Climate Change and International Human Rights Law (S. Humphreys)


Stephen Humphreys


climate change, international human rights law, global impact of climate change



Until very recently, there was no literature on the relationship between climate change and human rights. From around 2007, however, a burst of research and advocacy among scholars, activists, research institutions, and at the UN’s Human Rights Council changed the picture dramatically. In late 2010, human rights entered the climate change mainstream with a clear instruction in the working text on ‘long-term cooperative activity’ agreed in Cancun to ‘fully respect human rights … in all climate change-related actions’. Regardless of the ultimate fate of this admonition in the treaty text, its appearance signalled a broadening recognition of the relevance of international human rights law to climate change, and, no doubt, vice versa. Yet the nature of that relationship is far from clear.

In what follows I focus on two approaches to the relation between climate change and human rights. First I examine the impacts climate change is having, or will have (as a matter of predictive science), on substantive human rights. I then examine how the policy responses to climate change might be expected to affect internationally protected human rights, again substantively. The relationship between climate change and human rights is informed throughout by wider reference to textual contingency between the climate change and human rights regimes under international law. To conclude, I set out some of the wider challenges the phenomenon of climate change poses for international human rights law. In time, climate change will likely place an already shaky international human rights legal framework under extraordinary stress. Climate change is human-made and creates victims; as such it appears to fall broadly within the domain of human rights law. But the law is not obviously equipped to manage the scale of the challenge.”


S. Humphreys, ‘Climate Change and International Human Rights Law’ in R. Rayfuse and S. Scott eds., (Edward Elgar 2012) p29


International Law in the Era of Climate Change