This is the second in a series looking at how to classify the climate change disinformation campaign given that it is some new kind of assault on humanity, yet not easily classifiable into existing categories of behaviors that cause great harm. Part One of this series identified four prior articles and three videos that Ethicsandclimate.org has previously produced on this subject as well as looking at whether this effort to undermine the mainstream scientific view about climate change can be classified as a crime against humanity or a tort under common law. These previous articles distinguished the tactics of the disinformation campaign from responsible skepticism and the acceptable exercise of free speech after explaining what is meant by the “climate change disinformation campaign” and how it operated.
I. Is The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign A Human Rights Violation?
A very strong case can be made that human-induced climate change triggers human rights violations because of the destructive nature of climate change damages. If human rights are to be understood to be recognition of those norms that are necessary to protect human dignity, inadequate climate change policies must be understood to trigger human rights violations because climate change will not only make human dignity impossible for millions of people around the world, including countless members of future generations but also directly threaten life itself and resources necessary to sustain life. And so, as we shall see, climate change causing activities create human rights violations because of the enormity of harm to life, health, food, property, and inviolability of the right of all people to enjoy the places where they live.
Yet finding legal remedies under human rights legal theories for the the destructive role that the disinformation campaign has played in preventing or delaying solutions to climate change will require finding at a minimum: (a) a specific human right under and an existing human rights regime that has been violated by climate change, (b) a human rights regime that has the jurisdiction and legal authority to grant the requested remedy in the specific human rights controversy before it, (c) a legal theory supporting the claim that non-state actors, not just governments, responsible for the violations of human rights have duties to prevent human rights, and (d) a legal justification to link the duties of non-state actors to prevent human rights violations to the activities of the disinformation campaign.
B. Which human rights are violated by climate change and do human rights fora have the authority to adjudicate claims based upon the tactics of the disinformation campaign?
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is usually viewed to be the foundational document in modern international human rights law. (UN, 1948). The UDHR is a non-binding ‘soft-law’ agreement among nations that over time has been complemented by a series of legally binding international treaties while retaining its status as customary international law. Because it is customary international law it could be relevant to damage claims made in civil litigation requesting damages in cases before international courts such as the International Court of Justice.
The two most important global human rights treaties in addition to the UDHR often stated to be the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
The Universal Declaration on Human Rights identifies the following as entitled to rights protections that are relevant to climate change:
(a) Life, liberty, and security of person. (Article 1)
(b) Right to an effective remedy by national tribunals for violations of fundamental or constitutionals rights. (Article 8)
(c) Full equality to a fair public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of a person’s rights and obligations. (Article 10)
(d) Freedom from arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence. (Article 12)
(e) Freedom from being arbitrarily deprived of property. (Article 17)
(f) Right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (Article 25)
(g) Rights to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms can be fully recognized. (Article 28) (UN1948)
The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) identifies the following as entitled to rights protections relevant to climate change protections:
(a) The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent. (Article 11)
(b) The States Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the measures, including specific programmes, which are needed:
a. To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making full use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources;
b. Taking into account the problems of both food-importing and food-exporting countries, to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need.
(c) The right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health… The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for:… (c) prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, and occupational and other diseases. (Article 12)
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) identifies the following as entitled to rights protections that are relevant to climate change protections:
(a) Inherent Right to Life. This right shall be protected by law. (Article 5)
(b) Right to be protected from arbitrary and unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home…. (Article 15)
A strong case can be made that climate change prevents people all around the world from enjoying the above rights.
These three documents i.e. the UDHR, the ICESCR, and the ICCPR are often considered to be the foundational documents that comprise an international bill of rights. Yet not all nations have adopted all three documents. Although the UDHR has been accepted by most nations of the world, the ICPCR and ICCPR have been less widely so. In fact the ICESCR has not been ratified by the United States and therefore may be inapplicable to climate change caused human rights violations in the United States. To date, these two treaties have been ratified by about 75 percent of the world’s countries. The UDHR is a “soft-law” document which has normative, but not legal force in the international system. The ICESCR and ICCCPR were the first of many treaties that have been enacted to give the protections identified in the UDHR the force of law.
A country ratifying a UN human rights treaty agrees to respect and implement within domestic law the rights the treaty covers. It also agrees to accept and respond to international scrutiny and criticism of its compliance. It does not necessarily agree to make the human rights norm directly enforceable in domestic courts. That usually requires implementing legislation.
