Humanity is characterized by knowing its responsibilities and its individual and collective rights, but there is a certain lack of knowledge about the effects of climate change on human rights.
The climate crisis: A threat to human rights

Today, the debate on the climate crisis is almost a commonplace in any sphere of social life. Whether it is a matter of high policy discussed at a summit between the European Union and Asian countries, in a classroom session of any course in a Latin American university, or in social debates in any African region.

The topicality of the climate debate constitutes one of the main agendas of the United Nations portfolio, as well as small governmental policy programs everywhere on the planet: from the modern and progressive Scandinavian societies to the remote corners of traditional Nepal, the climate debate is here to stay, to modify patterns of life, to mobilize communities for action and in some way to slow down or promote a new conception of development.

On the other side of the "heated" debate on climate change is the issue of human rights, whose implementation has paradoxically begun to be threatened by this worrying issue.

The progressive destruction of protected areas of flora and fauna, the disrespect for the biophysical limits of the planet, and above all the degradation of the ozone layer as a result of emissions from human activity, have a profound negative impact on the achievement of universally recognized human rights.

Why does the climate crisis threaten the implementation of human rights?

Climate change is having an undeniable impact on human rights. These consequences will only worsen in the coming years, as has been pointed out by several studies, including those led by the United Nations. 

Since 2008, the UN Human Rights Council has adopted a series of resolutions on human rights and climate change. These resolutions have required the organization of roundtables on climate change within the Human Rights Council, as well as the preparation by the High Commissioner of studies, reports and summaries for the Council. 

We must recognize that the climate crisis is a human rights issue not only because of its devastating consequences for the enjoyment of these rights, but also because it is a phenomenon caused mainly by the productive sector of the economy since the industrial revolution, which places the entire planetary harmony at risk.

It is the governments that have to generate state policies and multilateral cooperation to mitigate to a greater or lesser extent this global problem.

The longer governments wait to take real action, the more difficult it will be to address the problem and the greater the risk of having to limit emissions in a way that reinforces inequalities instead of reducing them. Inequalities, as we know, are a factor that undermines the full exercise of human rights.

It is therefore imperative to have laws that involve the actors that contribute to this problem, greater cooperation is needed between States and private companies, since most GHG emissions come from the private sector, and it is also essential to raise awareness and involve civil society so that they join climate action.

How does climate change affect human rights?

The climate crisis interferes directly and indirectly with human rights. This problem has a sequence of negative repercussions on the effective enjoyment of these rights because of the direct impact on livelihoods. It is one of the greatest threats to the human rights of present and future generations.

Right to life: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security and integrity of person. But climate change threatens the security of billions of people on this planet. Extreme weather events, such as storms, floods and forest fires, are the most striking example. In addition, the World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that climate change will cause 250,000 deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 due to malaria, malnutrition, diarrhea and heat stress.

Right to health: Everyone has the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. According to the IPCC, the main health consequences of climate change will be increased risk of injury, illness and death from heat waves and forest fires; increased risk of malnutrition due to reduced food production in poor regions; and increased risk of food- and water-borne diseases.

Right to housing: Everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate housing. However, climate change threatens the right to housing in multiple ways. Extreme weather events, such as floods and wildfires, are already destroying homes and displacing people globally.

Right to water and sanitation: Everyone has the right to water for personal and domestic use and to sanitation for health. However, factors such as melting snow and ice, reduced precipitation, rising temperatures and rising sea levels demonstrate that climate change is affecting, and will continue to affect, water resources, both in terms of quantity and quality. Already, more than one billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and climate change will worsen this dramatic situation.

Given this situation, the UN Human Rights Council has highlighted in resolution 18/22 human rights obligations, rules and principles that have the potential to inform and strengthen the formulation of policies against climate change, promoting an approach based on respect for the planet's biophysical limits and a vision of sustainability.

Shared responsibility in the face of the climate crisis

-Public Sector

Human rights must be guaranteed by States. They have an obligation to limit the adverse effects of climate change by adopting the most ambitious measures possible to prevent and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the shortest possible time.

