Taking a Human Rights Approach to Climate Change

“Climate change is an urgent global problem requiring a global solution.”[1] The report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released in August provided a terrifying update that detailed the progression of global warming and extreme weather patterns.[2] Low-income countries and their inhabitants are disproportionately affected by climate change because they are often situated in some of the hottest parts of Earth.[3] Climate change’s geographic based impact has corresponding human rights harms for the people living in these countries.[4]

Human rights encompass the universal legal guarantees to individuals to enjoy a full spectrum of fundamental freedoms and entitlements.[5] These rights include food, health, water, sanitation, housing, equality, and basic survival.[6]Human rights are legally protected interests and impose corresponding obligations on states to adhere to those protections.[7]

The effects of climate change and human rights violations are linked.[8] The U.N. describes climate change as a “crisis multiplier,” meaning it creates or exacerbates already existing human rights concerns, such as food insecurity and international stability.[9] Flavia Pansieri, the former U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, described the irony of climate change’s effects on human rights: “Those who have contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions will be the ones who bear the greatest burden; the poorest people, in the poorest countries, their children, and all our children.”[10] This irony is worsened by the fact that low-income countries do not have the means to respond or prepare to climate change’s effects, with some estimates that the cost of adaptation in developing market economies costs billions of dollars a year.[11]

There needs to be a human rights approach to addressing climate change in low-income countries. Taking such an approach works to combat the global climate crisis while protecting people’s fundamental freedoms and entitlements.[12]

Issues exist with our current international climate regime which make it difficult to acknowledge and effectively address human rights. Only within the last decade have U.N. human rights bodies and national governments developed a consensus about the link between climate change and its effects on human rights.[13] Whether that link is an attributable legal violation remains unclear. A report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights described this issue: “While climate change has obvious implications for the enjoyment of human rights, it is less obvious whether, and to what extent, such effects can be qualified as human rights violations in a strict legal sense.”[14] The international climate regime has not formed a consensus over whether wealthier nations with developed market economies have legal obligations to address the corresponding human rights harms of climate change in poorer countries.[15]

Additionally, the current international climate regime lacks policy coherence. The Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the U.N. recognize that it is each nation’s responsibility to decide how to address climate change.[16]Unfortunately, this freedom resulted in a hodge-podge of policies with few international agreements to which governments must adhere.[17]

There is also a lack of financial incentivization, at least in the short term, for individual nations to take aggressive climate change action. It makes sense for nations collectively to invest in climate change mitigation strategies, but it is individually rational for them to rely on other nations to do the leg work of such strategies.[18]

International jurisprudence, while developing, provides no clear answers to these issues. Plaintiffs often lack standing in court to invoke recognized obligations under international environmental treaties.[19] Even when there is a lawsuit, courts thus far have limited nations’ legal obligations to domestic jurisdictions.[20]

Taking a human rights approach to climate change recognizes an affirmative obligation for developed nations to mitigate climate change as part of a legal duty to protect human rights. This approach can be described through placing procedural and substantive obligations on developed countries.

In terms of procedural obligations, each state within its domestic territory should adopt legal and institutional schemes that address the harm climate change imposes on human rights.[21] These schemes should focus on ensuring access to information, encouraging public participation in climate change policy making, and providing administrative and judicial remedies for climate change related harms.[22] On an international level, states should revise their nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement to align their human rights treaty obligations with their climate change obligations.[23] State actors should also focus on international cooperation to implement the goals set forth in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.[24]

In terms of substantive obligations, money talks. States should formulate a plan for concessional climate finance, which means jointly contributing funding to lower-income countries for climate related mitigation and adaptation strategies.[25] Concessional climate financing helps poor countries react to climate change’s devastating impacts.[26] International financial institutions, like the International Monetary Fund, can provide financial support and economic policy advice to low-income countries.[27] It is also important to make adaptation technology accessible. As clean technology progresses, nations should work to transfer that technology to low-income countries to enhance efforts to prepare for climate change impacts.[28]Creative risk sharing strategies, such as parametric insurance, can also be an effective tool for countries’ emergency responses to climate-related natural disasters.[29] Parametric insurance essentially provides payouts based on parameterized models for each category of insured, climate-change related natural disasters.[30]

A human-rights approach to climate change provides a framework by which wealthier countries support poorer countries who are most burdened by climate change and least at fault for its effects.[31] It also holds governments and private actors accountable for controlling and regulating their individual climate impacts.[32] Finally, it creates a more cohesive and effective international climate policy regime.

[1] Human Rights Council Res. 26/27, A/HRC/RES/26/27 (July 15, 2014).

[2] Press Release, Climate Change Widespread, Rapid, and Intensifying – IPCC, ipcc (Aug. 9, 2021) https://www.ipcc.ch/2021/08/09/ar6-wg1-20210809-pr/.

[3]  IMF, World Economic Outlook: Seeking Sustainable Growth – Short Term Recovery, Long-Term Challenges, ch. 3, 118 (Oct. 2017).

[4] UNEP, Climate Change and Human Rights, 2, Columbia Law School Sabin Center for Climate Change Law (2015).

[5] Understanding Human Rights and Climate Change, OHCHR, 1, 6, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/ClimateChange/COP21.pdf.

[6] Alan Boyle, Climate Change, the Paris Agreement and Human Rights, 67 Int’l. & Compar. Law Quarterly, 759-77  (2018).

[7] OHCHR, supra, note 5, at 2.

[8] Achim Steiner, The UN Role in Climate Change Action: Taking The Lead Towards a Global Response, UN Chronicle, https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/un-role-climate-change-action-taking-lead-towards-global-response.

[9] Special Rapporteur on the Right to Development to the Human Rights Council: Climate Change is a Global Human Rights Threat Multiplier (Sept., 17, 2021) https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/meeting-summary/2021/09/pour-le-rapporteur-special-sur-le-droit-au-developpement-le.

[10] Press Release, Address by Flavia Pansieri United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Full-Day Discussion on Human Rights and Climate Change, (March 6, 2015) https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15655&LangID=E.

[11] IMF, supra, note 3.  

[12] OHCHR, supra, note 5.

[13] UNEP, supra, note 4.

[14] Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on the Relationship Between Climate Change and Human Rights, UN Doc. A/HRC/10/61 (Jan. 15, 2009).

[15] UNEP, supra, note 4, at 16-19.

[16] Boyle, supra, note 6.

[17] Id.

[18] Benoit Mayer, Climate Change Mitigation As An Obligation Under Human Rights Treaties?, 115 A.J.I.L. 409 (2021).

[19] Id.

[20] John H. Knox, Human Rights Principles and Climate Change, Oxford Handbook of International Climate Change Law, 1, 9 (Cinnamon P. Carlarnet, Kevin R. Gray & Richard Tarasofsky eds., 2016).

[21] UNEP, supra, note 4, at 11.

[22] Id. at 16-19.

[23] Mayer, supra, at 410.

[24] OHCHR, supra, note 5, at 2.

[25] IMF, supra, note 3, at 136.

[26] Id. at 136.

[27] Id. at 148-49.

[28] Id.

[29] Id. at 150.

[30] Id.

[31] Stuart Braun, Climate Change Burden Unfairly Borne by World’s Poorest Countries, DW, (Sep. 9, 2017), https://www.dw.com/en/climate-change-burden-unfairly-borne-by-worlds-poorest-countries/a-40726908.

[32] Boyle, supra, note 6.