04 May 2010
Honourable senators, I am pleased to have the opportunity to talk
about something that was brought to my attention by Senator Carstairs.
Senator Carstairs has a way of seeing things that others do not see and
clarifying things for those people. She is perceptive and insightful.
About a month ago, she invited me to speak with her and Senator
Jaffer on a panel on human rights at a conference in Manitoba. I had
not spoken on human rights before, so I asked her why she asked me to
speak and what she wanted me to focus on. She suggested I talk about
the relationship of human rights and the environment. I took that to
mean climate change because, as honourable senators may be aware, I am
interested in climate change.
The moment Senator Carstairs said that, it seemed so obvious, and I
wondered why I had not recognized the relationship between the
environment and human rights before. As I began to look into the
subject, it became clear there might be a couple of reasons for that
lack of recognition, which relate to the literature on human rights and
the literature and arguments on climate change. Both contain almost no
mention of the relationship between human rights and climate change.
Two or three years ago, some of the literature coming out of the United
Nations began to address the relationship, but the philosophical human
rights literature has argued against it, although it is beginning to
migrate to what should be obvious.
In one column, I listed what we can all presume to be, and in some
cases must acknowledge are, the effects of climate change, and in
another column, I listed the classic human rights that we all
understand and most of us accept. When we put the two together, we see
not that they mesh but that they collide head on. There is little doubt
that climate change profoundly affects generally accepted human rights.
The major impacts of climate change include drought from less water,
which is obvious in the case of drought; drought from more water, which
seems to be counterintuitive, but we can have more rain in certain
places, and we probably are, but because these places are warmer the
water evaporates faster and still leaves the region affected in greater
drought; and glacier melt, which will lead to drought and the inability
to find water.
There are also violent storms, which I argue are already occurring
because of climate change. Science supports that view. Some might argue
against it, but arguing against something that obvious is like denying
The sea level is rising. People will say, "so what?" Many people
live in communities at the edge of bodies of water that will or are
beginning to rise because of climate change. Sceptics say there is not
enough ice to melt, and if ice already in the water melts, it will not
raise the water level appreciably. The melted ice water will not
account for the bulk of the rise in sea levels. Sea levels will rise
because the water will heat and things that heat expand, and the water
will rise. This phenomenon is already occurring.
We have only to look around the world. I was in Tuktoyaktuk a couple
of years ago with the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the
Environment and Natural Resources. That community is losing its shore
line and many houses are threatened by rising sea levels.
The world will experience many other impacts. There will be floods,
higher temperatures and forest fires. These events are already
Honourable senators can take any one of those impacts and relate it
to human rights that result in serious problems. These human rights,
for example, include the right to health, food, safe water, secure
access to water, subsistence, housing, security and culture.
Consider drought. It will clearly affect the food supply. Drought
will affect the water supply and it will likely affect housing when
people cannot live in a location any longer.
Consider violent storms. Honourable senators have already seen their
impact. Perhaps we take such violent storms for granted because of the
powerful image left in our minds. For example, if honourable senators
were to go to New Orleans or other communities now following Hurricane
Katrina, they will see houses that are still uninhabitable and
communities that have been destroyed. People living in those
communities had to leave, perhaps, losing their means to economic
sustenance. The economy in many communities has been dramatically
altered or destroyed.
I do not want to belabour the Hurricane Katrina crisis, but
honourable senators can pick an impact of climate change and its effect
on human rights. There is a direct relationship. They do not mesh; they
All such impacts are compounded because wars and mass migration will
result from climate change. In the Sudan, Darfur is a climate change
war. The land utilized by two cultures with different modes of
subsistence has been reduced in area by virtue of desertification in
the region. There is less arable land. Those who previously grew crops
and those who grazed animals both had plenty of land. There is not now
enough land for both groups. Therefore, Darfur has become a climate
It is interesting to note what will happen to certain other regions.
If climate change affects the Middle East, as it is likely to do, by
increasing temperature to levels hotter than they are currently, it
might have a profound impact on what is already a highly sensitive
region of the world with significant security implications for our
allies in the region as well as for Canada and our global allies.
It is unfortunate that the poor will inevitably be most
disadvantaged by climate change because they have the fewest resources
with which to respond. The largest portion of the poor is women and,
therefore, women will bear the disproportionate burden of climate
change. Is it not almost inevitable that women seem to bear the burden
in such unfortunate circumstances?
Canada is by no means exempt from the impact of climate change. The
massive annual forest fires in British Columbia occur, in large part,
because the warmer weather has not killed the pine beetle, which in
turn, has killed the trees that provide kindling for the fires.
Fisheries on the East Coast and the West Coast have been
fundamentally disrupted. Some of the disruption may be because of the
way the industry was fished and managed, but it is unlikely that
accounts for the entire situation. Why did the salmon not appear on the
West Coast a year or two ago? It is probably because changing
temperatures have moved their food source elsewhere and disrupted their
traditional feeding grounds.
Drought is causing problems for farmers in northern Alberta.
