This is the first in a series that will rigorously examine the importance of understanding climate change as a human rights problem. There is a large and growing literature that examines links between human rights and climate change. This series will summarize the main conclusions of this literature while making additional arguments about the benefits of examining climate change as a human rights problem that can be deduced from almost seven decades of international human rights law. This series will conclude that those who see climate change as a civilization challenging moral and ethical problem will find many practical lessons to be learned from human rights law and its philosophical foundations that should help achieve a greater response to climate change consistent with national, regional, and individual ethical and moral obligations. These lessons will include: (a) substantive conclusions about obligations that follow when specific rights that are violated. (b) procedural lessons about increasing compliance with rights obligations that can be seen by examining almost 65 years of continuing development of international human rights law at the international, regional, and national scale, (c) and specific ideas about how to get nations to take their ethical and equity obligations seriously in international climate change negotiations. The series will end with recognition of some challenges to a human rights approach to climate change. yet with an explanation why despite these challenges, greater use of human rights should be made to find a solution to climate change.
This first in the series will begin with a summary of major conclusions reached about climate change and human rights reached in an excellent paper on the subject: Climate Change, Human Rights and Moral Thresholds by Simon Caney. (Caney, 2010)
II. Climate Change Prevents Enjoyment of the Most Basic, Non- Controversial Human Rights and as a Result Certain Practical Consequences Follow.
The Caney paper explains that climate change violates many human rights including three of the most fundamental least controversial rights: (1) right to life, (2) right to health, and (3) right to subsistence. Climate change violates the right to life because a changing climate will and is killing people through more intense storms, floods, droughts, and killer heat waves. Climate change will violate the right to health by increasing the number of people suffering from disease, death, and injury form heatwaves, floods, storms, fires, and droughts, increases in the range of malaria and the burden of diarrhoeal diseases, cardie-respiratory morbidity associated with ground level ozone, and increase the number of people at risk from dengue fever. Climate change will violate the right to subsistence by increasing: (a) droughts which will undermine food security, (b) water shortages, (c) sea level rise which will put some agricultural areas under water, and (d) flooding which will lead to crop failure.
Caney explains that other human rights are affected by climate change but an understanding that climate change violates these three rights puts the claim that climate change violates human rights on the most uncontroversial grounds. Caney also explains that climate change is also morally objectionable on other grounds than human rights including non-anthropogenic moral grounds.
Caney further explains in the article that because climate change clearly violates human rights, certain things follow.
These consequences for policy include:
- Because human rights are violated, costs to those causing climate change entailed by policies to reduce the threat of climate change are not relevant for policy. That is if a person is violating human rights, he or she should desist even if it is costly. The abolition of slavery was immensely costly slave owners yet because basic human rights were violated by climate change costs to the slave owner of abolishing slavery were not relevant
- If climate change is a human rights problem, compensation is due to those whose rights have been violated. The human rights approach generates both duties for mitigation and adaptation. It also generates duties of compensation for harm.
- Human rights apply to each and every human being as they are based on the idea that all human beings are born free and entitled to certain rights.
- If one has a right not to suffer a particular harm, then it is wrong to violate that right because one can pay compensation. It is for instance wrong to assault someone even if the person assaulted can be paid compensation for the harm.
- If the human rights of the most vulnerable are being violated they need not bear the burdens of mitigating the threats.
- Human rights usually take priority over other human values such as efficiency and promoting happiness.
Caney, Simon, 2010, Climate Change, Human Rights and Moral Thresholds, in S. Gardiner. S. Caney, D. Jamieson, H. Shue (editors), Climate Ethics, Essential Readings, Oxford University Press, New York, 2010.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor,
Widener University School of Law
Part-time Professor, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology, Nanjing, China.