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Grant Mitchell

The Hon. Grant  Mitchell, B.A., M.A., C.F.A. Senator Grant Mitchell has had careers in the public service, business and politics in Alberta. He was appointed by former Prime Minister Paul Martin in March, 2005.

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Environment and Human Rights

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Statement made on 04 May 2010 by Senator Grant Mitchell

Hon. Grant Mitchell:

Honourable senators, I am pleased to have the opportunity to talk about something that was brought to my attention by Senator Carstairs. Senator Carstairs has a way of seeing things that others do not see and clarifying things for those people. She is perceptive and insightful.

About a month ago, she invited me to speak with her and Senator Jaffer on a panel on human rights at a conference in Manitoba. I had not spoken on human rights before, so I asked her why she asked me to speak and what she wanted me to focus on. She suggested I talk about the relationship of human rights and the environment. I took that to mean climate change because, as honourable senators may be aware, I am interested in climate change.

The moment Senator Carstairs said that, it seemed so obvious, and I wondered why I had not recognized the relationship between the environment and human rights before. As I began to look into the subject, it became clear there might be a couple of reasons for that lack of recognition, which relate to the literature on human rights and the literature and arguments on climate change. Both contain almost no mention of the relationship between human rights and climate change. Two or three years ago, some of the literature coming out of the United Nations began to address the relationship, but the philosophical human rights literature has argued against it, although it is beginning to migrate to what should be obvious.

In one column, I listed what we can all presume to be, and in some cases must acknowledge are, the effects of climate change, and in another column, I listed the classic human rights that we all understand and most of us accept. When we put the two together, we see not that they mesh but that they collide head on. There is little doubt that climate change profoundly affects generally accepted human rights.

The major impacts of climate change include drought from less water, which is obvious in the case of drought; drought from more water, which seems to be counterintuitive, but we can have more rain in certain places, and we probably are, but because these places are warmer the water evaporates faster and still leaves the region affected in greater drought; and glacier melt, which will lead to drought and the inability to find water.

There are also violent storms, which I argue are already occurring because of climate change. Science supports that view. Some might argue against it, but arguing against something that obvious is like denying gravity.

The sea level is rising. People will say, "so what?" Many people live in communities at the edge of bodies of water that will or are beginning to rise because of climate change. Sceptics say there is not enough ice to melt, and if ice already in the water melts, it will not raise the water level appreciably. The melted ice water will not account for the bulk of the rise in sea levels. Sea levels will rise because the water will heat and things that heat expand, and the water will rise. This phenomenon is already occurring.

We have only to look around the world. I was in Tuktoyaktuk a couple of years ago with the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources. That community is losing its shore line and many houses are threatened by rising sea levels.

The world will experience many other impacts. There will be floods, higher temperatures and forest fires. These events are already occurring.

Honourable senators can take any one of those impacts and relate it to human rights that result in serious problems. These human rights, for example, include the right to health, food, safe water, secure access to water, subsistence, housing, security and culture.

Consider drought. It will clearly affect the food supply. Drought will affect the water supply and it will likely affect housing when people cannot live in a location any longer.

Consider violent storms. Honourable senators have already seen their impact. Perhaps we take such violent storms for granted because of the powerful image left in our minds. For example, if honourable senators were to go to New Orleans or other communities now following Hurricane Katrina, they will see houses that are still uninhabitable and communities that have been destroyed. People living in those communities had to leave, perhaps, losing their means to economic sustenance. The economy in many communities has been dramatically altered or destroyed.

I do not want to belabour the Hurricane Katrina crisis, but honourable senators can pick an impact of climate change and its effect on human rights. There is a direct relationship. They do not mesh; they collide.

All such impacts are compounded because wars and mass migration will result from climate change. In the Sudan, Darfur is a climate change war. The land utilized by two cultures with different modes of subsistence has been reduced in area by virtue of desertification in the region. There is less arable land. Those who previously grew crops and those who grazed animals both had plenty of land. There is not now enough land for both groups. Therefore, Darfur has become a climate change war.

It is interesting to note what will happen to certain other regions. If climate change affects the Middle East, as it is likely to do, by increasing temperature to levels hotter than they are currently, it might have a profound impact on what is already a highly sensitive region of the world with significant security implications for our allies in the region as well as for Canada and our global allies.

It is unfortunate that the poor will inevitably be most disadvantaged by climate change because they have the fewest resources with which to respond. The largest portion of the poor is women and, therefore, women will bear the disproportionate burden of climate change. Is it not almost inevitable that women seem to bear the burden in such unfortunate circumstances?

Canada is by no means exempt from the impact of climate change. The massive annual forest fires in British Columbia occur, in large part, because the warmer weather has not killed the pine beetle, which in turn, has killed the trees that provide kindling for the fires.

Fisheries on the East Coast and the West Coast have been fundamentally disrupted. Some of the disruption may be because of the way the industry was fished and managed, but it is unlikely that accounts for the entire situation. Why did the salmon not appear on the West Coast a year or two ago? It is probably because changing temperatures have moved their food source elsewhere and disrupted their traditional feeding grounds.

