28 October 2019

By: Isabela Zaleski Mori

Photo: OHCHR


On 10 December 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations. This universal declaration is based on the principle that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Today, more than 70 years later, humanity is facing one of the worst humanitarian disasters: climate change.

Climate change is affecting all four corners of the earth: disrupting domestic economies and costing people their lives and their countries. Weather patterns are changing, sea levels are rising, weather events are becoming more extreme. Without immediate action, the world’s average surface temperature will increase by 3°C this century. The poorest and most vulnerable people are suffering the most and their fundamental rights are being affected as result.

As highlighted by the UN Human Rights Council in its Resolution 26/27, “climate change is an urgent global problem requiring a global solution.” The Council called for international cooperation to implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) “in order to support national efforts for the realization of human rights affected by climate change-related impact.” Independent experts have encouraged governments to fully integrate human rights standards and principles into the implementation of the Paris Agreement.[1]

This agreement, adopted in 2015, made a significant step forward for the recognition of human rights to tackle climate change, while the countries committed themselves to respect the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities, as well as gender equality, women’s empowerment and intergenerational equity. The international community has been raising awareness about the serious problem of climate change; however, more effective measures need to be taken in order to combat its negative impacts on the full enjoyment of human rights.


In 1988, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) created the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide an objective source of scientific information. IPCC released its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) in 2013, which provided a comprehensive assessment of sea level rise, as well as a carbon dioxide (CO2) budget for future emissions to limit warming to less than 2°C.
In order to build a first step in addressing the climate change issues, the United Nations developed the UNFCCC through its “Earth Summit” in 1992. The main ambition of the UNFCCC is to prevent the “dangerous” human interference concerning the climate system.

Afterward, countries started negotiations to consolidate the global response to climate change and, in 1997, adopted the Kyoto Protocol which establishes legally binding limits for industrialized countries on emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.[2]

On 9 February 2015, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, co-hosted a Climate Justice Dialogue. Geneva Pledge for Human Rights in Climate Action is the main outcome document and was a voluntary initiative led by Costa Rica and initially supported by 18 countries from diverse regions.

In the same year, Heads of State and Government at the Special Summit on Sustainable Development adopted Agenda 2030 which set 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) with 169 targets to respond to the challenges of globalization based on the three components – environment, social and economic – of sustainable development. 

It should be noted that the Human Rights Council has pointed out the importance of addressing human rights in the context of ongoing discussion concerning the UNFCCC and the 2030 Agenda.[3]

In 2016, the Paris Agreement entered into force to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping the global temperature rise this century below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5°C.

Finally, in September 2019, UN Secretary-General António Guterres assembled the United Nations Climate Action Summit to mobilize political and economic leaders at the highest levels to advance climate action that will enable implementation of many of the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Integrating Climate Change and Human Rights

Human rights protect individuals, groups and peoples against conduct and omissions that may obstruct their fundamental freedoms and entitlements, which are considered as universal legal guarantees. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and other human rights instruments identify universal human rights and express that all individuals who endure human rights harms are entitled to access effective remedy.

The Fifth Assessment Report by the IPCC emphatically asserts that “recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems” and that “human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of green-house gases are the highest in history.” Furthermore, AR5 affirmed that “people who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalized are especially vulnerable to climate change and also to some adaptation and mitigation responses.”[4] 

It is therefore clear that climate change poses a major threat to internationally-recognized human rights. By causing severe harms to physical health and survival, food and water shortages, loss of property, home, and way of life, climate change threatens many rights such as the right to health, right to life, right to food, right to water and sanitation, right to property, right to housing, and right to self-determination; plus, the most vulnerable – including women, children, the elderly, indigenous peoples and marginalized communities – are the most at risk.

The primary human rights principles of non-discrimination and equality demand action to address and remedy the disproportionate impacts of climate change on the most marginalized, and to ensure that climate remedies benefit individuals, groups and peoples in vulnerable situations, thereby reducing inequalities. The inordinate impacts of climate change on persons in these situations raise concerns of fairness, equity and climate justice and fairness. Therefore, affected individuals and communities should be participants, without discrimination, in the design and implementation of projects concerning climate action, in order to emphasize climate justice and equity.

