Joining the ranks of the right to education and the right to seek asylum, on July 28 the United Nations declared that access to a healthy environment is now a universal human right.
With 161 votes in favor, and eight abstentions, the three pager highlights that the right works in tandem with the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, a sister initiative adopted by UN member countries in 2015. The document also calls on countries, international organizations, and companies to adopt policies and practices that will turn the human right into a reality.
Here are four ways the right to a clean, healthy, sustainable environment could make an impact:
1 Environmental stories are now human rights stories.
People all over the world are already experiencing the worst effects of climate catastrophe — hurricanes, droughts, famines, pollution, fires. Natural disasters either caused or exacerbated by climate change are forcing people to relocate. The humans on the frontlines are being labeled “climate migrants” or “climate refugees”. People displaced not because of war or regional violence but because of environmental disasters. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, 1.2 billion people globally could be displaced by 2050 if natural disasters continue at the same rate.
Recent stories report that the great lake that sustains the rapidly growing population of Salt Lake City Utah is getting closer to being an environmental disaster zone. In July, the lake level fell below its October 2021 record low. The evaporation of the lake can leave the toxic salt bed exposed to winds that could carry poisonous gasses to city residents. The whole city is at risk of being uninhabitable.
Heat waves are causing residents to reconsider settling into climate vulnerable regions. In 2020, Phoenix, Arizona experienced a record 53 days over 110 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, 313 people in Arizona suffered from a heat-caused death that year, nearly two times as many people as in 2019.
These stories of people being directly impacted by an unhealthy environment are now not only tales of environmental ruin but now tales of human right violations too.
2 Highlights the connection between human health and planet health.
Conversations about climate change are increasingly including commentary about the public health risks associated with unsustainable development. Heat waves are causing premature deaths among the elderly. Toxic fumes from evaporating lakes are causing long term respiratory issues. Fires are trapping smoke in people’s lungs. Mining operations are contaminating water. Industrial agriculture is depleting groundwater reserves. Floods and hurricanes can quite literally drown people in minutes.
The UN resolution recognizes that present and future generations are at the mercy of the natural world, dependent on a sustainable, clean planet to provide shelter, food and water. The document writes, “The protection of the environment, including ecosystems, contribute to and promote human well-being and the full enjoyment of all human rights.”
People can not enjoy the full scope of human rights if, for instance, they are at risk of missing out on an education because of long term hospitalization due to lead poisoning.
3 Provides urgency to solve the “triple planetary crisis.”
The right to a clean, healthy, sustainable environment helps add fuel to tackling what the UN calls the triple planetary crisis: climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss.
Climate change is causing and/or exacerbating many natural disasters. According to WHO data, nearly all global populations (99%) breathe air containing pollutant levels exceeding WHO guidelines. Biodiversity loss is depleting food supplies and affecting access to clean water.
The new human right is now an integral part of how we tackle each of these interconnected issues. They are not far off fantasies to be solved by future generations but current problems that need to be addressed with urgency.
4 History shows us that similar resolutions lead to effective change.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 when countries came together to form the United Nations and recognize the atrocities of the Holocaust. Over time, the scope of human rights has expanded to include rights such as conventions against racial discrimiation in 1965 and against torture in 1984.
In 2010, the UN adopted a resolution to include water and sanitation as a human right. The resolution has helped shape public policy in member countries such as Mexico when in 2012 the country reformed its constitution to include the human right to water. That year, four women from the municipality of Xochitepec, Morelos used the new human right to win a legal battle, requiring their municipality to provide water service to their neighborhood.
Although countries have no legal obligation to comply with the resolution, long-time environmental human rights advocates hope the new resolution will empower people to hold their governments accountable. If anything, the right recognizes the interwoven connection people have to the planet for survival.