Drought is causing problems for farmers in northern Alberta. Edmonton is losing large number of trees in our beautiful river valley. The climate has been dry for 10 years and the trees cannot be sustained.

Our committee say significant climate change impacts during our trip to the North. Permafrost is melting, roads are warping and buildings are beginning to sink. The patterns of animal migration upon which Aboriginal people depend greatly are being altered. People told the committee that they had gone out at the normal time of the year to hunt certain birds and the birds had migrated through the area two or three weeks earlier because of warmer weather. I indicated that Tuktoyaktuk is in danger of losing much of its shoreline and could lose many homes located on the shore.

It is particularly unfortunate that Aboriginal people will be impacted the most because they often make up a large portion of the poor. Aboriginal people also often depend on the land and wildlife for their livelihood, which are particularly affected by climate change.

In Canada, the effects of climate change probably will not relate generally to a human rights problem with the exception of Aboriginal peoples who tend not to receive the necessary support for, or resolution of, their problems.

A prima facie case can be made that climate change impacts affect and create human rights problems. A few steps must be put in place to ensure the link between climate change and human rights is clear so that no one can deny it.

The idea that society has an obligation to someone not yet alive is new to human rights thinking. Many of the people who will be affected by climate change are not alive today. Two arguments highlight that for me. First, many people affected by climate change are alive today and are affected now or their children will be affected in the future. Every honourable senator feels a profound obligation, if not to everyone, certainly to our children. They will be affected by climate change in the future.

Second, the argument is strengthened by an analogy provided by the Honourable Senator Banks who said that climate change impacts on subsequent generations is like someone waking up 50 years from now to find that they had had a $50,000 debt irrevocably imposed on them that they must pay. That debt was incurred by someone who lived 50 years before. If they do not pay it today, they lose their house.

That is exactly the kind of obligation that climate change involves — we create climate change today to impact someone who may not even be born yet. That concept makes the precise link to climate change being a human rights issue.

I know all honourable senators in this house agree with the assertion that we are causing climate change. Is there any honourable senator who would raise his or her hand to tell us people are not causing climate change?

All scientific evidence suggests that people are causing climate change. To those who say climate change is occurring, but people are not causing it, I repeat that we had better hope people are causing climate change because if we are not, we cannot fix it. We will have no chance to do so. We are not capable of moving sun spots to keep the temperature right. Some will then say that it has been happening for a million years. I will say it has been happening for a billion years, but the world has been uninhabitable for most of that time.

If honourable senators do not think we are causing climate change, they should drop to their knees and pray we are so we have a chance to fix it. The science is powerful; there is a great deal of scientific consensus. All those skeptics who argue against climate change can never demonstrate science that defends what they say. They can pick something apart from a room full of scientific data and taint it, and say that, because that piece is tainted, it is all wrong. That is like saying one line of the National Post is wrong; ergo every National Post article ever published is without credibility.

My point is that there is irrevocable science. We are causing global warming. It is within our grasp to fix it and that finishes the link for me. Human rights are affected by climate change today. Human rights will continue to be affected, unfortunately, with greater intensity in the future and with even greater intensity still if we do not start to act in a way that we should, and provide leadership in a way that a country like Canada can provide.

It helps us to make the case. I have often said that we do not need more technology to reduce greenhouse gases; we need a new technology to help us convince the government and people to reduce greenhouse gases. Part of that case comes from the focus: The debate has been on what happens to economies, states and countries. With human rights, we begin to focus on what happens to people and the suffering they will experience because of climate change. That realization leads to a greater sense of obligation.

We, in Canada, have benefited from all those industrial processes that have created climate change to give us a standard of living beyond the imagination of people in most parts of this world — beyond the imagination of hundreds of millions of people — and that sense of obligation underlines human rights. It also underlines that sense of obligation internationally, not only to people we live with and amongst in our own country, but people around the world because our pollution contributes to this problem elsewhere and around the world.

I think the lens of human rights helps in developing public policy, prioritizing where that public policy needs to be applied and what it needs to be applied to. It gives one an understandable frame of reference about how we should cut through all the various possibilities and begin to focus what, where to deal with climate change and to mitigate climate change for those people now suffering so profoundly by it.

It also raises the possibility of a discussion and of an implementation of a right to information. People have a right to information on things like climate change and climate change science, a right that could be defended by this government and has not been. In fact, it is quite the contrary. The government has stopped their climate change scientists from talking about what they know, which only exacerbates the problem.

Honourable senators, I appreciate the time to talk about this subject. I conclude by saying, yes, there are climate change effects. There will be more in the future. These effects relate to human rights. What that says to me, and what it should say to all of us, is that climate change does not relate to human rights only in some abstract way. It relates to people — people in our country, in our North, Aboriginal people and people all around the world — who could use our leadership to mitigate, offset and prevent the kinds of effects they surely will experience if this government does not start doing what it should on climate change.


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