Climate Change and Human Rights

Climate change has been increasingly in focus in the national policy agenda with the establishment of a number of government departments at both the State and Federal level mandated to respond to climate
change. Despite these advances, climate change continues to be viewed primarily through an ecological or economic lens, with the social and human rights implications of climate change receiving little recognition.

Yet the human costs of climate change directly threaten internationally accepted human rights: rights to life, to food, to a place to live and work. As Kyung-wha Kang, the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated:


Global warming and extreme weather conditions may have calamitous consequences for the human
rights of millions of people…ultimately climate change may affect the very right to life of various individuals…[countries] have an obligation to prevent and address some of the direst consequences that climate change may reap on human rights. (1)

Indigenous communities in Australia are also significantly affected by climate change, due to their close relationship with the environment. Friends of the Earth International have predicted that northern Aboriginal communities will bear the brunt of climate change, with more than 100,000 people facing serious health risks from malaria, dengue fever and heat stress, as well as loss of food sources from floods, drought and more intense bushfires.

Climate change and human rights are further intertwined because of the potential of climate change to exacerbate existing threats to human rights.
The impact of climate change is that it increases people’s vulnerability to poverty and social deprivation. Populations whose rights are poorly protected are likely to be less equipped to adapt to climate change effects.

These consequences mandate a response. Recognising this, governments have been providing support for affected communities to adapt to the impact of changing conditions. In one sense, adaptation measures are already focused on protecting human rights, even if they are rarely articulated in such terms. For example:

  • Ensuring that homes are resistant to extreme weather conditions protects the right to life;
  • Offering alternative water access when climate change has limited supply protects the right to water;
  • Offering health-related information and education and providing proper sanitation protects the right to health.

However, adaptation measures themselves can have a detrimental impact on human rights and exacerbate already existing social inequity. At the Equity in Response to Climate Change Roundtable 2007, Australia’s peak environment and welfare groups highlighted that low-income and disadvantaged people will not only be at the forefront of climate change impacts, but also may be disproportionately affected by the adaptation measures designed to minimise the risks associated with climate change. For example, shifting energy sources to low carbon alternatives is likely to increase the use of minimum energy performance standards for electrical appliances, cars and buildings. Pricing carbon into energy means unit costs will rise. The most disadvantaged will struggle to live with increased costs.

The challenge in the climate change debate, therefore, is to find a way to equitably distribute responsibilities and rights. What, then (if anything) does human rights discourse offer governments when developing appropriate responses to the impacts of climate change? This is a question that the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) considered in its Background Paper Human Rights and Climate Change. And the answer, it appears, is a lot.

By focusing on individuals as rights-holders, a human rights-based response places responsibility on governments to allow participation and input from affected members of society into the development of climate change policies. This means making specific channels available for the participation of the poorest and most marginalised groups in the community, with sensitivity to social and cultural context. At a procedural level, this approach requires transparent and participatory decision-making, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.
For example, if it was necessary to forcibly relocate communities in disaster or flood-prone areas, a human rights-based approach to such a policy would require a thorough and proper consultation with the affected communities to ensure that its impact was proportionate.

Beyond these procedural benefits, a human rights-based approach would also guide policy makers on the substantive elements of adaptation measures, by providing core minimum human rights standards that guide decision-makers when weighing competing demands on limited resources. The general comments of the United Nations human rights treaty bodies are relevant here. To take one example, in accordance with General Comment 15 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the relocation of a community would have to ensure that the minimum requirement of fresh water (currently calculated by the World Health Organisation at 7.5 litres per day) would be available to every adult and child. That water must be physically and financially accessible to all, without discrimination on the grounds of sex, age, or economic or social standing, and without threatening personal security when the water is obtained.

The HREOC paper identifies areas where a human rights-based approach can make a positive contribution to the development of climate change responses. Specifically, it looks at domestic adaptation measures, aid for overseas adaptation and disaster management. It also examines what a human rights based approach to ‘climate change refugees’ would look like. Without providing immediate answers, the paper aims to provide the tools for advancing policy in these areas as those policies evolve.

(1) Laura MacInnis ‘Climate change threatens human rights of
millions: UN.’ Reuters, 19 February 2008.