Climate Change as a Human Rights Issue

A plethora of potential solutions have been proposed to tackle the global climate crisis. From technological innovation to the socialist revolution, the fixes - and their proponents - are many. However, one approach that has had somewhat less screen time is the integration of human rights and environmental law.

What are Human Rights?

The United Nations defines them succinctly: “Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status.” Their Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), published in 1948, is probably the most famous piece of legislation ever produced on the definition and, thus, protection of these inalienable entitlements. Within this document are thirty articles that lay plainly the rights of each and every human being: from life to security, to the prohibition of slavery, the articles are wide-ranging in their mission to ensure the principles of the UN are met. Just so you know, the UN does not hold a monopoly on human rights legislation - many states have their own (the UK’s Human Rights Act 1998, for example), but each country is bound by law to their commitments and so each piece of legislation should complement one another, rather than negate. In fact, it is the duty of states to protect their citizens, through law and order, in return for obedience. This is the basis of social contract theory and is enshrined in international law (UDHR articles 16.3, 22, and 23.3). Therefore, the case can - and should - be argued that the climate crisis’ attack on the lives and livelihoods of people around the world is an assault on their basic, fundamental rights as human beings. Why, then, aren’t national governments doing more to prevent such offenses, as they are legally obliged to do?

The climate crisis, after all, has been demonstrably disastrous for millions around the world - and that’s before we’ve hit the 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, roundly proclaimed to be our last best chance to prevent complete calamity. As such, numerous human rights have, inevitably, been violated. However, for the sake of brevity, we will be examining the violation of only the right to life - also, mortality rates are easier to measure, and thus there is more relevant information available online.

Right to Life

The UDHR is rather vague on this right (Article 3), but a successive UN text, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), fleshes out the term: “Every human being has the inherent right to life… shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.” (Article 6.1). Here, the right to continue living must be upheld and cannot be taken away by the state, arbitrarily (i.e. without reason). The aforementioned UK bill similarly states, “nobody, including the Government, can try to end your life... the Government should... safeguard life by making laws to protect you and... protect you if your life is at risk.” (Article 2). Enshrined in law, in both cases, are promises to protect the lives of citizens - not only pledges to not kill their own citizens (how kind!), but to go one step beyond and ensure proactive measures are implemented to prevent loss of life.

The exact statistics as to how many die, and will die, due to climate-related events is hard to calculate. The impacts and consequences are so broad and far-reaching that it is tricky to know what to attribute to the crisis. For a general idea, though, the World Health Organization (WHO), estimates that about 250,000 will lose their lives thanks to climate change-induced “malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress” between 2030 and 2050. One study estimated that, depending on how well we limit carbon emissions, carbon-related deaths could range from anywhere between 9 and 83 million by 2100. Hotter summers around the world have already led to an estimated extra 100,000 deaths per year since 2000.

Clearly, the right to life is being breached by the deteriorating situation. Already, hundreds of thousands of deaths are being attributed to the crisis - and those are just the measurable ones; many more may perish. Moreover, the above statistics do not take into account the impact on the livelihoods of people - sources of income, agriculture, health, shelter - which in turn could lead to more deaths and widespread instability. If the governments of the world are serious about their commitments to upholding the rights of their citizens, then they need to up the ante on tackling the adverse effects of the climate crisis.

Why should Human Rights be Integrated?

Now that we have explored how climate change is impacting the right to life for many people and will continue to do so, we can take a look at some advantages (and disadvantages) of adopting a human rights-based approach to combating the crisis.

The Good

Firstly, is the obligation of nation-states to carry out the various pledges made either internationally or domestically. A fundamental element of political philosophy is the idea of social contract theory, which was touched upon previously. Essentially, the theory argues that the authority of the state over the individual is granted due to the former’s guarantee of protection of rights of the latter, and the maintenance of order. As mentioned, there are legal agreements at both the international and national level - the UDHR and the UK’s Human Rights Act (although there are many others) - that commit policymakers around the world to sustain the basic rights of their citizens, of the individual. Applying a human rights-based approach to solving, or at least mitigating, worsening environmental destruction may encourage national governments to invest in preventative and decisive measures.

In fact, adopting this view could help to empower the individual. If the individual feels their rights to life, health, education, and so on, are being breached then they can take their government, or offending actor, to court. Putting that into the context of climate change, people could really put pressure on their governments to act faster and firmer lest the offending institution face charges, sanctions, and/or a fall in both domestic and global prestige. A national government could face pressure from both above and below, which could just be enough motivation to churn them into action.

In brief, national governments, in a world where their word is, ultimately, the most important, need to play a massive role in curbing the effects of climate change. Thanks to various systems of accountability - international intergovernmental organizations, social contract theory, and democracy, for example. Embracing a human rights approach may add to this accountability and help to influence the decisions of the big cats.

The Not So Good

While the ability to keep your government in check is, by most accounts that I can think of, a positive, it should not come at the cost of burdening the individual. There is a risk of normalizing the process of an individual taking their government to court, at much financial and temporal cost to the former, without there being much of a substantial result. Moreover, putting the onus on the citizen, or citizens, to take action could ironically take the pressure off national governments. There should not be a shift from the view that, without international cooperation, then no progress can be made. There needs to be a balance between emboldening citizens while maintaining pressure at the national level.

Finally, there is some fear that the egalitarianistic ideology that underpins the concept of human rights may not, realistically, be agreeable. If all states, with their different needs and demands, are forced to follow the same rules regarding prevention - rules that may be unaffordable for a lot of developing countries - then it could be detrimental to international cooperation. However, I would argue that this is a defeatist view, and unambitious. Without fresh outlooks, the world may never achieve the agreed-upon goal of preventing a 1.5 degree Celsius rise above base temperatures by 2030.

And from that, there is no return.


Fergus Hallwood.