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The Call from Pacific Islanders - Human Rights and Climate Change

By Mengluo Ren

The 2017 United Nations Climate Conference, COP23, took place in Bonn, Germany from November 6 to November 18. However, the real host of this conference was actually Fiji, a small island nation in South Pacific. Because Fiji is constrained by its domestic capacity, Bonn, the seat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat, played physical host to the international conference which was attended by more than 20,000 representatives from all over the world. Leaders of national governments, cities, states, business and NGOs gathered to speed up climate actions to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the goals of United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.  

Bike rack shown at COP23 Fiji UN climate conference in Bonn, Germany.

COP23 in Bonn included waste avoidance, climate-friendly catering, excellent local public transport, and climate neutral shuttle and services.

Fiji is one of the countries that is already significantly impacted by climate change. Since 1993, Fiji’s sea level has risen by an average of six millimeters per year and has risen fifteen centimeters in total. Without effective actions, it is estimated that the sea level will rise by 1.4 meters by the end of this century in Fiji. Even with the implementation of the Paris Agreement, sea level will still rise 65 centimeters. Rapid sea-level rise had caused weather-climate anomalies and flooding, which have begun to make Fiji uninhabitable. In 2016, Fiji was hit by a hurricane, Winston, for the first time ever. Hurricane Winston brought a devastating disaster to Fiji, causing the country to lose about one-third of its GDP. Forty-four people were killed at the same time.

Nevertheless, the scenarios of Fiji and other pacific islands rarely draw attention from the outside world. Similar to Fiji, other pacific islands such as Kiribati have their highest point in the country only a few meters above sea level. To many people in the world, rising sea level may just indicate that they lose one holiday location, but for islanders, climate change means losing their homeland where they were born and live. Right now, Fiji is drawing more attention in the world, as the first small island nation to host the UN Climate Summit.

Human Rights and Climate Change

A large wave overcoming a barrier on an island beach

This image shows the effect of climate change in the Pacific, as seen through the lens of a local photographer.

In February 13, 2015, eighteen counties announced The Geneva Pledge for Human Rights in Climate Action to propose that all counties in the world should respect and protect human rights in the process of combating climate change issues. As Understanding Human Rights and Climate Change, stated by Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, global warming and climate change would negatively impact on several basic human rights, including right to life, right to food, right to water, right to residency, indigenous people’s rights, and women’s rights. 

Right to life

According to article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person.” Climate change threatens the right to life, both directly and indirectly. The direct negative impacts include damage to the human body and health resulting from extreme climate circumstances. Indirect negative impacts include the deteriorating environment caused by climate change, such as the reduction of clean drinking water and the frequent occurrence of diseases. According to WHO, between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.

Right to food

Climate change will cause direct impacts on agricultural production and will seriously affect right to food. Due to climate change and global warming, drought and poor soil can directly affect crop growth and livestock production. Frequent weather change can damage agricultural output to directly affect human food security. The rise of sea level will also lead to the migration of fish.

Right to water

Whereas some areas of the world will experience flooding, other areas will suffer the opposite results of climate shift. As rainfall declines and rivers dry up, human beings will have fewer clean water resources. Therefore, human right to water will be greatly affected. With the depletion of water resources, wars and conflicts will be increased and intensified, as has already been seen in conflicts today. More Reading: Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria.

Right to residency

Caused by climate change, extreme weather, and rising sea levels, many areas and even entire countries will be no longer suitable for living, resulting in a large number of climate change refugees. Fiji is one of the examples. However, under the current framework of international law, there is no law that protects climate refugees and the lack of relevant law makes it difficult to maintain the human rights of individuals in these circumstances. For those disadvantaged groups who lack resources and immigration capabilities, they are likely to be placed in areas that are not suitable for them to live. As the global temperature continuously rises, the issue of climate refugees will be inevitable. The gap in international law on climate immigration needs to be filled.

Indigenous peoples' rights

International law states that indigenous people have the rights to retain their cultural traditions and customs. For indigenous people, indigenous cultures and places of residence are closely linked. Land is an integral part of their lives. Therefore, changes in ecosystems caused by climate change can cause extreme psychological panic among indigenous people who are losing their homeland that often has spiritual significance. Climate change directly threatens the living environments of many indigenous peoples on which they depend for survival. 