Treaty enforcement is accomplished within the UN often with the creation of a body to monitor states’ performance, and to which member states are required to submit periodic reports on compliance. For instance, the ICCPR is implemented through the Human Rights Committee (HRC) which was created to promote compliance with its provisions. The HRC frequently expresses its views as to whether a particular practice is a human rights violation, but it is not authorized to issue legally binding decisions. Other treaties and bodies exist within the UN system with varying enforcement and implementation powers and duties to implement human rights goals. For the most part, these enforcement powers are weak and improvements in human rights violations are best achieved through holding offending nations to the court of international opinion rather than law.
In addition, several regional human rights regimes have been enacted that promote human rights in particular parts of the world. These regions include Europe, the Americas, and Africa which have their own declarations and conventions for enforcement of human rights on a regional basis.
Thus far no one has successfully brought a human rights claim for climate change caused damages although the Inuit Peoples filed such a claim in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Before a successful human rights claim can be brought in an existing legal forum in regard to climate change, several potential legal hurdles need to be overcome that have little to do with whether a nation or an individual has committed a human rights violation. These hurdles include jurisdictional, issues, questions of proof, and authority of the relevant forum. For this reason, the failure to successfully bring legally recognized human rights claims may have little to do with whether the offending behavior has created a violation of the protected right but more with the limitation of the existing legal regime. And so, the failure to bring a successful action against the climate change disinformation campaign in an existing human rights forum does not mean the disinformation campaign is not responsible for human rights violations.
Examining climate change through a human rights lens has the benefit of providing potential access to legal fora that have been created to adjudicate aspects of human rights violations. Given that there are no obvious legal fora to bring civil actions against those who have participated in the climate change disinformation campaign, pursuing remedies for human rights violations caused by climate change has the advantage of being able to file legal claims in existing judicial fora.
Potential fora include, at the global level, the Human Rights Committee established by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights established by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Regional tribunals include the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights. In addition, claims could potentially be pursued in national courts–for example, in the United States under the Alien Tort Statute.
Yet each of these fora have different jurisdictional limits on bringing legal actions on human rights basis. In this regard, a case brought on behalf of the Inuit Peoples in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights sought to find that the United States was responsible for international human rights violations is illustrative of potential road blocks to bringing successful cases for human rights violations in existing legal rights fora.
The petition detailed the effects of rising Arctic temperatures on the ability of the Inuit to enjoy a wide variety of human rights, including the rights to life (melting ice and permafrost make travel more dangerous), property (as permafrost melts, houses collapse and residents are forced to leave their traditional homes) and health (nutrition worsens as the animals on which the Inuit depend for sustenance decline in number). The petition connected the rising temperatures to increasing levels of greenhouse gases, and in particular, to the failure by the United States to take effective steps to reduce its emissions.
In November 2006, the Commission informed the petitioners
that it had determined that “it will not be possible to process your
petition at present.” The IACHR did not explain its reasoning, stating only that “the information provided does not enable us to determine whether the alleged facts would tend to characterize a violation of [protected human] rights.” The Commission did hold a hearing on the connection between climate change and human rights in March 2007, but it has taken no further action.
It would appear that IACHR did not believe it had the legal authority to order the specific relief requested by the petitioners, namely to issue an order to the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. And so the IACHR did not decide the case on the merits of the underlying claim that the United States had contributed to human rights violations of the Inuit people, it appeared to decline to act on the basis of legal issues about its own authority.
(B) Do the duties to prevent human rights violations bind non-state actors including corporations?
It is not clear as of yet the extent to which human rights regimes create duties for individuals and corporations, that is non-state actors. Bodansky summarizes the current state of this legal question.
[A] crucial question is whether the duties to respect, protect and fulfill apply to private actors as well as states. International criminal law demonstrates that international law can in some case impose duties directly on individuals, and some have proposed that corporations have duties to respect human rights. So, at least in theory, human rights law could impose a duty on private actors to respect human rights by limiting their emissions of greenhouse gases. But generally, human rights law – like international environmental law – imposes duties on states rather than on corporations. If this is true of climate change,then human rights law limits the activities of non-state actors only to the extent that states have a duty to protect against climate change by regulating private activities.
And so, it is not clear whether the corporations that have participated in the disinformation campaign can be sued in the various human rights tribunals, yet nations may have a duty to regulate emissions from those corporations participating in the climate change disinformation campaign under human rights theories.
(C) Are the participants in the disinformation campaign liable for contributing to human rights violations?
A final issue that needs to be overcome to successfully bring a legal action against the participants in the disinformation campaign for violating civil rights of people around the world is identifying a legal basis for concluding that the disinformation campaign unlawfully caused the violation of civil rights. Because most of the participants in the disinformation campaign are corporations that are also emitters of greenhouse gases, these corporations like all greenhouse gas emitters arguably have duties to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to levels that in combination with other emitters do not deprive people around the world from enjoying legally protected rights. Yet it is not clear, that the tactics of the disinformation campaign alone make the participants in the disinformation campaign responsible for human rights violations by themselves.