Based on their duties to respect, protect and fulfil human rights of all members of society, States have an obligation to strengthen their climate change mitigation commitments in order to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. They should adopt legal and institutional frameworks that protect against environmental harms that interfere with the enjoyment of human rights. Preventing environmental damage within and outside a State’s territory is a crucial measure that needs to be taken particularly to protect the rights to life and personal integrity of its nationals. According to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, States should specifically carry out environmental impact assessments, prepare contingency plans and mitigate any significant environmental damage.[5]

Overall, existing State commitments require international cooperation, including financial, technological and capacity-building support, to realise low-carbon, climate-resilient and sustainable development. Only by integrating human rights in climate actions and policies, as well as empowering people to participate in policy formulation, can States promote sustainability and ensure the accountability of all human rights duty-bearers for their actions.[6]

Climate Change and Human Rights: Scenarios of Tuvalu and Mozambique

In recent months, two countries have brought attention to how climate change is impacting them. For instance, Tuvalu is facing the threat of being erased from the map. Coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion and increasing vector and water borne diseases are increasing due to sea level rise.

Photo: UN News/Mark Garten

On a recent Pacific tour to the frontlines of the global climate emergency, the UN Secretary-General showed his solidarity with those suffering the severe impacts of climate change and drew attention to the innovative climate measures that must to be undertaken in the region.[7]

The situation on this Pacific island is alarming considering the highest point of the island is less than four meters above sea level, making Tuvalu particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels. Moreover, the infiltration of seawater into freshwater sources has rendered them unsafe for consumption, forcing the inhabitants of the archipelago to import drinking water. Tuvaluans, well aware that the archipelago is threatened to disappear, have begun to leave in large numbers.

Regarding Mozambique, on 14 March 2019, Cyclone Ida ravaged the country, killing 598 people and injuring more than 1,600 because of falling trees and debris. More than 130,000 people across the country were displaced. Soon afterward, only 6 weeks later, Cyclone Kenneth hit northern Mozambique, destroying approximately 30,000 homes and killing at least 5 people.[8] This unprecedented run of extreme weather affected the world’s sixth poorest country. Unfortunately, Mozambique is particularly vulnerable to storms coming from the Indian Ocean because of its long coastline, and it is prone to devastating floods because it is downstream of nine major river basins. To worsen the situation, rainfall intensities are higher due to climate change.

With reference to IPCC projections, climate change has been significantly reducing surface water and groundwater resources in most dry subtropical regions, thus intensifying competition for water among agriculture, ecosystems, settlements, industry, and energy production, and affecting regional water, energy, and food security. It also increases the frequency of droughts in dry areas. The primary drivers of these projected water shortages and droughts include:

  • reduced rainfall;
  • higher temperatures, which increase evaporation from surface water and soils; and
  • sea level rise, which contributes to saltwater inundation of freshwater resources.[9]

Coastal systems and low-lying areas, for example, are experiencing adverse impacts such as flooding, erosion, saltwater intrusion and submergence, mainly due to sea level rise. In addition, there is an increase in the occurrence of the most severe tropical cyclones, as in Mozambique, which is exacerbated by sea level rise and the degradation of ecosystems that provide protection from storms and flooding. As a result, there is an increasing threat to human lives and coastal settlements.[10] 

Climate-related hazards, including gradual changes and extreme weather events, constitute a serious interference with the exercise of fundamental human rights, affecting people’s livelihoods directly through impacts like losses in crop yields and destruction of natural resources, while damage to homes and properties causes displacement. Poverty, conflicts and political instability compromise the ability of persons and communities to develop and to adapt to climate change. Therefore, climate change is one of many factors that can perpetuate a vicious cycle of poverty and inequality.[11]

The impacts of climate change on freshwater resources, ecosystems and human settlements in Tuvalu and Mozambique, are already undermining access to clean water, food, shelter, and other basic human needs of their people; interfering with livelihoods and displacing them from their homes. Therefore, these harmful impacts threaten the full enjoyment of human rights of Mozambicans and Tuvaluans, such as the right to an adequate standard of living, right to health, right to life, right to food, right to water and sanitation, right to property and right to housing.