Performers from Fiji wearing traditional dress stand on a stage at COP23

Performances by some of Fiji's most powerful performers and youth orators in the UN Climate Conference COP23.

Women's rights

Four images of people in dry, heating earth conditions, as part of a photo exhibition

"Our Changing Climate" is a photo exhibition on the eve of the United Nations Climate Conference COP23.

In both developed and developing countries, social structures often place disadvantaged women at higher risk of harm or even death caused by climate change. For example, women are often responsible for caring for children and the elderly and they become the last one to leave in a disaster. In addition, women are responsible for tasks that may become more difficult to accomplish due to climate change. In 63% of rural households in Sub-Saharan Africa, women must collect domestic water for their families. Due to climate change, deforestation, and desertification, women and young girls may need more time to find water. The time they spend on water collection impacts the time they receive education. Climate change has a direct impact on the ability of women to realize their human rights and increases the inequality between men and women.

Women’s rights were highlighted during the COP 23 meeting in Bonn. President of COP 23 and Prime Minister of Fiji, Frank Bainimarama, announced a Gender Action Plan during COP 23. It is a step forward for integrating gender equality and human rights into global climate change response. It recognizes the role of women in climate action and recognizes the goal to support the implementation of the gender-related decisions and mandates in the UNFCCC process, with a set of specific activities identified for the next two years. 

Fiji Works Hard to Protect Home

Fiji is dedicated to formulating international policies to combat climate change. For example, Fiji was not only the first country to ratify the Paris Agreement, but also was one of the first of 43 member states to join the Climate Vulnerable Forum at the United Nations. This Forum has been advocating to limit global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius. In 2017, Fiji became the first developing island nation to join the Under 2 Coalition. This is an international convention that aims to reduce carbon emissions by 80% to 95% to combat global warming and limit global temperature increase to under 2 degrees C. Fiji is also the first developing country to issue green sovereign bonds. Fiji plans to raise $50 million to combat climate change. During COP23, Fiji issued green sovereign bonds and became a perfect role model for other countries to achieve their own climate goals.

The United States and Other Countries in COP23

In 2017, United States President Donald Trump, who has publicly considered global warming to be a scam, refused to take global responsibility for climate change and announced that United States is going to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Due to the way the Agreement is structured legally, the United States will completely withdraw from the Paris Agreement in three and a half years. However, beside the absent official government representatives, California governor Jerry Brown has emerged as a leading figure on climate action. A “We Are Still In” contingent of more than 100 American leaders still held 44 events at the U.S. Climate Action Center in Bonn during COP 23. They sent a message to the world: Despite what is happening in Washington, subnational leaders will maintain America’s support for the Paris Agreement and climate action. 

View from above of a conference center with delegates sitting behind tables facing towards a screen with a projection of "Save the World"

Nations agreed to launch the next steps towards higher climate action ambition before 2020 at the UN Climate Conference COP23.

Aside from the United States, most countries in COP 23 stand together to combat climate change. French President Emmanuel Macron said he would “replace the United States” in terms of funding on climate change and help to find a way to solve funding shortage problem in the future. In addition, President Macron announced that France will ban coal on a national scale in 2021. The majority of negotiators at COP23 also believed that, with or without the United States, climate change negotiations would still continue. Catherine McKenna, minister for the Environment Department of Canada, said: “There is no time for us to wait for the United States to decide what to do or not to do. We will move on.”

The European Union is steadily achieving its 2020 goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Two years after the Paris Agreement, the EU remains on track for its commitment to reduce domestic emissions by at least 40% between 1990 and 2030. The EU is confident to meet its 2020 target and to improve its climate law by the next decade.


Climate change is a global challenge that does not respect national borders. Urgent actions are needed to combat climate change in both the developing and developed world. There are many reasons to combat climate change—from bettering the lives of vulnerable population, such as people from Fiji and other islands, to defending human rights and reducing conflict. As Unitarian Universalists, we should continue to fight for earth justice and stand up against climate change.

About the Author

Mengluo Ren

Mengluo Ren is a Climate Justice Program Intern at the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office. She received her bachelor's degree in Economics and International Relations from Boston University....


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