Executive Secretary of the UN Climate Change Secretariat, Christiana Figueres, Discusses New Paris Agreement Through The Lens of Human Rights

Christiana Figueres CC and HR Event

Executive Secretary of the UN Climate Change Secretariat (right) speaking at “Why Climate Change Policy is Human Rights Policy- And Vice Versa” event at Greenberg Lounge on January 27, 2016. Professor Philip Alston (left) moderated the discussion.

Thursday, January 28 2016

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Climate Change Secretariat, engaged a crowd of 200 human rights activists, policy makers, academics, and practitioners in her presentation on the interrelation of climate change and human rights policies. The event hosted by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice took place at the NYU School of Law on Wednesday January 27, 2016. Ms. Figueres was introduced by Prof. Philip Alston, CHRGJ Faculty Director and U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. Professor Alston congratulated Ms. Figueres on her remarkable accomplishment in bringing 196 countries together to sign the landmark Paris Agreement and in raising the profile of climate change policy.

In her talk, Ms. Figueres discussed the immense consequences of climate change for the enjoyment of human rights particularly for those living in extreme poverty. The threat of climate change impacts the poor disproportionately as it threatens food and water security along with other basic human rights. Addressing the mistakes of past policies which failed to connect economic growth policies and development agendas with climate change policy, Ms. Figueres acknowledged that the future challenge lay in debunking the myth that economic growth cannot happen without increasing our carbon emissions. Failing to decouple economic development from polluting technologies, she argued, severely jeopardizes the fulfillment of economic, cultural and social rights for all people all around the world, and in particular for the most disenfranchised groups.

Ms. Figueres proudly expressed her optimism and gratitude towards all state parties who participated in the framework agreement adopted by political leaders from all around the world who met in Paris in December 2015. The new global and ambitious agreement known as the Paris Agreement, adopted at COP21, the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), will have a determinative impact on the lives, prospects, dignity and rights of millions of people around the world. Addressing its connection to human rights, she added “the Climate Change Convention is a convention on climate change but fundamentally it is a convention on human rights and a convention on peace and no one should ever separate those”.

She explained the oft-criticized principle of different speeds in the Paris Agreement by comparing climate change policy with a highway, where everyone is heading in the same direction, albeit at a different pace, arguing that countries that have fewer resources and that have historically contributed less to the problem of climate change, should be allowed time to adapt to the new paradigm of sustainability. At the same time, she stressed the importance of making sustainable technologies widely available at a low price, precisely to allow these lower-income countries to develop their economies on the basis of more sustainable processes.

Guided in her discussion by the human rights dimension of the Paris Agreement and its potential impact on the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals (known as the SDG’s), Ms. Figueres emphasized the decisive impact climate change has on the realization of the SDGs. Shedding light on the relationship between climate change and five of the SDG’s– including renewable energy (Goal 7), good jobs and economic growth (Goal 8), innovation and infrastructure (Goal 9), sustainable cities and communities (Goal 10) and responsible consumption (Goal 12)– she expressed the need to progress towards “cleaner” production of energy, growth, innovation, building and consumption. In the end, she declaredthe speed and pace at which we implement the SDGs will determine whether we are able to really address the threat of climate change”.  

In his closing remarks, Philip Alston, praised Christiana Figueres for the role she has played in facilitating the integration of human rights in the climate change discussion, and invited her to push for a more systematic integration, arguing that all countries have already expressed their principled support for human rights when signing various human rights treaties, and that it is now a matter of setting aside strategic calculation and political consideration in order to allow for the integration of both agendas.

Watch the video of the event.


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