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The Middle East is the planet’s most water insecure region; cimate change is exacerbating this and other challenges. Photo: UNDP Iraq

Among the various drivers of risk in the world today, two stand out: climate change and rapidly rising levels of inequality. While each by itself has serious consequences for achieving development goals, their convergence has become a subject of heightened attention.

The convening of climate COP23 this year under the Presidency of Fiji has brought this issue to the fore. Climate change has now emerged as an existential risk to the very survival of communities living in climate risk hotspots around the world – from small island states and low-lying coastal zones, to mountain regions experiencing wide-spread glacial melting and the rapidly changing nature of dryland and desert ecosystems.

Earlier this year, the UN Human Rights Council adopted, by consensus, UN Resolution A/HRC/35/20 on Human Rights and Climate Change, calling on member states and non-state actors from the private sector to address the human rights of climate-affected people. This followed the inclusion of human rights into the preamble of the new Paris Agreement on Climate Change, a historic step as the first global environmental treaty to do so.

The goal of such efforts by the UN and country partners is to promote climate responses that address the most vulnerable in society, protecting their rights to life, food, water and various other elements of a rights-based approach to development. As noted in the UN Resolution, those at risk of climate displacement are a priority. They are least responsible for generating the climate crisis but their future now rests on our ability to take climate action.

So what can countries do? A key focus needs to be on implementing global frameworks on climate change and on human rights at the local level; developing local capacities to bring together climate action and the right to development for the most at-risk communities.

The Middle East serves as an important example, where we have seen first-hand how issues of social vulnerability, rights-based approaches and climate risks converge. The Middle East is already the planet’s most water insecure and food import-dependent region, with climate change exacerbating these challenges and heightening risks of displacement. The right to food and the right to water have been among the issues at the centre of social demands for more accountable and participatory forms of development in recent years.

As countries move ahead to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their National Determined Contributions (NDCs) to climate change under the Paris Agreement, a need exists to put special focus on the ways that climate action can address dynamics that threaten the basic rights of society’s most vulnerable. We must support new policies and capacities to prevent the further deepening of poverty and inequality expected to result from climate change.

In Egypt, for example, the Nile Delta is among the regions of the planet most at risk from rising sea levels. The Delta is both the country’s bread basket, helping achieve goals of food security for tens of millions, and it is also home to a large share of Egypt’s poor population. But unless action is taken, forecasts predict that over 6 million people stand at risk of climate displacement. To address this challenge, UNDP and the Government are now launching a new initiative, supported by a US$31 million grant from the Green Climate Fund, to develop local capacities for climate adaptation, to put in place measures to protect agricultural areas and the vulnerable communities that rely on them, and to help prevent the risk of displacement. By doing so, we are building capacities to take action on climate change in a way that addresses growing social vulnerability.

As we look to implement the SDGs and the Paris Agreement, more rights-informed models of development will be critical to address the needs of the poor and vulnerable in society, and to safeguard the right to development in an era of climate disruption. 

About the authors
John H. Knox is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, and an international law professor at Wake Forest University. Follow him on Twitter: @SREnvironment

Kishan Khoday is the Regional Team Leader for Climate Change, Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience at the UNDP Regional Hub for Arab States. Follow him on Twitter: @KishanKhoday