However, most governments make it a crime for individuals to conspire to deprive people of their human rights. For instance, under US law it is a crime for persons to conspire to deprive another of the rights of an individual that has been secured by the individual through the United States Constitution or through any other laws of the United States. Although this specific law has not been tested in regard to climate change, it is generally viewed to be a breach of civil and sometimes criminal law to conspire to deprive people of their rights. As we saw in Part One of this series, the Plaintiffs in the case of Kivalina versus ExxonMobil et al asserted that the fossil fuel companies that have been part of the disinformation campaign conspired to harm the residents of Kavalina. And so there may be sufficient facts about the disinformation campaign that could form the basis of a claim that if proven could be the basis for finding responsibility for individuals participating in the climate change disinformation campaign yet only an actual case will test this possibility.
(D) Conclusions in regard to classifying the disinformation campaign as a violation of human rights.
There is little question that the more than 20 year delay in taking action on climate change in the United States for which the disinformation campaign is at least partially responsible for has prevented people around the world from enjoying a host of human rights that are now recognized in a variety of human rights regimes around the world. Yet, as was the case in categorizing the disinformation as a crime against humanity or a common law tort, there may be no existing legal remedy under existing human rights law that can be deployed to deal with the harms created by those participating in the disinformation campaign. And so once again, there may be serious deprivations of human rights caused by the disinformation campaign without legal remedies. Only time will tell whether those who have been harmed by climate change will be able to successfully bring a legal action against those engaged in the disinformation campaign for damages.
II. What Kind of Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing is The Behavior of the Disinformation Campaign?
We have seen thus far from the previous analysis in this two part series that there may be no legal remedy under existing law relating to crimes against humanity, civil tort, or human rights law for the harms caused by the climate change disinformation campaign. Yet the harms attributable to the disinformation campaign are so potentially catastrophic to hundreds of millions of people around the world that laws relating to crimes against humanity, civil tort, and human rights should be amended to provide legal sanctions under these legal theories for at least for the more egregious tactics that have sometimes been deployed by some participants in this campaign.
Yet there is no doubt that some of the tactics deployed by the disinformation campaign, to be distinguished from responsible skepticism that should be encouraged, constitute some kind of malfeasance, transgression, villainy, or wrongdoing. To understand the full moral abhorrence of the disinformation campaign, a complete description of the tactics employed by the disinformation campaign is necessary and how the moral abhorrence of these tactics can be distinguished from the reasonable exercise of free speech, the right of individuals to express opinions, and the benefits to society from skeptical inquiry. Ethicsandclimate.org reviewed these issues in four articles and three videos. These prior articles explained what is meant by the disinformation campaign, distinguished the tactics of the campaign from responsible scientific skepticism which should be encouraged, and described how the disinformation campaign was funded and organized.
The four part written series can be found at:
2.Ethical Analysis of the Disinformation Campaign’s Tactics: (1) Reckless Disregard for the Truth, (2) Focusing On Unknowns While Ignoring Knowns, (3) Specious Claims of “Bad” Science, and (4) Front Groups.
The three part video series can be found at:
We particularly recommend the first video for an overview of why the disinformation campaign is so morally abhorrent. Here it is:
This video explains how destructive the disinformation campaign has been in preventing or delaying government action to reduce the threat of climate change.
In summary, at least some of the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign are some new kind of assault on humanity which could be dealt with under expanded legal theories about crimes against humanity, civil tort, or human rights.
The philosopher Hans Jonas argued that the potential of new technologies to create great good and great harm creates the need to establish new social norms about how to deal with scientific uncertainty. Following Jonas’ logic, the enormity of potential harms from a problem like climate change creates the need to establish new norms about the need to be extraordinarily careful about claims that there is no danger threatened by certain human activities. We have examined in the last of the four articles above, what these new norms might look like given the need to encourage responsible skepticism yet assure that assertions that there is no danger are made responsibly. Because the climate change disinformation campaign deployed tactics that were designed to undermine the scientific basis that supported taking policy action to reduce the threat of climate change and in so doing used tactics that are ethically abhorrent, the climate change disinformation campaign should be used to develop new legal and moral norms about the need to be responsible when discussing very dangerous human activities. Just as it would be morally abhorrent for someone to tell a girl who is lying on a railroad track that she can continue to lie there because no train is coming when that person did not have reliable knowledge that no train was coming while having an economic interest in the girl staying on the track, so it is deeply ethically troublesome for those engaged in the disinformation campaign to tell the US people that there is no evidence that fossil fuels are causing climate change without subjecting their claims to the rigor of peer-review.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence
Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School of Law