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Let's Talk Human Rights

Human Rights in the Context of Climate Justice

By Haochun Ling '22

I believe that the most important challenge facing our society today is climate change. From a basic liberties point of view, a worldwide temperature change will undermine a progression of human rights, including the right to life, health, food and development. 

The relationship between human rights and climate change has involved various controversies and perspectives. Supporters of recognition of this relationship, represented by Mary Robinson, the former UN Special Envoy for Climate Change, believe that “Human rights law is relevant because climate change causes human rights violations. But a human rights lens can also be helpful in approaching and managing climate change.” However, other experts believe that there is uncertainty in the relationship between human rights and climate change, and a lack of conceptual clarity and functional value. Moreover, a few specialists stress that utilizing the language of human rights law in relation to climate change issues may compound current challenges to human rights and decrease the impact and validity of international human rights law.  

The international community's awareness of the importance of protecting the environment has grown in recent decades. On October 8, 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 48/13 recognizing that having a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right. This brings into focus two primary approaches to understanding the interaction between climate change and human rights. The first is to treat environmental justice as a separate human right, and the second is to broaden the current definition of human rights to include environmental conservation and climate change.

“Humanization” of the international climate change system

The current global climate change legal system has problems such as fragmentation and weak enforcement. The legal framework works at the global level through the Paris Agreement, the regional level, through a series of EU laws on greenhouse gas emission reduction, and at the domestic level, such as the United Kingdom's “The Climate Change Act 2008.” Despite the solid legal foundation, various countries' different political and economic interests mean major disagreements continue. In addition, some human rights challenges caused by climate change are rarely involved directly and centrally in these frameworks. 

As countries meet in Glasgow at COP26 to discuss their commitments to address climate change, I highlight here two of the particularly urgent and critical challenges from my perspective.  First, migration as a result of climate change has become unavoidable. This involves rising strains on social infrastructure in many countries, an inflow of foreigners that exceeds host country expectations, and the deaths of immigrants on perilous voyages.

Second, the challenges of protecting human rights while lowering greenhouse gas emissions are substantial. Some programs aimed at lowering greenhouse gas emissions may jeopardize people's human rights. The transition to renewable energy and a zero-carbon economy could be inequitable and incompatible with human rights for marginalized and underprivileged groups, particularly in developing nations. These individuals are burdened by lack of access to energy and other inequalities already. Despite their specific connection to climate change, the current climate change legal framework does not sufficiently address them. I believe these issues should be considered and addressed as part of, not separate from, international climate change laws and negotiations like those taking place at COP26.

Greening international human rights 

The current human rights law framework also does not clearly cover the particular aspects of the climate change-caused human rights challenges. In my view, the international human rights law system urgently requires a "green" reform to ensure that current human rights law provisions reflect climate justice. This means addressing the human rights crisis of climate change, particularly the disparate impact on marginalized and vulnerable groups, such as indigenous peoples.

The first major step is the resolution declaring access to a healthy and sustainable environment to be a human right. This should encourage the creation of norms and standards that particularly address climate justice. This can help with fragmentation in the system and more clearly establish the relationship between climate change and human rights. It can go further than patching up holes in existing human rights norms. Given the importance of legal precedents in the application of human rights legislation, international treaty bodies and regional human rights courts will also play an important role in aiding the "greening" of the human rights law system.

To conclude, the international human rights law system urgently needs a “green” process, and the international climate change law system should accelerate the “humanization” process. My view is that doing both will help our world be able to cope with the devastating consequences of the human rights crisis caused by climate change. 


Haochun Ling is in her third year of law school at the University of Dayton. Her focus is on international human rights law and immigration law. She joined the Human Rights Center as a graduate student researcher. She intends to utilize her understanding of immigration law and international human rights law after graduation in 2022 to assist persons in the process of getting US immigration benefits or to assist asylum seekers in the United States.

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