Climate change is a human rights issue, says Presidential Climate Commission

Blessing Manale is the head of Communications and Outreach at the Presidential Climate Commission.

Blessing Manale is the head of Communications and Outreach at the Presidential Climate Commission.

Published Mar 13, 2024


By Blessing Manale

We mark the month of March with a focus on human rights and development annually in South Africa. This we have done since the adoption of our internationally acclaimed Constitution, hailed as one of the leading rights-based constitutions among developing democracies.

Access to modern energy services is a prerequisite to overcoming poverty and underdevelopment and central to our own National Development Plan, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)and the Paris Agreement.

It is unfortunate that those opposed to the Just Energy Transition (JET) have only emphasised the limitations of a “human rights approach” to universal energy access while addressing climate change and achieving JET despite indications that such an approach could address some of the shortcomings of the SDGs.

The energy sector is also the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions globally and thus the main driver of climate change, with further detrimental effects on the lives and livelihoods of those who are already marginalised.

Securing a rapid and equitable energy transition globally is thus a prerequisite to the realisation of the human rights of billions of people and to the achievement of the goals of the Paris Agreement.

However, the current energy system has not done enough to improve living standards of the most vulnerable, but has often damaged the very ecosystems on which communities depend for their livelihoods, posing the greatest environmental hazards to those who have benefited the least from increased energy production and consumption.

Our Constitution states: “Everyone has the constitutional right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being, and to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations through reasonable legislative and other measures that secure ecologically sustainable development and the use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.”

Acknowledging that environmental degradation and varying weather and climatic change have already inflicted harms on millions of people and that for many communities, survival itself is at stake, the authors of our supreme law did this not from their own wisdom, but were responding to the cries and calls of those bearing the brunt of climate variability and vulnerability.

Adaptation and development – sustaining human rights

The realisation of the intent of the letter of our Constitution calls for climate justice, which means putting equity and human rights at the core of decision-making and action on climate change.

Our actions must therefore ensure that appropriate adaptation measures are taken to protect those most endangered by the negative impacts of climate change such as those living in vulnerable areas, and equally those whose economic activities are anchored on the sectors at risk due to decarbonisation.

Through ambitious adaption investments, we must build adaptive capacities in vulnerable communities, including factors such as gender discrimination and disparities in social services, and allocate adequate resources for those facing the greatest risks.

We must act individually and collectively to mobilise and allocate the maximum available resources to prevent foreseeable human rights harms caused by climate change breaches, without compromising funding for social development and other programmes required for our country’s human development.

Procedural justice is a human right

As we address the energy conundrum, we must remain resolute that it goes beyond figures and metrics of profit and ideology. We need transformative action to address all the structural flaws that characterise our current energy systems and its developmental imperatives in a holistic manner.

Specifically, the energy transformation must simultaneously combat social exclusion and address environmental degradation and climate change.

Those who have contributed the least to climate change unjustly and disproportionately suffer its harms and must, therefore, be meaningful participants in and primary beneficiaries of climate action, with access to effective recourse through restorative climate justice.

We should lead and to live by our human rights obligations, and our own values of transparency and recourse related to participation of persons, groups and peoples in vulnerable situations in decision-making processes.

We need to ensure that adaptation and mitigation efforts do not have adverse effects on those that they should be protecting and lifting out of energy poverty.

Blessing Manale is the head of Communications and Outreach at the Presidential Climate Commission.