For this reason, measures have been established to combat the climate crisis as quickly and humanely as possible. These measures are part of the commitments assumed by the States in different agreements and treaties, including the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which provides financial support to countries that need it to implement strategies for mitigating and adapting to the negative effects of climate change.

Understanding that the climate crisis is a problem of global governance, all States must cooperate in the search for solutions and comply with global agreements and treaties, such as the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

The right to development is a human right and the policies of States must make a difference in the vanguard against the climate crisis. Therefore, the State is directly responsible for the implementation of climate measures, and these must never directly or indirectly violate human rights.

-Private Sector

Private companies have a responsibility to respect human rights. They must assess the potential impacts of their activities and put in place measures to prevent adverse impacts, making public the results of the assessments and the measures they take.

Private capitals are also taking measures to address the human rights abuses they cause or contribute to, either on their own or in collaboration with other actors. These responsibilities also extend to human rights abuses caused by the climate crisis.

The entire private sector of the economy, primarily large capitals must immediately implement measures to minimize greenhouse gas emissions, including by switching to renewable energy projects, and by making public relevant information on their emissions and measures to limit them as much as possible. These measures should apply to all subsidiaries, partners and major entities in their supply chains.

It is no secret that fossil fuel companies have long been, and continue to be, major contributors to environmental degradation. Research shows that some 100 fossil fuel companies are responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.

There is growing evidence that large fossil fuel companies have known for decades about the harmful effects of burning fossil fuels and have tried to hide this information and prevent action to combat the climate crisis.

It is true that the productive sector of the economy is the largest emitter of GHGs, but it should be noted that it is the sector where most progress has been made in adapting to sustainability and environmental protection.

What can we do to counteract the effects of climate change on human rights?

For international human rights organizations, States that do not act and do not provide solutions must be held accountable at the United Nations level, and within the framework of the Annual Conference of the Parties (COP).

Support must be given to young people, SMEs, NGOs and the populations most vulnerable to the negative effects of this problem. Through demands for a rapid and just ecological transition towards sustainable development.

These actions should assist and facilitate the work of those working to protect land, food and people from the consequences of climate change. Defending the civic space for information, participation and mobilization will also help to promote climate policies that are more adapted to the real needs of the planet.

To achieve a better harmonization between human rights and climate change, we must demand that the world's governments continue to prevent temperatures from rising by 1.5°C; in full compliance with the Agreements reached in Paris in 2015.

Greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced to zero by 2050 at the latest. The most industrialized countries must meet this target quickly. By 2030, global emissions must be halved from their 2010 level;

Reduce the use of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) as soon as possible, until they are largely replaced by alternative energy sources;

Ensure that climate action is carried out in a way that does not undermine human rights and reduces, rather than increases, inequalities.

Ensure that everyone, especially those vulnerable to the climate crisis, has full information about what is happening and can participate in decisions about their future;

Promote climate justice and ecological justice as new paradigms in the society-development-nature relationship;

The democratization of all knowledge about climate change should be disseminated in a simple and very didactic way, in order to promote greater awareness in society about this problem that affects all living beings.

Work in multilateral cooperation to share the burden of climate change. Therefore, countries with greater economic development should help countries that do not have sufficient resources to adapt to climate change.

What to expect?

Climate change and its response will have a profound impact on the enjoyment of human rights for millions of people around the world. This occurs through direct impacts on people and our environment, through the degradation of ecosystems on which many populations depend for their subsistence and livelihoods.

It is necessary to highlight that more than 70 years have passed since Human Rights were enacted, yet today they are not respected in some regions, making it increasingly urgent that we ensure their full implementation across the planet. This must include obligations to reduce GHG emissions, environmental protection, safeguard citizens from the negative effects of climate change and ensure that the actions of all actors are efficient and effective, and do not lead to the violation of human rights.


Rosmel Rodriguez
European Climate Pact Ambassador


A Alice Hooffmans

The climate of the planet is fluctuating and getting warmer due to human activities.

1 year ago


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