The Human Right to a Healthy Environment and Livable Planet: Principles to Unify a Movement

The Human Right to a Healthy Environment and Livable Planet: Principles to Unify a Movement

Together we will build our visionClimate change, one of the greatest crises we face as a species, threatens our fundamental human rights to food and water security, shelter, and personal safety, along with our fundamental ties to the natural world now and in the future. Scientists warn that the intensity of storms and changing weather patterns in our region will increase, and the impacts of climate change will challenge our adaptability in the coming years. Tropical Storm Irene showed how in Vermont, as around the world, poor and working class people are bearing the brunt of climate change impacts. For instance, a large proportion of homes destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene were mobile homes, located in floodplains and belonging to low-income Vermonters who often did not have the resources to rebuild their homes and their lives after a disaster.

We believe that we can, and indeed we must, address the climate crisis and other environmental threats while simultaneously improving the lives of poor and working class people. The interconnectedness of the climate and human rights crises experienced by our communities is apparent everyday:

  • In Vermont, the largest contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (47%) comes from the transportation sector. Yet many Vermonters lack access to public transportation or any other alternatives to driving, especially in rural areas.
  • The second largest contributor of GHG emissions (32%) comes from residential and commercial fuel use. Yet many Vermonters, including most renters, struggle to afford their basic home heating costs and face financial and other barriers to weatherizing their homes.
  • Vermont’s utilities have begun taking steps to increase the amount of renewable electricity generated within the state. Yet many Vermonters are concerned about an energy siting process that does not take into account how marginalized communities might be disproportionately affected by industrial-scale projects. 
  • There is no shortage of work to be done to address climate change, while we have a workforce that is chronically underemployed. We need a dramatic shift in resources that will fund high quality and fulfilling green jobs for Vermonters and reduce carbon emissions. 

To address these injustices, members of the Vermont Workers’ Center have organized a Healthy Environment and Livable Planet (HELP) committee. We believe that the right to a healthy environment and livable planet is a fundamental human right, indivisible from other human rights such as housing, healthcare, and dignified work. As with all other fundamental human rights, we hold elected officials responsible for protecting our environment from pollution and preventing the depletion of natural resources for the common good. Public institutions and private actors must be held accountable for failing to uphold our human rights. In order to hold our government and other institutions accountable, we need a people’s movement large enough to demand bold action, and organized for the long haul, as we build new systems to ensure true sustainability for our communities.

Recognizing the Human Right to a Healthy Environment and Livable Planet
Today, the environmental rights of people and communities are violated as never before, accelerated by new technologies and overconsumption of resources, and enabled by power and privilege. We need precautionary policies that can prevent environmental abuses, while also making it easier for people to live in ways that sustain life on our planet, work at jobs that help mitigate climate change, and choose transportation that is healthy for people and the planet.

In order to meet principles of universality, equity and participation, we must ensure that the social services, goods, and infrastructure necessary to realize people’s basic rights and meet their fundamental needs are treated as public goods, not as commodities. These essential goods and services must be provided collectively, on an equitable basis, not according to exclusionary market imperatives. Thus, privatization of core public functions that affect the protection and exercise of human rights is unacceptable as it undermines accountability to human rights principles and democratic participation. The provision of public goods must be shared by all and serve to meet everyone’s needs, not for the sake of profit or for any other purpose. Communities must be involved in making decisions about the financing, management, and distribution of public goods. 

Realizing the Human Right to a Healthy Environment and Livable Planet
The human rights framework is rooted in core principles of universality, equity, transparency, accountability, and participation. These principles both shape an analysis and inform a process for decision-making. In the absence of a strong popular movement with clear principles, elite interests tend to impose false and self-interested solutions that neither address the root causes of human rights violations, nor the long-term needs of our communities. 

For example, individual electric cars do not help us transition to transportation as a public good. Fracked natural gas perpetuates fossil fuel dependence, contaminates water supplies, and is not a “bridge fuel” to a renewable future. Inherently dangerous nuclear power produces long-term radioactive waste. And biomass electricity is highly polluting and far from “carbon neutral.” Often these are offered as solutions to the current problem, while perpetuating and even exacerbating systemic failures.  