Climate Change and Human Rights: The Global Impact

This unfortunate phenomenon affects not just these two countries, but all regions of the world. The year 2019 began with a record mild average daily temperature on the European continent, exceptional cold in North America and extreme heat waves in Australia. As for the extent of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice, it is once again much lower than average.

Photo: WMO

According to the World Bank, at 2°C of warming, 100-400 million more people could be at risk of hunger and 1-2 billion more people may no longer have adequate water. Climate change could result in global crop yield losses of 30 percent by 2080, even with adaptation measures. Moreover, between 2030 and 2050, it is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea, and heat stress.[12]

With people in poverty largely uninsured, climate change will exacerbate health shocks that already push 100 million into poverty every year. Moreover, people in poverty face a very real threat of losing their homes; flooding and landslides can weaken already degraded infrastructure and housing – especially for people living in unplanned or unserviced settlements. The year 2017 saw 18.8 million people displaced due to disasters in 135 countries – almost twice the number displaced by conflict. Since 2000, people in poor countries have died from disasters at rates seven times higher than in wealthy countries.[13]

Unlike the immediate destruction caused by a nuclear war, climate change is a time bomb whose effects take longer to fully realize, giving the feeling to some that the danger is imaginary and to others that we have plenty of time to tackle the subject. The results, however, will be no less catastrophic. Most of humanity is thus plunged into a sort of denial, believing it better to postpone the implementation of solutions that directly collide our ways of life.

“…in dealing with sustainable development issues, unless you deal with the issues of climate change, life, particularly of the most vulnerable, will continue to be threatened and compromised, and life is already compromised and threatened on most island countries…”

Enele Sosene Sopoaga, Prime Ministre, Tuvalu.

GICJ’s position

As mentioned, climate change has profound impacts on a wide range of human rights. The human rights framework also demands that global efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change should be guided by important human rights norms and principles including the rights to participation and information, transparency, accountability, equity, and non-discrimination.

Due to the impacts of climate change on human rights, Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) strongly believes that States must effectively address climate change in order to honour their commitment to respect, protect and fulfil human rights for all, acting immediately and collectively.

In line with the objectives set out by the UN instruments related to climate change and human rights, GICJ especially notes the importance of:

  • Appointing a Special Rapporteur on human rights and climate change to identify good practices, strengthen accountability mechanisms, engage with the Secretariat of the UNFCCC and further explore the links between climate change and human rights;
  • Enhancing cooperation based on principles of equity and fairness to ensure adequate funding and research into adaptation measures to help the poorest countries and those persons, groups and peoples most at risk;
  • Utilizing community-based climate monitoring to reduce monitoring costs and enhance early warning systems;
  • International cooperation;
  • A special session of the Human Rights Council on human rights and climate change; and
  • The creation of a legal instrument to protect the rights of people displaced by climate change.

Climate change is a human rights problem and the human rights framework must be part of the solution.

[1] The United Nations Climate Change: The Paris Agreement https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement. Drafted during the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) from 30 November to 12 December 2015 in Paris.
[2] Including nitrous oxide (N2O), methane (CH4), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs).
[3] United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Climate Change and Human Rights, https://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/hrandclimatechange/pages/hrclimatechangeindex.aspx
[4] See Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fifth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers (Bonn: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), p. 2, https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/syr/, and IPCC Working Group II, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Summary for Policymakers, (WMO and UNEP) p. 6, https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg2/.
[5] See A/HRC/41/39.
[6] OHCHR, Human Rights and Climate Change, https://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/hrandclimatechange/pages/hrclimatechangeindex.aspx.
[7] UN News. ‘Save Tuvalu; save the world’; UN chief echoes rallying cry from front lines of global climate emergency, https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/05/1039431.
[8] UN News. Aid preparations gear up as Mozambique braces for second massive storm, https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/04/1037301.
[9] See IPCC (2014), supra note 2, and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Human Rights and Climate Change, p. 3, https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/9530/-Climate_Change_and_Human_Rightshuman-rights-climate-change.pdf.pdf?sequence=2&amp%3BisAllowed=.
[10] Idem.
[11] Idem.
[12] A/HRC/41/39.
[13] Idem.

*Intro Image Source: HRE USA

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