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Status: Published

Climate change and human rights (2008)



Climate ChangeWhat are the human rights implications of climate change? From new health risks, such as the increased incidence of malaria, to mass migration, to threatened food and water supplies, to the disappearance of shelter, land, livelihoods and cultures, climate change creates human rights concerns at every turn. Yet remarkably little study to date has focused systematically on their interconnection.

This situation is unlikely to last. As the effects of climate change become increasingly apparent, those affected will turn to human rights to frame their claims and to demand responses. Some are already doing so. And as consensus on the need for urgent action to address global warming grows, it will drive numerous other economic, political and social agendas − with further human rights implications.

Human rights are not merely relevant to climate change impacts, however. Mitigation and adaptation strategies each open up hard human rights questions: assigning accountability for extraterritorial harms; allocating burdens and benefits, rights and duties among perpetrators and victims, both public and private; constructing reliable enforcement mechanisms. Human rights advocates will be forced to look hard at large justice issues they can usually set aside.

In thinking through these connections, foresight but also caution will be needed. Human rights can seem intellectually invasive; a tendency to think in moral absolutes can cloud rather than clarify complex issues. Human rights lawyers are not known for seeking consensus or conciliation, both generally thought critical to the negotiation of policies that can successfully address climate change. At the same time, profound justice claims have been raised repeatedly in the course of climate change negotiations only to be finally neglected or removed.

The Council commenced research on this subject in 2007, in order to help orient human rights thinking about climate change and to frame the relevant issues clearly. Our aim has been to identify, on one hand, whether human rights principles, law and policy are equipped for the immense problems generated by global warming and, on the other, how human rights tools can aid in constructing a just regime to manage and mitigate climate change effects.

In June 2008, the Council published a report mapping the principal areas of human rights concern raised by climate change and exploring some of the possible benefits and dangers of adopting human rights tools and principles in the climate change domain (available here).

In mid-2009, a collection of articles on climate change and human rights was published by the Council together with Cambridge University Press. The first collection to deal systematically with these issues, the book features a group of well-known experts on a range of related themes.

The Council has further undertaken research into the human rights dimensions of climate technology policies. This research will lead to a series of short briefing papers and recommendations through 2009, culminating in a full report in 2010.

Research team




“This report is the first systematic treatment of [this subject]. It is at the same time a concise
and lucid analysis of the social, economic, legal and ethical impact of expected climate changes.
It should be of interest to specialists and generalists alike.” Dharam Ghai, Former Director, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development

“Excellent.” Tariq Banuri, Senior Fellow, Stockholm Environmental Institute

“Very good … an important contribution to the human rights-climate change dialogue, not least
in how it sets out a pragmatic agenda that can be addressed by countries.” John Drexhage, Director, Climate Change and Energy Program, IISD