CWA panel casts climate change as human rights crisis

Apr. 14—United Nations Human Rights Officer Ben Schachter labeled lack of action on climate change as the “grossest human rights violation” facing humanity today, during a panel Friday, the conclusion of the 75th Conference on World Affairs.

Schachter is a human rights officer and climate change expert at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. He was one of six panelists tackling the topic “Enacting Climate Solutions Through Human Rights Climate Commitment” at the CWA, held on the campus of the University of Colorado Boulder.

Schachter said climate change is a human rights issue that harms people, affects their rights and is getting worse without any meaningful action to stop it.

“That is the grossest human rights violation that one can imagine,” Schachter said. “The impacts right now are hunger, water scarcity, displacement, death. These are all human rights violations that are happening on a massive scale, bigger than any other single cause of human rights violation that you can imagine.”

Schacter and five other panelists discussed climate change as a human rights issue at the local, state, national and global scale during Friday’s final CWA panel presentation.

Panelist James Anaya, who is an author, professor and advocate for human rights and indigenous people, said everyone has the right to a clean, healthy, sustainable environment. That right, he said, is being violated.

“We’re not where we need to be,” Anaya said.

U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo, also participated in the panel. He discussed climate action at the national level in Congress, citing the Inflation Reduction Act as a big step forward while recognizing there’s still much to be done.

“To know that we just passed the most significant climate change legislation in the history of our country less than nine months ago, I think is instructive of what we can accomplish when we’re working together,” Neguse said.

Panelist Will Toor is the executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, a state government position appointed by Gov. Jared Polis. Over the past four years, Toor said there have been approximately 55 pieces of state climate legislation on greenhouse gases, energy efficiency, renewable energy, oil and gas reform, transportation, building and land use efficiency and more.

A few years ago, Toor said he was “pretty pessimistic” about the future of the planet.

“But just seeing the progress over the past few years, I’m a lot more optimistic than I’ve ever been,” Toor said.

Panelist Jonathan Koehn discussed issues of climate change at the local level within the Boulder community. Koehn is the manager for the city of Boulder’s Office of Environmental Affairs and has been a leader on Boulder’s Climate Initiatives Team since 2006.

Koehn said Boulder has a history of climate programs and funding not always seen in other cities. While the city has goals to limit emissions by certain amount at certain times, he said the most important goals are immeasurable.

“Emissions reduction alone is not sufficient in addressing the climate emergency,” Koehn said.

He said loss of biodiversity, sacredness of land, social injustices and economic inequalities, while not measurable, are challenges local cities, including Boulder, face. Koehn also said Boulder is limited in resources and the action it can take, often relying on state and national legislation.

Panelist Kathryn Wendell is the executive director of the Center for Ethics and Responsibility at CU Boulder’s Leeds School of Business. She discussed the role businesses have to play in the climate crisis. While many businesses have not made climate commitments, she said many others have.

“There are a lot of challenges we still need to address, but I am encouraged about the commitments being made and am excited about the potential for more creative public private partnerships, and I hope the panel can spark action,” Wendell said.

Schachter said it’s important to understand climate change as a human rights issue because of moral and ethical implications.

“The things that mobilize people are not numbers, they’re not abstractions. They’re impacts and empathy and compassion.” Schachter said. “So understanding the climate crisis as something that is human-caused perpetuating human suffering that we can stop, I think is very important.”

Neguse said he’s optimistic about the future, and his optimism is born from seeing how local communities, the state and country have responded to climate change in the last couple years.

“I am concerned, as I know every American is, about the climate crisis and its impacts, here in our country and across the world,” Neguse said. “I’m optimistic about our ability to solve it. I’m optimistic about our ability, collectively, to do something about it.”

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