Edmonton is losing large number of trees in our beautiful river valley.
The climate has been dry for 10 years and the trees cannot be sustained.
Our committee say significant climate change impacts during our trip
to the North. Permafrost is melting, roads are warping and buildings
are beginning to sink. The patterns of animal migration upon which
Aboriginal people depend greatly are being altered. People told the
committee that they had gone out at the normal time of the year to hunt
certain birds and the birds had migrated through the area two or three
weeks earlier because of warmer weather. I indicated that Tuktoyaktuk
is in danger of losing much of its shoreline and could lose many homes
located on the shore.
It is particularly unfortunate that Aboriginal people will be
impacted the most because they often make up a large portion of the
poor. Aboriginal people also often depend on the land and wildlife for
their livelihood, which are particularly affected by climate change.
In Canada, the effects of climate change probably will not relate
generally to a human rights problem with the exception of Aboriginal
peoples who tend not to receive the necessary support for, or
resolution of, their problems.
A prima facie case can be made that climate change impacts affect
and create human rights problems. A few steps must be put in place to
ensure the link between climate change and human rights is clear so
that no one can deny it.
The idea that society has an obligation to someone not yet alive is
new to human rights thinking. Many of the people who will be affected
by climate change are not alive today. Two arguments highlight that for
me. First, many people affected by climate change are alive today and
are affected now or their children will be affected in the future.
Every honourable senator feels a profound obligation, if not to
everyone, certainly to our children. They will be affected by climate
change in the future.
Second, the argument is strengthened by an analogy provided by the
Honourable Senator Banks who said that climate change impacts on
subsequent generations is like someone waking up 50 years from now to
find that they had had a $50,000 debt irrevocably imposed on them that
they must pay. That debt was incurred by someone who lived 50 years
before. If they do not pay it today, they lose their house.
That is exactly the kind of obligation that climate change involves
— we create climate change today to impact someone who may not even be
born yet. That concept makes the precise link to climate change being a
human rights issue.
I know all honourable senators in this house agree with the
assertion that we are causing climate change. Is there any honourable
senator who would raise his or her hand to tell us people are not
causing climate change?
All scientific evidence suggests that people are causing climate
change. To those who say climate change is occurring, but people are
not causing it, I repeat that we had better hope people are causing
climate change because if we are not, we cannot fix it. We will have no
chance to do so. We are not capable of moving sun spots to keep the
temperature right. Some will then say that it has been happening for a
million years. I will say it has been happening for a billion years,
but the world has been uninhabitable for most of that time.
If honourable senators do not think we are causing climate change,
they should drop to their knees and pray we are so we have a chance to
fix it. The science is powerful; there is a great deal of scientific
consensus. All those skeptics who argue against climate change can
never demonstrate science that defends what they say. They can pick
something apart from a room full of scientific data and taint it, and
say that, because that piece is tainted, it is all wrong. That is like
saying one line of the National Post is wrong; ergo every National Post article ever published is without credibility.
My point is that there is irrevocable science. We are causing global
warming. It is within our grasp to fix it and that finishes the link
for me. Human rights are affected by climate change today. Human rights
will continue to be affected, unfortunately, with greater intensity in
the future and with even greater intensity still if we do not start to
act in a way that we should, and provide leadership in a way that a
country like Canada can provide.
It helps us to make the case. I have often said that we do not need
more technology to reduce greenhouse gases; we need a new technology to
help us convince the government and people to reduce greenhouse gases.
Part of that case comes from the focus: The debate has been on what
happens to economies, states and countries. With human rights, we begin
to focus on what happens to people and the suffering they will
experience because of climate change. That realization leads to a
greater sense of obligation.
We, in Canada, have benefited from all those industrial processes
that have created climate change to give us a standard of living beyond
the imagination of people in most parts of this world — beyond the
imagination of hundreds of millions of people — and that sense of
obligation underlines human rights. It also underlines that sense of
obligation internationally, not only to people we live with and amongst
in our own country, but people around the world because our pollution
contributes to this problem elsewhere and around the world.
I think the lens of human rights helps in developing public policy,
prioritizing where that public policy needs to be applied and what it
needs to be applied to. It gives one an understandable frame of
reference about how we should cut through all the various possibilities
and begin to focus what, where to deal with climate change and to
mitigate climate change for those people now suffering so profoundly by
It also raises the possibility of a discussion and of an
implementation of a right to information. People have a right to
information on things like climate change and climate change science, a
right that could be defended by this government and has not been. In
fact, it is quite the contrary. The government has stopped their
climate change scientists from talking about what they know, which only
exacerbates the problem.
Honourable senators, I appreciate the time to talk about this
subject. I conclude by saying, yes, there are climate change effects.
There will be more in the future. These effects relate to human rights.
What that says to me, and what it should say to all of us, is that
climate change does not relate to human rights only in some abstract
way. It relates to people — people in our country, in our North,
Aboriginal people and people all around the world — who could use our
leadership to mitigate, offset and prevent the kinds of effects they
surely will experience if this government does not start doing what it
should on climate change.