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Climate change : Challenging environmental injustices in court

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The SC judgement marks a significant milestone, establishing the right against climate change as a distinct, fundamental human right

Manoj Kumar Pathak

Climate change is a matter of Justice. Climate justice means putting equity and human rights at the core of decision-making and action on climate change. The critical importance of safeguarding the environment is deeply embedded within the framework of the Indian Constitution, reflected through a multitude of principles and provisions. One such instance is elucidated in Article 48A, which unequivocally directs the state to not only protect but also enhance the environment, while also emphasising the imperative to safeguard forests and wildlife.

Furthermore, the constitutional recognition of the right to a clean and healthy environment, enshrined within Article 21, has been fortified through seminal legal precedents like the MC Mehta v union of India and Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK) v. State of Uttar Pradesh cases. Article 51A (g) echoes this sentiment by laying down a fundamental duty upon every citizen to actively contribute to the preservation and enrichment of the natural environment, thus fostering a sense of collective responsibility towards environmental stewardship.

Groundbreaking Ruling

Moreover, the Directive Principles of State Policy, enshrined within Article 37, prescribe the promotion of sustainable development as a guiding principle for the state. This entails that economic progress is pursued in consonance with the imperative of environmental conservation. These constitutional provisions reflect a holistic understanding of the interdependence among the environment, human well-being and future generations.

In a groundbreaking ruling aimed at safeguarding the critically endangered great Indian bustard and the lesser florican from extinction, the Supreme Court has unequivocally affirmed citizens’ rights to a clean environment and protection against the adverse impacts of climate change. This landmark judgement marks a significant milestone, establishing the right against climate change as a distinct, fundamental human right — a notion underscored by references to Articles 14 (Right to Equality) and 21 (Right to Life) of the Constitution.

Clear Connections

In its deliberations on the survival of these imperilled species, the Supreme Court introduced extensive discourse on climate change, highlighting the urgent need for a clean and stable environment. The judgement draws clear connections between climate change and a myriad of pressing issues confronting not only India but the entire planet. These include the health repercussions stemming from air pollution and the proliferation of vector-borne diseases, as well as the escalating challenges posed by rising temperatures, droughts, crop failures leading to food shortages, and the intensification of storms and flooding events.

Moreover, the judgement underscores the notion that the inability of communities to adapt to or mitigate the impacts of climate change constitutes a violation of both the right to life and the right to equality. By elucidating this interconnectedness, the Supreme Court emphasises that infringements upon the right to a healthy environment reverberate across various domains of human rights, including but not limited to the right to health, housing, water and equitable access to energy resources.

In essence, the ruling serves as a poignant reminder to adopt a holistic approach to address the multifaceted challenges posed by climate change, recognising that the preservation of a sustainable and habitable environment is essential for upholding the dignity and well-being of all individuals.

The judgement has established a robust legal foundation for addressing the rights infringed upon by climate change, akin to those affected by environmental degradation, within the purview of Article 21. This delineation of a distinct legal category signifies a significant step forward in jurisprudence, promising to lend greater legal clarity and protection to individuals impacted by climate change-induced adversities. However, the efficacy and frequency of such utilisation remain contingent upon future applications and interpretations by the judiciary. A broader consideration pertains to the incorporation of this recognition into the constitutional framework, a responsibility that falls within the purview of parliamentarians.

Legislative Action

Notably, climate change and its ramifications, along with mitigation and adaptation strategies, have conspicuously been absent from the manifestos of political parties. Thus, the potential impact of such judicial pronouncement hinges on the proactive engagement of parliamentarians in integrating these principles into legislative frameworks. Merely relying on judicial directives, while significant, may not suffice in addressing the multifaceted challenges posed by climate change. What is imperative is a concerted effort to translate such judicial outcomes into tangible legislative action. This necessitates the formulation of robust and implementable laws that effectively address the myriad dimensions of climate change. Achieving meaningful progress in combating climate change demands a collaborative approach encompassing legislative initiatives, policy interventions, public awareness campaigns and international cooperation.

The concept of addressing climate change as a fundamental right against it remains relatively unexplored in many jurisdictions worldwide. It marks a significant milestone that the legislative institution has introduced this topic, with the judiciary furthering the discourse and the Chief Justice contributing to its (re)definition. The assertion that the right to life encompasses the right to combat climate change not only provides a robust foundation for environmental and climate stewardship but also underscores the imperative for collective action and steadfast commitment. India’s pivotal role in shaping global climate policies, targets, commitments and actions in the recent Conference of the Parties (COPs) is noteworthy. This landmark judgement sets a precedent globally, potentially empowering India to advocate with greater conviction and commitment in future COP meetings.

While climate change represents a vast and complex reality, it is fundamentally a matter of social justice, human rights and intergenerational equity. These incremental steps toward expanding the definition of rights can yield significant benefits for all stakeholders, both nationally and globally. The recognition of this right provides a legal language to challenge environmental injustices in court, thereby enhancing accountability and promoting environmental protection.

As we reflect on the spirit of the Supreme Court’s decision, it behoves us to redouble our efforts in safeguarding and nurturing the environment. By embracing this ethos, we can collectively pave the way for a more resilient, sustainable future that upholds the rights and well-being of present and future generations alike.

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