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Human Rights and Climate Change

How can we have a sustainable relationship with nature? How can we find long-term, just and globally viable ways to live and run our economies? These questions are central for a human rights perspective on climate and environmental.

Climate change has grave effects on human rights

Climate change threatens the human rights requirements for freedom in an existential and irreversible manner. In many regions, the human rights to life, education, food, housing, water and health are already seriously under threat. Already highly marginalized groups are affected disproportionately, for example, people living in poverty, Indigenous Peoples, women and children. In the event of natural disasters, for example, gender discrimination is one of the reasons why fewer women than men survive the event and more girls than boys drop out of schools after the event. Since Indigenous Peoples often live closer to and are economically more dependent on nature, their livelihoods and survival are more threatened with environmental change.

The Effects of Climate Change on the Full Enjoyment of Human Rights (2015). Paper of five UN-Special Rapporteurs of the UN-Human Rights Council for Climate Vulnerability Forum

Human rights oblige states to reduce emissions

States have a human rights obligation towards rights holders to act. Human rights and accompanying obligations of the state to protect rights holders do not end at national borders and are not limited to current generations. States thus have human rights obligations to reduce their carbon emissions drastically. This obligation derives in particular from the Precautionary Principle which is builds on human rights. It requires that states take all necessary measures to avert danger for people and nature in a timely manner, notwithstanding scientific uncertainties with regard to concrete impacts or the causality of contributions to climate change.  States need to act through global cooperation and national efforts. The Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations, adopted by a group of reputable experts in March 2015, refine the distributional questions for measures to reduce emissions. They state that all countries must avoid and reduce emissions if it is cost-neutral or if it can be off-set through future gains. In addition, countries that are currently above permissible emission levels to avoid a two degree warming of the Earth are obliged to take reduction measures even if they entail costs while countries that are below permissible emission levels only need to do so if countries above permissible levels and other entities provide them with the required financial and technical means. From this follows the overall imperative to refrain from measures that cause climate change and to do everything they can to prevent it.

Ekardt (2015): Menschenrechte und Umweltschutz - Unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des Klimawandels und der Sustainable Development Goals (German only)

Human rights offer binding standards for mitigation and adaptation measures

Mitigation and adaptation measures aim to reduce the above mentioned effects of climate change but can themselves have negative effects on human rights. A study of the previous Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food finds, for example, that the increased cultivation of biofuels already affects food security in some countries. A report by the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice documents how the construction of a dam supported by the Clean Development Mechanism is leading to forced resettlements of Indigenous Peoples.  Mitigation and adaptation measures therefore need to be implemented in a manner consistent with human rights standards and principles. Human rights principles require the priority protection of particularly marginalized groups, the participation of people in decisions that affect them and access to remedy mechanisms in case of violations.

OHCHR (2015): Understanding Human Rights and Climate Change – Submission to COP21

BMZ (2010): A human rights-based approach to protecting the environment and natural resources, in:  Human rights in practice - Fact sheets on a human rights-based approach in development cooperation

UN member states are increasingly influenced by the fact that human rights trigger obligations to act on climate change. In 2015, states at the UN Human Rights Council reaffirmed unanimously that member states of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change should fully respect human rights in all climate change-related actions. Member states emphasized in the Paris Agreement's preamble of December 2015 to respect and promote human rights and rights of disproportionately affected groups, like Indigenous peoples. This is a first step.

Notwithstanding this progress: Human rights obligation to address climate change must be acknowledged and implemented by all countries.