English Site French Site Spanish Site Russian Site Arabic Site Chinese Site OHCHR header
Make a donation to OHCHR

Human Rights and Climate Change


Hurricane Sandy passed to the west of Haiti on 25 October, causing heavy rains and strong winds, flooding homes and overflowing rivers. A woman sells produce at a flooded market place 25 October 2012  © UN Photo/Logan Abassi In its 5th Assessment Report (2014), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) unequivocally confirmed that climate change is real and that human-made greenhouse gas emissions are its primary cause. The report identified the increasing frequency of extreme weather events and natural disasters, rising sea-levels, floods, heat waves, droughts, desertification, water shortages, and the spread of tropical and vector-borne diseases as some of the adverse impacts of climate change. These phenomena directly and indirectly threaten the full and effective enjoyment of a range of human rights by people throughout the world, including the rights to life, water and sanitation, food, health, housing, self-determination, culture and development.

The negative impacts of climate change are disproportionately borne by persons and communities already in disadvantageous situations owing to geography, poverty, gender, age, disability, cultural or ethnic background, among others, that have historically contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions. In particular, persons, communities and even entire States that occupy and rely upon low-lying coastal lands, tundra and Arctic ice, arid lands, and other delicate ecosystems and at risk territories for their housing and subsistence face the greatest threats from climate change.

The negative impacts caused by climate change are global, contemporaneous and subject to increase exponentially according to the degree of climate change that ultimately takes place. Climate change, therefore, requires a global rights-based response. The Human Rights Council (HRC), its special procedures mechanisms, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have sought to bring renewed attention to human rights and climate change through a series of resolutions, reports, and activities on the subject, and by advocating for a human rights based approach to climate change.

OHCHR’s Key Messages in the lead up to COP21

OHCHR’s Key Messages on Human Rights and Climate Change highlight the essential obligations and responsibilities of States and other duty-bearers (including businesses) and their implications for climate change-related agreements, policies, and actions. In order to foster policy coherence and help ensure that climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts are adequate, sufficiently ambitious, non-discriminatory and otherwise compliant with human rights obligations, the following considerations should be reflected in all climate action, including agreements to be negotiated at the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

  1. To mitigate climate change and to prevent its negative human rights impacts
  2. To ensure that all persons have the necessary capacity to adapt to climate change
  3. To ensure accountability and effective remedy for human rights harms caused by climate change
  4. To mobilize maximum available resources for sustainable, human rights-based development
  5. International cooperation
  6. To ensure equity in climate action
  7. To guarantee that everyone enjoys the benefits of science and its applications
  8. To protect human rights from business harms
  9. To guarantee equality and non-discrimination
  10. To ensure meaningful and informed participation

Advocating a Rights-Based Approach to Climate Change

The HRC has highlighted the importance of addressing human rights in the context of on-going discussions related to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Council has repeatedly made available the results of its debates, studies and activities to the sessions of the Conference of Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC. The outcome document of the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development “The Future We Want” reaffirms the importance of human rights for achieving sustainable development.

Prior to this Conference, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights emphasized the responsibilities that all States have to ensure full coherence between efforts to advance the green economy, on the one hand, and their human rights obligations on the other, in an open letter to all Permanent Missions in New York and in Geneva. The Office also submitted key messages for the Conference. The negotiation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provided further opportunities to advocate integration of human rights within the framework of international efforts to promote sustainable development; however, the most critical negotiation, to date, on the subject of climate change, that of a legally binding agreement to limit climate change, is that of COP21 of the UNFCCC (December 2015).

With an eye toward this discussion, OHCHR and the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice co-hosted a Climate Justice Dialogue in Geneva on 9 February 2015. The dialogue brought together representatives of delegates to the UNFCCC and the HRC, experts, and key civil society actors to discuss human rights and climate change. One outcome of this meeting was the Geneva Pledge for Human Rights in Climate Action, a voluntary initiative led by Costa Rica and initially supported by 18 countries from diverse regions. In the pledge, which is still open, countries undertake to facilitate the sharing of best practices and knowledge between human rights and climate experts at a national level.

Outlining a Rights-Based Approach to Climate Change

As the HRC has stressed, it is critical to apply a human rights-based approach to guide global policies and measures designed to address climate change. The essential attributes to a human rights-based approach are the following:

  • As policies and programmes are formulated, the main objective should be to fulfil human rights.
  • The rights-holders and their entitlements must be identified as well as the corresponding duty-bearers and their obligations in order to find ways to strengthen the capacities of rights-holders to make their claims and of duty-bearers to meet their obligations.
  • Principles and standards derived from international human rights law – especially the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the core universal human rights treaties, should guide all policies and programming in all phases of the process.

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, the Declaration on the Right to Development, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the UN Common Understanding of a Human Rights-Based Approach to Development Cooperation and other instruments emphasize that human rights principles like universality and inalienability, indivisibility, interdependence and interrelatedness, non-discrimination and equality, participation and inclusion, accountability, and the rule of law must guide development. They outline a conceptual framework for development that has international human rights standards at its centre and the ultimate objective of fulfilling all human rights for all. The rights-based approach analyses obligations, inequalities and vulnerabilities, and seeks to redress discriminatory practices and unjust distributions of power. It anchors plans, policies and programmes in a system of rights, and corresponding obligations established by international law.

Human rights obligations apply to the goals and commitments of States in the area of climate change and require that climate actions should focus on protecting the rights of those most vulnerable to climate change. Human rights principles articulated in the Declaration on the Right to Development and other instruments call for such climate action to be both individual and collective and for it to benefit the most vulnerable. The UNFCCC further elaborates upon the need for equitable climate action calling for States to address climate change in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities in order to benefit present and future generations.

Existing State commitments require international cooperation, including financial, technological and capacity-building support, to realise low-carbon, climate-resilient, and sustainable development, while also rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  Only by integrating human rights in climate actions and policies and empowering people to participate in policy formulation can States promote sustainability and ensure the accountability of all duty-bearers for their actions. This, in turn, will promote consistency, policy coherence and the enjoyment of all human rights. Such an approach should be part of any climate change adaptation or mitigation measures, such as the promotion of alternative energy sources, forest conservation or tree-planting projects, resettlement schemes and others. Affected individuals and communities must participate, without discrimination, in the design and implementation of these projects. States should cooperate to address the global effects of climate change on the enjoyment of human rights around the world in a manner that emphasizes climate justice and equity.

A human rights-based approach also calls for accountability and transparency. It is not only States that must be held accountable for their contributions to climate change but also businesses which have the responsibility to respect human rights and do no harm in the course of their activities. States should make their adaptation and mitigation plans publicly available, and be transparent in the manner in which such plans are developed and financed. Accurate and transparent measurements of greenhouse gas emissions, climate change and its impacts, including human rights impacts, will be essential for successful rights-based climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. Because of the impacts of climate change on human rights, States must effectively address climate change in order to honour their commitment to respect, protect and fulfil human rights for all. Since climate change mitigation and adaptation measures can have human rights impacts; all climate change-related actions must also respect, protect, promote and fulfil human rights standards.