Last week, the United States did something surprising, at least in the context of the Trump administration’s complete reversal on U.S. climate policy: it joined a United Nations resolution supporting the protection of human rights from the impact of climate change.
For a government led by a man who has called climate change a Chinese-created “hoax” and has taken steps to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement — an agreement signed by nearly 200 countries aimed at keeping the world below 2°C of warming — the decision to join the resolution raised some eyebrows in the international climate community. Joining the consensus also directly contrasts with actions taken at the G7 summit in Italy in May, when the United States refused to endorse a joint statement on climate change.
“Since the resolution acknowledges that climate change is impacting human rights and states have to take action to address climate change, a weakening of U.S. action is clearly at odds with this text,” Sébastien Duyck, senior attorney at the Centre for International Environmental Law, told ThinkProgress. “The climate action Trump plans is not in line with what this resolution entails.”
Bangladesh, the Phillippines, and Vietnam — all developing, coastal countries that will be heavily impacted by the consequences of climate change, including rising sea levels — submitted the resolution to the U.N. Human Rights Council last week. When the text was introduced, it was unclear whether the United States would support the resolution, given the Trump administration’s antipathy towards international climate action.
According to Duyck, there were a few routes the Trump administration could have taken with respect to the resolution: They could have voted against it, which would have actively undermined the action, or they could have simply abstained from voting, which would have been more passive. By actively supporting the resolution, however, Duyck said that the United States looked like it was interested in continuing, at least in some respects, the kind of international climate action that characterized the Obama administration.
“What surprised us is that [the United States] fully went along,” Duyck said. “It was quite positive compared to what could be expected.”
In agreeing to the U.N. resolution, the United States recognized that “the effects of climate change have a range of implications for the effective enjoyment of human rights.”
The resolution is non-binding, though it does call on participating countries to take steps to better integrate human rights into climate action.
Still, the United States’ support of the resolution hardly counters the policy steps the Trump administration has taken since January — and, in many instances, runs directly counter to those decisions. Trump, for instance, has promised to end U.S. payments to the Green Climate Fund, a finance mechanism meant to help developing countries pay for climate adaptation and mitigation projects. But part of the human rights resolution calls on developed countries to continue payments to the Green Climate Fund, something the Trump administration has explicitly promised it will not do. Under the Obama administration, the United States pledged to contribute $3 billion — to date, it has contributed $1 billion to the fund.
“That is a dimension where the current administration’s policies are at odds with a full interpretation of the resolution,” Duyck said.
For years, developing nations have been a leading voice in connecting the consequences of climate change with the issue of human rights, both in drawing attention to the fact that climate change will have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities, and how some climate policies can run afoul of human rights writ large.
In 2007, small island states joined the Male’ Declaration, which declared that “climate change has clear and immediate implications for the full enjoyment of human rights.” In 2016, the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines filed an official complaint with 47 fossil fuel companies, accusing them of human rights violations for their role in driving climate change and ocean acidification. That complaint kicked off an investigation into the companies’ potential human rights violations, with public hearings expected to begin later this year.
In recent years, citizens of developed nations have begun making human rights arguments in an effort to compel national action on climate change; in 2015, a Dutch court sided with a group of plaintiffs who had sued the national government by claiming that the government’s inaction on climate constituted a human rights violation.
But human rights have also been used to build a case for fossil fuels in the developing world, with advocates arguing that developing countries and communities deserve access to the same cheap fossil fuels (usually coal) that developed countries used to build their economies. It’s possible that this line of reasoning is what prompted the Trump administration to support the resolution.
Extraction industries, like the fossil fuel industry, have a long history of human-rights violations associated with their business operations. ExxonMobil, for instance, is currently battling several lawsuits that accuse the company of human rights violations in Indonesia, including torture and murder. And Unocal, a major U.S. petroleum exporter that merged with Chevron in 2005, settled a human rights lawsuit that same year in which plaintiffs accused the company of human rights violations in Burma.