The impacts of climate change on the effective enjoyment of human rights

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has unequivocally confirmed in its reports that climate change is real and that human-made greenhouse gas emissions are its primary cause. 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 have been identified 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, safe drinking water and sanitation, food, health, housing, self-determination, culture, work and development – as affirmed by the IPCC and Human Rights Council resolution 41/21.

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.

A human rights-based approach to climate change

The negative impacts caused by climate change are 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, the human rights mechanisms (the special procedures, the human rights treaty bodies and the Universal Periodic Review), 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.

The Preamble of the Paris Agreement to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change makes it clear that all States "should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights".

As the Human Rights Council 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 of 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.