Is climate change a human rights issue?

Climate change could exacerbate existing problems in the Middle East, and may in turn hold serious implications for regional security. Credits: Katie Orlinsky/Caritas

Climate change could exacerbate existing problems in the Middle East, and may in turn hold serious implications for regional security.
Credits: Katie Orlinsky/Caritas

By Dr Stephen Humphreys, Lecturer in Law, London School of Economics 

This much is clear: climate change will impact human rights. Rights to food, water, housing, health, ‘peaceful enjoyment of property’—all these will be affected, often on a vast scale. Thousands, or more likely millions, of people will lose their homes, their livelihoods, even their cultures. Islands will disappear leaving their inhabitants potentially stateless. Coastal cities will sink. Changing weather patterns will eliminate traditional lifestyles, such as those of the Sami reindeer herders in Norway. Droughts, floods and tornadoes will expose thousands to catastrophe. Mass upheaval and migration. War. These, at least, are the predictions of the world’s leading authority: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its last report of 2007. And although the effects could, in principle, be stopped, it is looking likely that many of them won’t be.

If the expected effects of climate change are chilling, they are not accidental. They are caused by people. This is another conclusion of the IPCC report: climate change is happening, it is worsening, and it is manmade. It is no secret who is causing it: high carbon emissions can be broken down by country, by sector, by activity. Certain industries contribute enormously— the fossil fuel industry, the automobile industry, the timber industry. Certain countries are extraordinarily high users of carbon: Canada, Australia, China, the United States, most of Europe. And certain lifestyles contribute disproportionately. Essentially, the wealthier you are the more likely it is that you contribute (though there are exceptions). Ultimately, perhaps, states are responsible—since it is states that must regulate the harmful behaviour of individuals and industries within their borders. So far, however, states have been slow to regulate the lifestyles that give rise to climate change and, in turn, the harms those lifestyles create.

So climate change is causing injuries that look like human rights abuses. It has victims. It has perpetrators. We might then think that we can turn to human rights law as a means to prevent these harms, particularly given how difficult it is to reach a deal on a climate change treaty. States have human rights duties, don’t they? So even if a climate deal remains out of reach, we might conclude, there is presumably a legal basis to stop this harm taking place. Unfortunately things are not so simple. The international human rights law framework is not well equipped for this kind of thing because it does not really operate across borders. Even if states are responsible for what happens within their borders, for the most part, the harm caused by climate change takes place in different countries than the actions that caused them.

Who then can we hold responsible? The answer is far from clear. It is hard to hold anyone responsible, under human rights law as it currently stands, for many of the human rights violations that climate change will cause around the world. Which gives us three options. Either we change the law. Or we find a means of action grounded in a moral sensibility greater than the law. Or we learn to live with the fact that the poor must die in order that the rich may live as they please. Which is surely the greatest human rights violation of all.

Caritas Internationalis

President: Cardinal Luis Antonio Gokim Tagle
Secretary General: Michel Roy

Caritas Internationalis
Palazzo San Calisto
Vatican City State

Reception Desk: + 39 06 698 797 99
Fax: + 39 06 698 872 37

The office is open from Monday to Friday from 8.30 am to 5.00 pm.

If you need to contact a staff member outside of office hours in a humanitarian emergency, please call + 39 334 359 0700 or email