Climate Change and Human Rights: A Rough Guide (International Council on Human Rights Policy)


International Council on Human Rights Policy


Human rights, climate change, mass migration, food, water, disease, shelter, land, cultures, livelihoods


What are the human rights implications of climate change? From new health risks, such as the increased incidence of malaria, to mass migration, to threatened food and water supplies, to the disappearance of shelter, land, livelihoods and cultures, climate change creates human rights concerns at every turn. Yet remarkably little study to date has focused systematically on their interconnection.

This situation is unlikely to last. As the effects of climate change become increasingly apparent, those affected will turn to human rights to frame their claims and to demand responses. Some are already doing so. And as consensus on the need for urgent action to address global warming grows, it will drive numerous other economic, political and social agendas – with further human rights implications.

Human rights are not merely relevant to climate change impacts, however. Mitigation and adaptation strategies each open up hard human rights questions: assigning accountability for extraterritorial harms; allocating burdens and benefits, rights and duties among perpetrators and victims, both public and private; constructing reliable enforcement mechanisms. Human rights advocates will be forced to look hard at large justice issues they can usually set aside.

In thinking through these connections, foresight but also caution will be needed. Human rights can seem intellectually invasive; a tendency to think in moral absolutes can cloud rather than clarify complex issues. Human rights lawyers are not known for seeking consensus or conciliation, both generally thought critical to the negotiation of policies that can successfully address climate change. At the same time, profound justice claims have been raised repeatedly in the course of climate change negotiations only to be finally neglected or removed.

The Council commenced research on this subject in 2007, in order to help orient human rights thinking about climate change and to frame the relevant issues clearly. Our aim has been to identify, on one hand, whether human rights principles, law and policy are equipped for the immense problems generated by global warming and, on the other, how human rights tools can aid in constructing a just regime to manage and mitigate climate change effects.


International Council on Human Rights Policy, ‘Climate Change and Human Rights: A Rough Guide’ (ICHR, 2008 Switzerland)


Climate Change and Human Rights: A Rough Guide