It shouldn’t come as a surprise
It isn’t unusual for civil rights movements to instill transformative change. So, it shouldn’t seem radical to push for equal opportunity to a healthy environment, which is a life sustaining source and one that many human rights, such as the right to life, health, water, and food, depend on.
The consequences of climate change as a result of the over-exploitation of natural resources has been well understood since the 1960s. Yet, it doesn’t appear as if much has changed to ensure future generations have equal opportunity to those resources. Rather, it appears as if we have normalized the decision by one group to reap the benefits of today while diminishing opportunities for others and future generations.
As a result of human-induced changes to the environment, such as urbanization and industrial agriculture, approximately 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, including fish stocks and medicinal plants.
Everyone is affected by climate change
Consequences from the destruction and exploitation of the planet’s resources do not discriminate based on age, gender, sexual orientation, race, or country of origin. It does, however, impact individuals differently and to varying degrees, to no fault of their own. So, a healthy environment should be viewed as a universal human right.
A recognized human right to a healthy environment would consider how people interact with nature and their dependencies on natural processes for food, water, and financial support. For example, plastic pollution affects at least 267 species, including 86% of marine turtles and 43% of marine mammals.[i] If we continue to disrespect natural resources this way, we will have more plastic in the oceans than fish, causing major health risks linked to microplastics and threatening entire industries reliant on healthy marine ecosystems such as tourism and fishing.
Countries have already started the trend
155 states have legally recognized the right to a healthy environment, including Kenya, where, in 2010, amended their Constitution to recognize the right to a clean and healthy environment. This includes the protection of the environment “for the benefit of present and future generations” and specifically claims that the “State shall protect genetic resources and biological diversity”.[ii]
Canada has yet to do so
Although some provinces in Canada have passed environmental rights legislation, the right to a healthy environment has not been recognized for all Canadians. It could fit under section 7 of the Constitution (the right to life, liberty, and security of the person) but the absence of an explicit right to a healthy environment demonstrates a lack of commitment by Canadian governments to protect basic values such as clean water (which several indigenous communities have been denied[iii]).
It should be understood that people are, and have always been, a part of nature. Efforts to address climate change should be pursued with an effort to protect a fundamental human right to a healthy environment and vice versa.
[i] The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (2019) Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
[ii] A. Mwenda and TN Kibutu, 'Implications of the New Constitution on Environmental Management in Kenya', 8/1 Law, Environment and Development Journal (2012) 76.
[iii] See Government of Canada (2021) Ending Long-Term Drinking Water Advisories https://www.sac-isc.gc.ca/eng/1506514143353/1533317130660