Elite interests manipulate crises with both rhetoric and policies to perpetuate the status quo and forestall needed changes in infrastructure, lifestyle, and systems to further concentrate financial gains. We must move to a democratic paradigm where the human right to a healthy environment and livable planet both complements and integrates with other human needs, and are, in fact, considered essential to their realization. 

Building a United Movement for a Healthy Environment and Livable Planet
A human rights framework requires us to both challenge the status quo and overcome divisions in order to build a broad movement. For too long, false divisions have only encouraged divide-and-rule strategies by those that wish to maintain power and wealth. Labor and environmental groups are pitted on opposite poles of many issues, rather than united as allies. It is often assumed that labor wants to maintain the industrial status quo, while environmental demands undercut the needs of working people. Instead, we must identify and act upon common interests that both address the needs of working class people and preserve a shared planet. Labor and working class participation is integral to the success of the environmental movement, and forging solidarity will be no small feat, but one that is essential for our very survival. 

While multiple groups in Vermont are focused on environmental and climate change issues, we realize that many of these groups are not aligned and often working at cross-purposes. As we saw with healthcare reform, environmental groups, agencies, and experts get bogged down in solutions and the policy required to implement them, without building a shared framework to ensure that their implementation meets people’s needs. This creates a process that is not built on meaningful participation, is usually rushed, and is ineffective at addressing the root causes or implementing satisfactory results.

Ending the human rights crisis requires that we address the systems of capitalism, racism and other structures that lie at the roots of environmental destruction, poverty, and oppression of all forms. All environmental policies, programs, and practices must be designed in compliance with human rights principles to ensure that climate solutions and other environmental policies actually meet our needs and those of our communities. The principles can help remove barriers and ensure that everyone benefits from social, economic, and environmental changes. 

Human Rights Principles

Everyone is included, without exception. Every person -- individually and as part of their families and communities -- has the right to a healthy environment and livable planet. By affirming universality among people and their relationship to the planet, we thus secure, protect, and defend our shared planet. Universality compels us to assess the impact of our decisions on other communities and the natural world. 

  • Would access to renewable energy and efficiency measures be easy and available to everyone?
  • Would any population group be excluded? Are the needs of all affected communities considered?
  • Does the system regularly and publicly monitor and assess inequities in access?
  • Are a broad set of stakeholders involved to ensure the integrity and sustainability of measures?
  • Does the program or policy provide mechanisms to ensure the protection of the environment and effects on climate change?

Everyone contributes what they can and gets what they need. In order to protect human rights, the distribution of society’s resources must be based on meeting people’s fundamental needs to ensure a dignified existence for all. Equity guarantees equality in the practical enjoyment and exercise of all human rights for all people and communities. To achieve equity, society should ensure that with regard to fundamental rights, everyone contributes what they can, and gets what they need.

  • Are resources equitably shared and distributed in ways that prioritize human and ecological needs? 
  • Is the working landscape cooperatively managed in ways that meet human needs and protect the living environment of which we are a part? 
  • Do infrastructure investments transition away from fossil fuels, and build energy systems which are equitably scaled and accountable to the needs of our communities?
  • Are funding mechanisms non-regressive and based upon ability to pay? 
  • Is equitable employment available which supports working families and healthy ecosystems? 
  • Do policies and programs intentionally relieve and redress the disproportionate burden carried by disadvantaged groups as a result of current or past discrimination and oppression?
  • Are equitable means of climate mitigation (reducing emissions) and adaptation (adapting to changing weather and climate patterns) considered in all policies and programs that impact other human rights (i.e. housing, food, healthcare)?

All information related to decision-making should be clear and accessible to all. Power itself must be structured in a way that is democratic, transparent and thus accountable to communities and the common good. Collective structures must be developed to ensure that power rests with the people affected. All of our institutions must be open with regard to information and decision-making processes. Vermonters must be able to know how public institutions and processes are managed and run. 

