Right to be Free from Adverse Effects of Climate Change

Dr Asangba Tzudir

In the year 2019, 11,000 scientists declared a global climate emergency. After signing the declaration, they stated that, humans could endure “untold suffering” if massive changes aren’t made to the biosphere, especially the greenhouse gas emissions. This Climate emergency declaration came exactly 40 years after the First World Climate Conference that was held in Geneva. What the scientists find “especially worrisome” is a potentially irreversible climate tipping point that could lead to a catastrophic “hothouse Earth,” beyond the control of humans.

However, despite the warnings, greenhouse gas emissions are still rapidly rising and continuing to damage the climate at increasing rates. Human activities that contribute to Earth’s rising temperature include sustained increases in both human and ruminant livestock population, per-capita meat production, the world’s gross domestic product, global tree cover loss, fossil fuel consumption, the number of people traveling via air transportation and carbon dioxide emissions. The impacts from the rising global surface temperatures include rapidly disappearing ice, rising sea levels, etc. are very disturbing trends.

Considering the alarming situation, there is an urgent need for proactive action in order to secure a sustainable future, and for which we need to change the way we live and also our attitude towards the environment. Implementing massive energy efficiency and conservation practices; reducing emissions of short-term pollutants; protecting and restoring Earth’s ecosystems; eating mostly plant-based foods while reducing the global consumption of animal products while also reducing the amount of food wastage; curtailing the excessive extraction of materials and overexploitation of ecosystems driven by economic growth; stabilizing, and, also reducing population growth.

Now within the declared climate emergency and the changing climatic and environmental scenario is the issue of the adverse effects of climate change starting from health to agriculture and the economy and the various imbalances to the ecosystem and thereby impacting livelihood of humans. 

In its first, and in consideration of the impact on humans, health and livelihood, the Supreme Court of India, through its judgment dated March 21 has given recognition to a ‘right to be free from the adverse effects of climate change as a distinct right’, stating that Article 14 (equality before law and the equal protection of laws) and Article 21 (right to life and personal liberty) of the Indian Constitution are the source of this right.

The judgment authored by Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud stated: “The right to equality under Article 14 and the right to life under Article 21 must be appreciated in the context of the decisions of this Court, the actions and commitments of the state on the National and International level, and scientific consensus on climate change and its adverse effects. From these, it emerges that there is a right to be free from the adverse effects of climate change. It is important to note that while giving effect to this right, courts must be alive to other rights of affected communities such as the right against displacement and allied rights.” It may be noted that these observations are part of the same decision where the three-judge bench dictated the operative directions on March 21, and the detailed judgment, contains an elaborate discussion on climate change and India's international commitments to reduce the carbon footprint.

On the recognition to a ‘right to be free from the adverse effects of climate change’, the Court noted that the ‘absence of legislation in India regarding climate change’ would not mean that “the people of India do not have a right against the adverse effects of climate change.” In this connection, the court also cited landmark judgments, including MC Mehta v. Kamal Nath and Virender Gaur v. State of Haryana, which has recognized the right to a clean environment as a part of Article 21 of the Constitution. However, the Court has also underlined that such a right that the people have a right against the adverse effects of climate change is yet to be articulated. Observing how climate change is increasing year by year, the Court underscored the need to recognize this right as a distinct one.

India being located at the tropic is also prone to various forms of natural and man-made disasters, and with climatic change and environmental degradation, it will lead to food security concerns and whereby the poorer communities will be badly impacted. This also raises the question of equality. With population explosion, places that are considered inhabitable earlier have now become dwellings of poorer communities. This raises concerns of safety and also a right to a clean and healthy environment.

Within such contexts, while pushing for the articulation of such rights, and which is really pertinent as ‘rights’ creates a greater and purpose driven sense of moral responsibility. That, sensitizing the need for prioritizing environmental protection and sustainable development for the well-being of the present and the coming generation is of utmost importance in the context of the global climate emergency. It is therefore imperative to adopt a holistic approach towards building a healthy man-environment relationship before it results in catastrophic consequences that are beyond the control of humans. 

While ‘rights’ find attached with a sense of moral responsibility, the adage, “Live and let live” has to be sensitively articulated in pushing for the ‘Right to be free from Adverse Effects of Climate Change.’

(Dr Asangba Tzudir writes a weekly guest editorial for The Morung Express. Comments can be mailed to asangtz@gmail.com)