Human Rights and Climate Change: Moving from an Intrinsic to an Instrumental Approach (E. Cameron)


Edward Cameron


Climate change, development, human rights


This Article is an appraisal of the interface between development, climate change, and human rights. The purpose is to assess the recent emergence of the discourse linking climate change and human rights, its viral progress, its prospects for shaping climate change analysis, processes, and policy responses, and the overall implications for development practitioners.

The scope of this Article is to look at what David Kennedy calls the “vocabularies, expertise and sensibilit[ies]” from a political economy perspective and to explore its relevance for development practitioners. Kennedy proposes that a “vocabulary of arguments” is critical in shaping “expert knowledge,” which in turn informs “how problems are defined and narrow[s] the range of solutions considered.” Clearly, knowledge from a range of disciplines is vital for analysis, process, instrument design, operational and policy implementation, and ultimately substantive outcomes. It is therefore relevant to explore how the new arguments advanced by proponents of a human rights lens contribute to enhancing expert knowledge in dealing with the challenge of climate change.

This Article is not an advocacy piece. It is not seeking to be normative or prescriptive in recommending a human rights-based approach to developing climate change interventions. An impartial analysis of the arguments for and against linking climate change and human rights is provided and the reader is left to determine whether this approach has utility in tackling the climate change crisis.

A purely legal argument does not adequately address the political and ethical issues involved in incorporating a human rights approach to climate change. Therefore, a more holistic approach, taking into account political economy, is necessary in order to address the feasibility of a relationship between human rights and climate change. In the words of human rights scholar Peter Uvin, “it makes little sense to counter an ethical [and political] debate with a purely legal argument.”

The methodology for this Article involved interviews with academic and policy practitioners who have shaped this emerging discourse; a wide-ranging literature review of texts relevant to the fields of development, climate change, and human rights; discussions with development professionals who have the daily responsibility of operationalizing approaches to reduce vulnerability and build resilience; and finally an examination of the author’s own experience in leading the government of the Maldives’ initiative on the Human Dimensions of Climate Change and working for the Social Dimensions of Climate Change Cluster at the World Bank’s Social Development Department.

Part II of this Article will present the problem of climate change and its significance for human and social systems. Part III will look at the origins and progress of the human rights-based approach to climate change and explore two fundamental questions: First, do human rights help to base climate change in the most widely shared set of international laws, obligations, and values? Second, do climate change impacts and responses undermine the realization of rights? Part IV will ask what, if any, instrumental value do human rights offer to climate change and development policy practitioners?

This Article recognizes that the nexus between climate change and human rights may have substantial implications that stretch far beyond the realm of international public law and could shape our diagnosis of climate change; our understanding of vulnerability; the nature of advocacy and lobbying; the composition of communities of practice and coalitions; the design of process and instruments; the monitoring and review of these instruments; the determination of targets and thresholds; and the identification of benchmarks for success.


(2010) 38 Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law 673


Human Rights and Climate Change: Moving from an Intrinsic to an Instrumental Approach