Human Rights and Climate Change

by Dan Bodansky

The UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution last week on “Human Rights and Climate Change,” in follow up to the January  report by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights on the Relationship between Climate Change and Human Rights,

The Council resolution is significant less for what it says than for the fact of its adoption, which reflects the growing interconnections between the worlds of climate change and human rights.  The resolution notes that “climate change-related effects have a wide range of implications … for the enjoyment of human rights” and “affirms” that “human rights obligations and commitments have the potential to inform and strengthen international and national policy-making in the area of climate change, promoting policy coherence, legitimacy and sustainable outcomes.”  But the Council’s only concrete decision was to hold a panel discussion on climate change and human rights next year.

I’m all in favor of letting a thousand flowers bloom in the effort to combat climate change, and can understand the appeal of human rights approaches.  First, they give individuals and NGO’s procedural avenues to raise claims.  This contrasts favorably with the intergovernmental negotiations, at which NGOs can participate only as observers and are excluded from the key negotiating sessions.  Second, by focusing on the harms suffered by a particular individual or group (such as the Inuit, who brought a petition several years ago against the US in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights), human rights claims help makes the impacts of climate change more concrete, and can help mobilize public concern.  Finally, the growing number of environmental rights cases suggest that environmental issues typically get a sympathetic hearing from judges and other third-party adjudicators.

Nevertheless, I have to confess a certain skepticism about the value-added of human rights approaches to climate change.  After all, doesn’t climate change already receive a huge amount of attention?  And won’t a solution ultimately depend on intergovernmental negotiations and on technological developments, rather than on a judicial articulation of rights?  Concern about climate change has always focused on the human impacts — the impacts on coastal communities, drought-prone areas, agriculture, human health, and human welfare more generally.   What, if anything, does a human rights approach add to our understanding of the issues and choices involved?

Climate change mitigation involves tremendously complex tradeoffs between different values. Focusing on particular individuals or cases, or on particular human rights, can obscure these tradeoffs, making sensible policymaking difficult.  Although emphasizing the effects of climate change on human rights may be a useful means of mobilizing public concern and of prodding the political process, a solution to the climate change problem will, in the end, require political decisions by states, both nationally and internationally.

4 Responses

  1. Dan, I generally agree with your assessment, especially concerning the limited value of the judicial resolution of human rights claims in this context.  I don’t think anyone believes that the European Court of Human Rights, say, is going to be the forum that decides what to do about climate change.  But I want to emphasize the value (which you note) of putting a human face on the impacts of climate change.  While it’s true that the assessment of impacts has focused largely on human impacts, it’s often done so at a very general, macro level.  The IPCC assessments, for example, describe potentially horrific effects of climate change on millions of people in dry, technical language, often without mentioning a single actual community that would be affected.  By their nature, human rights institutions (including non-judicial institutions such as the HR Council rapporteurs, which the resolution encourages to look at the effects of climate change on the rights within their mandates) are particularly good at looking at micro effects.  We all remember what Stalin said about the death of one person being a tragedy, and the death of millions a statistic.  Human rights law and institutions are good at calling our attention to the tragedies within the statistics.
    One minor correction – the resolution decides to hold a panel discussion of the issues at its next meeting, which is this June.

  2. John,
    First, my apologies for not thanking you in the post for bringing the Human Rights Council resolution to my attention.  And thanks also for the correction about the timing of the panel discussion.
    I agree that human rights cases help put a human face on a very complex phenomenon.   But, while this is valuable in mobilizing public concern and in giving a voice to victims of climate change, it also tends to oversimplify the issues involved.  So I think there are some cons as well as pros.
    That said, the more glacial the pace of the international negotiations, the more the need to pursue alternative ways of prodding the political process.

  3. I disapprove of positive rights, and thusly, this attempt at it.

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  1. […] Dan Bodansky put an intriguing blog post on Opinio Juris » Blog Archive » Human Rights and Climate ChangeHere’s a quick excerptThe UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution last week on “Human Rights and Climate Change,” in follow up to the January report by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights on the Relationship between Climate Change and … […]