The Climate Crisis Is A Human Rights Issue – Here’s Why

By Ruth Campbell, Writer 25 Jul 2019

I’ll admit it: when I first saw the weather forecast for this week I was just a bit excited that summer had finally arrived. But by the third day, as temperatures hit 37 degrees here in London? Not so much.

The record temperatures this month have led many climate scientists to suggest that July will be the hottest month ever measured on Earth – and alongside feeling tired, sweaty, and fed-up – I’m also feeling a little bit scared. You don’t have to look very far to see headlines about how these evermore frequent extreme temperatures all point to climate change.

We all know that climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time. What we don’t hear so much about is the relationship between climate change and our human rights – both the horrifying consequences of climate change for our rights, but also the ways in which human rights can help us fight it.

‘A Climate Apartheid’

Image credit: Unsplash / Sam Jotham Sutharson

There isn’t a standalone human right that’s directly enforceable in the UK to a stable climate or to a clean environment, but the impact of climate change will be felt on a number of other human rights.

We know that climate change has a major impact on our ecosystems, natural resources and physical environment. It’s not just rising temperatures, but extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and shifts in the balance of our ecosystems. Millions of people are already suffering through drought, devastating storms, heatwaves and wildfires which can wipe out homes and communities. The right to clean water and sanitation, the right to health, the right to food, to an adequate standard of living – to life, even – are all affected by climate change.

Climate change can also exacerbate existing inequality and discrimination. Just last month, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights said the world is at risk of “climate apartheid”: those who are better off will be able to pay to escape the heat and hunger caused by a climate crisis, while those in poverty are forced to confront the consequences, and lose access to food, water and housing.

UN human rights bodies have identified that some groups will be hit harder than others: women and children are more than 14 times more likely to die in disasters created by climate change, while indigenous people – who are more likely to live subsistence lifestyles, in more isolated areas – will bear the brunt of the consequences of climate change.

Then there’s the impact that climate change will have on other, existing human rights crises. Right now, there are more than 70 million refugees and displaced people around the world, with countries struggling to find a way to respond to the crisis. Research suggests that climate change will worsen this by creating up to 200 million more displaced people and refugees as they seek to escape its consequences.

And where there is discontent, deprivation, and growing inequality, there is political instability and tension. When RightsInfo spoke to the UN special rapporteur, Philip Alston, in June this year, he expressed concern that the fundamental disruptions which climate change causes can “threaten civil and political rights and even democracy” – he pointed to the political upheaval in France caused by the difficulty of reaching agreement on climate-related taxes. In the worst cases, in areas where there is pre-existing political instability, it could spiral into all out conflict.

A Human Rights Solution?

Image credit: Unsplash / Bob Blob

It’s not all bad news though. Looking at climate change through a human rights lens can help force change.

Earlier this year, for example, a group of Torres Strait Islanders (people indigenous to the Torres Strait Island, which is part of Queensland, Australia) lodged a complaint with the UN human rights committee (UNHRC) alleging that the Australian government has failed to protect the fundamental human rights of the Torres Strait Islander people through its inaction on climate change.

A report from the London School of Economics (LSE) shows that they’re not the only ones –  the role of human rights in climate change litigation is growing. Climate change cases have been brought in more than 28 countries around the world, with many of these drawing attention to the impact of climate change on health, livelihood, and shelter.

The Torres Strait Islanders are even arguing that the impact of climate change on the future of their land – which will include coastal erosion, and in the most extreme scenario, total submergence of the islands – will obliterate their ancestral home and lands, severe enough to constitute a violation of their right to culture and family life.

A human rights approach to climate change can ensure that the impact of climate change on our fundamental rights is kept firmly in sight – but also makes sure that solutions are people-centred as well.

Human rights regulate the relationship between individuals and the state which means that they can help make sure that governments and public bodies are held accountable and forced to fulfil their duties to the people.

It’s an approach that’s catching on: just this month, Amnesty International, Greenpeace International and the UN Human Rights Office announced the first ever global summit on human rights and climate change. Their goal? To support people to demand immediate and ambitious action on climate change from governments.

What Now?

Image credit: Unsplash / Yoni Kaplan-Nadel

Climate change isn’t a natural disaster. It’s the result of years of inaction in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. But if it’s man-made, that means surely that it’s within our power to find a solution to it as well.

Now, more than ever, it feels as though there is a sense of momentum behind tackling climate change. People have been taking to the streets in their thousands to protest while the activism of children and young people who have gone on strike from school around the world has inspired hope in so many.

The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights warned darkly that human rights might not survive climate change. There’s a more extreme version of that: we won’t even have to worry about human rights if we don’t have a place to call home anymore.

Read more: What are your rights in the workplace during the UK heatwave?

Featured image: Unsplash / Markus Spiske

About The Author

Ruth Campbell Writer

Ruth graduated from the University of Oxford with a BA in Jurisprudence before completing a Masters in Medical Law and Ethics at King’s College. She works for a national medical organisation in the Medical Ethics and Human Rights Department, where she leads on policy relating to end of life issues and health in detention.

Ruth graduated from the University of Oxford with a BA in Jurisprudence before completing a Masters in Medical Law and Ethics at King’s College. She works for a national medical organisation in the Medical Ethics and Human Rights Department, where she leads on policy relating to end of life issues and health in detention.