Climate change, the challenge ahead for human rights

Zia Pits in Kenya

Going into 2010 we can see human rights violations occurring daily across the globe.  While there have been some significant steps in the right direction there have also been significant set-backs.  Human rights as a concept, continues however, to serve an incredibly important purpose.  It can shed light on some of the darkest situations.  It can provide a mechanism to help individuals hold governments and corporations to account. For human rights to continue to be a useful tool in building a better future, those who work with it such as human rights NGO’s need to ensure they fall down the right line of the defining political debate of the 21st century.

George Monbiot wrote recently how the world can be divided into two broad camps; those who believe that any restraint on personal freedoms is a restriction on their liberty and those who believe that human behaviour needs to be restricted for the greater good.  He states:

Humanity is no longer split between conservatives and liberals, reactionaries and progressives… Today the battle lines are drawn between expanders and restrainers; those who believe that there should be no impediments and those who believe that we must live within limits (

Traditionally, human rights activists have fallen down the side of the liberals, seeing restraint and restrictions as a way of restricting fundamental freedoms.  Human rights both in practice and academically has grappled with the question of to what extent rights should be restricted and come out stronger on the other side.  There is however, something unique to the 21st century that human rights are struggling to reconcile with – the acknowledgement of climate change.

We can see now, more than ever, that human behaviour needs to be restricted.  We have consumed more resources, released more carbon dioxide and destroyed more eco-systems in the last few hundred years than our ancestors did for the previous millennium.  As a result of this uncontrolled behaviour, with expansionism being pushed at every angle, we have propelled our selves towards a greater threat than humanity has ever faced before.

Amnesty International has acknowledged climate change to be a human rights issue.  They tackle it as part of their economic, social and cultural rights campaign.  With millions loosing homes, food systems collapsing and forced migration spiralling, we can see that the aim to ensure everyone has access to an “adequate standard of living” (article 25) may prove to be extremely difficult.  The right to safe access to water will be a growing issue in many “stressed areas” of the world.  Currently, Amnesty International has not researched or put forward any position or policy recommendations on how they think we can avoid the negative consequences of climate change.  Will they advocate enforced carbon emission reductions? Will they advocate a restriction on travel (in direct contradiction to Article 13 – freedom of movement)?

There are three potential responses to this conundrum that human rights advocates (including myself) could take.  One, you could argue that that human rights should focus on civil and political rights (torture, death penalty etc) and this way you need not get caught up in the complexity of working on climate change.  Regardless of what terror climate change is causing, you can still universally condemn torture.  Two, you can acknowledge climate change to be an issue, but focus on it pointing to other more qualified NGO’s working on it.  This could leave you open to the very obvious criticism…”why do you not become specialised in the issue which will affect human rights more than anything else”? Three, you advocate a curtailment of individuals rights on the basis it is protecting the most fundamental of rights of other people.  For example, advocate a restriction on air-travel, arguing that it directly affects others right to life and livelihoods.

I would argue the latter.  Human rights have always come with restrictions.  Human rights as a discourse have never advocated full unimpeded action.  Human rights come with restrictions and responsibility.   If we acknowledge that certain action is pushing other people (maybe future generations) into such peril that they can no longer justify continuing that action, it is surely the States responsibility to curtail that behaviour.  The tricky bit here is that we do not know exactly what the consequences of our actions today will be on future generations.  We can not say for sure that xx tons of carbon dioxide released now will kill xx number of people.  Life is not that simple.  Increasingly however, it is looking pretty dire (see my earlier blog If we continue living as we are, we are effectively ensuring that billions of people in the coming century will not have sufficient access to food, water and shelter.

Is it possible for the human rights discourse to push such a complex message? It has to be.  I consider engaging human rights with the issue of climate change as perhaps the last chance saloon for civilisation as we know it.  To lead this debate, we need internationally recognised human rights actors to stand up and state exactly what we need to aim for (opposed to what is politically acceptable) and exactly how we are going to reach these targets.  Anything short of this is synonymous with standing by and watching the greatest human rights abuse of our age un-fold.  Climate change is a human rights imperative that can not be ignored.


Filed under Climate Change, Human rights

5 responses to “Climate change, the challenge ahead for human rights

  1. Political philosopher Henry Shue has considered climate change as a human rights issue – we discuss his views here (and would welcome your thoughts):


  2. I agree that human rights and climate change are inextricably linked. I do think that we need to be careful when we start advocating the curtailment of one right for the sake of another. I believe that there needs to be a greater emphasis on choice and the importance of making the “right” choice for the environment. Over the past decade, in the UK, there has been significant behaviour change with regard to environmental awareness. There is still a great deal of ground to be covered and I see no problem with using economic means to further this change, for example green taxation, coupled with the use of incentives, peer pressure, and education. However, legislating to protect one fundamental right (shelter) at the expense of another (movement) is not something to take lightly. A really thought provoking post – thanks for raising the issue.


  3. Martin Whiteside

    I strongly agree. We need to continue to make the links between our actions (often our greed) and other people’s rights infringement (starvation and flooding) which is on a different scale to my ‘right’ to drive a 4×4 to the pub!

    However most importantly we need to create a vision that a low carbon, community orientated, family orientated, live music and local real ale orientated future could be really nice! – not something with less rights than the current consumer greed treadmill.
    Happy New Year!


  4. Chris West

    I agree, I think one of the biggest problems with combating climate change is the divorce between an individual or society’s actions and their consequences. No one feels immoral when they heat their houses or drive to work. Yet our actions have such far-reaching consequences on people we will meet or hear about. But as you say the consequences are far from clear. It would be useful if somebody did some work on it, and at least attempted to predict the economic and social consequences (lost food production, declining water supplys) of the lifestyle we lead.


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