  • Are information and decision-making structures for energy, transportation, home heating/weatherization, food and agricultural policies, etc. completely open and accessible to the public?
  • Can people easily monitor how public funds are used? Are agencies involved with siting new energy projects and other public investments sufficiently open to the public? Are the needs of affected communities fully considered in the review process? Are public reviews always complete before any contracts are signed?
  • Do the needs and interests of people affected by energy and other infrastructure projects considered before the interests of corporations that would profit from such projects? 
  • Are mechanisms in place to monitor, evaluate, and redress grievances around policies, regulations, and contracts?

People must be able to oversee and guide how public institutions are protecting and fulfilling our rights. We need to create mechanisms that enable the people to hold governments, regulatory bodies, and private actors accountable for meeting people’s needs and realizing human rights. 

  • Do projects prioritize: community scale and community ownership; diversified choices; decentralization, especially of the energy grid?
  • Are mechanisms in place that overtly acknowledge the tendency and ability for elite interests to use their power and influence to make changes to the system that are in their own interest and not in the interest of the public good? Is there a balance between the financial gains of investors and the needs of our communities?
  • Is systemic change being addressed to ensure that false solutions are not fast-tracked and prioritized? Is urgency overriding peoples’ right to participate in the vetting process of projects?
  • What mechanisms are in place that identify and report on externalities, and the environmental impacts beyond our state’s borders? What mechanisms are in place to account for the costs of our present environmental impacts on future generations?
  • Do policies and programs equitably reduce our dependence on fossil fuel, while identifying solutions for communities that are “energy poor,” and thus lack resources to produce their own energy? Are urban areas externalizing their energy needs to rural, poor areas, or are they implementing solutions for a just transition? 
  • Are all new projects that have an environmental impact, including, but not limited to, those through the Act 250 process, being thoroughly vetted by the public? What mechanisms are in place that identify and remove barriers to legal expertise, especially when it comes to siting review?
  • Are sufficient public funds being allocated to ensure enforcement of regulation? Is it clear how the public is to monitor the allocation and use of tax dollars for enforcement of regulation?

At the heart of a vision grounded in democracy and human rights is the principle of participation. Every person, family and community in society is entitled to fully participate and exercise power in the political, social and economic systems, institutions and processes that affect the realization of their rights. In the case of climate change, everyone is affected. Participation is not mere presence or voice, but rather requires that people be enabled and empowered to take part in shaping and influencing society and government. If a group is seen as not participating, there must be mechanisms in place to identify why that group is not represented, and remedy the exclusion. Anything less than 100% participation must automatically trigger efforts to reach out to those identified as absent from the discussion.  As a necessary corollary, all obstacles to participation, such as unjust criminalization, disrespectful or undignified treatment, or other forms of discrimination, must be eliminated. Vermont’s government must support the participation of the people in decisions about how their needs are met and their human rights realized.

  • Are structures in place that ensure affected people and communities have a powerful voice in decisions that are made?
  • Do decision-making structures account for levels of “impacted” individuals and communities? Are projects implemented and measured for their impact across economic, ecological, and social spectrums?
  • Are all stakeholders participating in implementing solutions to meet peoples’ needs? Is participation meaningful? 

Our fundamental rights unite us: we depend on each other for mutual support and recognition. As we struggle together to realize our shared vision, we understand that we can meet all of our human needs only by achieving all of our human rights. Further, we know that winning one right, or some rights, is not enough. Without transportation to the hospital, for example, a universal healthcare system does not serve us equitably. To fully realize our rights in the food system, we must simultaneously have the right to dignified work, and the right to organize, along with the right to healthy food. And if we achieve each of our rights, but continue the relentless destruction of our earth, we will have failed to truly win human rights. Failing to connect our rights holistically would deny future generations their rights, and thus their ability to meet their human needs.  Our functioning democracy requires ALL of our human rights are upheld.