UN climate expert: I want to find the wormhole between human rights and climate change

Ian Fry, UN special rapporteur on the human rights impacts of climate change, at the 50th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, 24 June, 2022. (Credit: Geneva Solutions/ML)

After being appointed the UN’s first special rapporteur on human rights and climate change in March, Ian Fry outlined before the Human Rights Council this week the key issues he will focus on over the next three years of his mandate.

The well-seasoned climate negotiator, who represented the Tuvalu government at climate Cops for over 20 years, has shown from the start that he will bring his previous experience into the human rights realm in Geneva. From compensation for climate impacts claimed by developing countries, to the human rights implications of geoengineering and carbon capture, the Australian environmental expert will delve into some of the most polarising issues.

The creation of his mandate took over ten decades of campaigning at the Human Rights Council, facing pushback every step of the way. Fry is aware that he faces an enormous level of expectations from countries, civil society and even the private sector. Geneva Solutions spoke with him about how he plans to deal with the pressure.

GS News: How do you define your role as special rapporteur on the human rights impacts of climate change?

Ian Fry: It's to find the critical issues that connect with climate change action, and make sure there's a human rights lens applied to them. First, I’m looking at loss and damage, an issue that is moving very slowly in climate change negotiations. I want to use my position to highlight the enormous human rights impacts that climate change is having, and the loss and damage that people are already suffering as a consequence.

I was in Glasgow for the [Cop26] climate change conference last year and there was a proposal for a new financial facility on loss and damage. It failed, partly because it wasn’t a well developed concept, but there's certainly a need for some sort of financial facility. The critical issue is where's the money gonna come from and will it be enough to deal with the impacts of climate change? Recent studies show that the cost is huge.

The proposal was brushed aside again last week at climate talks in Bonn, namely by the European Union. Are you hoping to push discussions on loss and damage forward as special rapporteur?

Hopefully, I can use this position as a lever to bring attention to the urgency for action. I don't want to get into the institutional arrangements. That's not my job.

Could your experience as a former climate negotiator for Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands serve as an advantage?

Having been involved particularly in the negotiations for loss and damage in the Paris Agreement, I have a reasonable understanding of how the process works. I saw there are two parallel universes: the human rights world here in Geneva and the climate change world in Bonn. There's not a lot of connection between those two, so I'm hoping to find the wormhole in between.

On the other hand, having held a political position, countries could argue that you’re not independent…

I've had good bilateral meetings here already with a number of countries who have traditionally not supported the human rights agenda and know my history on loss and damage, and I think they are quite open about it. There’s a change in attitude that we can't ignore.

What are some of the governments you’ve spoken with?

I met with the ambassador from India, and he was quite supportive of the position. He outlined that he didn't want my position to be a finger pointing exercise on countries which are still developing and taking action on reducing our emissions. But I assured him that my focus is primarily looking at the impacts of climate change, like the large floods in Assam province, where people died. That brings the story home, and he's aware of that.

Will you call out governments when it's warranted?

It depends. The major greenhouse gas emitting countries will have to step up, and if they don’t, then we'll explore options. My colleagues from the special rapporteur on a clean, safe and healthy environment have produced amicus briefs before various court cases, and it's likely I'll do the same in my position, if invited to do so.

Have you spoken to the United States?

I spoke with them yesterday, as well, and they seem to be a bit more accommodating than I expected!

One of your priorities will be looking at the human rights implications of new technologies. Where do you see the biggest risks?

There are current technologies, like hydro dams, that are being promoted as green energy sources, but I met with indigenous peoples when I was in Bonn, and they're quite concerned about the development of hydro dams on their land, which are affecting downstream their access to water and the ecology of the river systems.

Then there are proposals like direct air injection, cloud brightening and similar technologies. There's no formal process for considering their human rights implications, and this is the challenge. If we go beyond 1.5ºC, will we have to take drastic steps and resort to these sorts of technologies to reduce the global temperature? And there will be winners and losers. The losers could be, for example, farmers in poor communities, whose crops may be affected. This is the balancing act: do the impacts of climate change outweigh the impacts of these new technologies? I'm not an expert in this area, so I will have to draw on the expertise of others.

Do you foresee a collaboration with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)?

I'll certainly be drawing on the work of the IPCC. I teach part time at the Australian National University and one of the lead authors is there, so I have regular dialogue with him and other lead authors of the IPCC. Some of my reports may feed into future IPCC reports also.

The refugee convention does not directly cover people displaced by climate change and does not recognise the term “climate refugee”. What would be the best way to protect these people?

Some have suggested amending the refugee convention and having a definition of climate change refugee. I bet there's considerable pushback. We may have to find alternative legal means, such as regional agreements as a starting point, but certainly I'd like to see some international legal agreement that gives protection to people displaced across international borders, as a consequence of climate change.

Another one of your priorities is upholding companies responsible for their contribution to climate change, namely those in the fossil fuel industry. How do you plan to engage directly with these firms?

I've met with the working group on business and human rights here, and there's an annual meeting on business and human rights in December in Geneva, so I'll certainly engage with that. In my previous work, I met with the reinsurance industry in the UK, because we're looking at insurance arrangements for the Pacific. So I'll be reaching out to businesses and seeing how to best address that issue.

There's also a taskforce on disclosure in Europe that I’ll reach out to. It provides guidelines for business disclosure and it's primarily focused on identifying the risk that businesses have to the impacts of climate change, including where they've got investments that could be affected. There are large pension funds and banks that have enormous investments, and it was even suggested to me by some civil society organisations that the UN has its own funds invested in banking corporations. So trying to get them to disclose where they invest will be an interesting challenge.