If Cal professors and scholars don’t join together immediately and take the lead to protect future generations from calamity within the next 100 years, then there can be no hope.

  5. Excellent post, but using human rights as a “valuable source of inspiration” assumes that governments, industry and scientists have high moral values at the top of their list of cultural values already, which hasn’t happened yet throughout history, not even when Christianity ruled in Italy during the Renaissance.

    At this point in history, with climate changes threatening humanity more than ever before, we must produce a much higher “source of inspiration” to save acceptable quality of life for future generations. Especially when some of our best scientists like Freeman Dyson have condemned scientists for being “detached from the mundane needs of humanity” in the ETHICS chapter of this book “Imagined Worlds.” Far too many failed IPCC resolutions and strategies keep proving this point because they are continuously overridden by vested interests as documented by John Maddox in the “AVOIDANCE OF CALAMITY” chapter of his book “What remains to Be Discovered.”

    Only a preeminent institution like UC can make the right things happen before the window of opportunity closes, so the question remains:

    Can UC professors and scholars find a way to match their rhetoric of survival with resolution in time?

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