IGM Fact Sheet 5 - Climate change and human rights

Faso Aishath Updated by Faso Aishath

The world’s climate is changing. Since the 1800s, human activity – especially burning fossil fuels and clearing land and forests – has cause a build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which has warmed our planet. The Earth is now 1.1°C warmer than it was in the 1800s. Weather patterns have also changed dramatically. 

The consequences of climate change include droughts, floods, heatwaves, rising sea levels, extreme weather events, loss of biodiversity and the collapse of ecosystems. The more the planet warms, the more the pace and severity of the changes escalate.

The science on climate change – including its causes consequences and impacts on human health and welfare – is clear, as are the steps the global community must take to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and keep our planet liveable. Under the Paris Agreement, global warming must be limited to 1.5°C.

“We are in a race against time … the magnitude and rate of climate change and the risks it brings with it depend strongly on the action that we take now.” - Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


States have obligations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its instruments to implement mitigation and adaptation measures, as well as avert and minimise damage and loss. They also have obligations to protect communities against the human rights impacts of climate change. These obligations extend beyond their borders. National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) can contribute to transformative human rights-based climate action by contributing to the planning and implementation of national climate commitments, laws and policies.


Protecting and promoting human rights

The world has never seen a challenge to human rights like climate change. It affects the lives of everyone on the planet. And for many communities – especially those living in island nations and in less developed countries – the climate crisis has already begun.

Fundamental rights – including the rights to life, health, housing, food and water, sanitation, self-determination, development and cultural rights – are under grave threat.

Climate change deepens existing vulnerabilities, exacerbates inequalities and threatens people’s lives and livelihoods. The reality is that those who have contributed the least to climate change disproportionately suffer its impacts, especially women, children and indigenous peoples.

To be effective, climate change policies and responses must be based on evidence and have a human rights-based approach. Communities, especially those most affected, must have active and meaningful participation in policy making and other actions to combat, mitigate, and adapt to climate change. In addition, those who suffer human rights violations because of climate change must have access to effective remedies.

Pushing people from home

Changes to the environment and climate are driving human mobility. This movement can be in response to sudden onset events, such as floods, fires or cyclones, or slow onset events, where rising sea level, increasing temperatures, ocean acidification or desertification undermine the economic, social and cultural life of communities.

Human mobility driven by changes in climate take different forms and dimensions. It can include displacement, migration and planned relocation; it can take place within a country or across international borders; and it can fall anywhere on a continuum from ‘forced’ to ‘voluntary’.

Of the 20 million people displaced globally each year, the vast majority (over 80 per cent) involve people in the Asia Pacific region. However, this figure does not include people who move in response to slow onset events. The actual number of people who move due to climate change is, therefore, likely to be much higher – and is expected to increase as global temperatures rise.

In addition to the human rights impacts of climate change, people who are displaced or migrate can face additional vulnerabilities. They can experience barriers in relation to work, housing, health and education; they can face prejudice and discrimination in their new communities; and they can live in precarious situations if they crossed borders through ‘irregular’ means.

There are human rights protection gaps in the current international legal and policy frameworks in relation to human mobility in the context of climate change.

NHRIs can contribute to research and analysis to ensure that the human rights of people on the move are protected, as well as help close the protection gaps in domestic and international policy frameworks. Developing regional actions and solutions is critical and this is where collaboration between NHRIs, and with regional intergovernmental mechanisms, can help address human rights protection gaps.

Putting human rights at the centre of our climate response

“We are concerned that climate change disproportionately affects the most vulnerable, reinforcing existing disparities and creating new economic and social inequalities.”

NHRI statement, 2020 Annual Meeting of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions

NHRIs can play a vital role in responding to the human rights impacts of climate change.

At the national level, NHRIs can:

·       Monitor and report on the human rights impacts of climate change.

·       Advise the government and others on human rights-based approaches to climate mitigation and adaptation measures.

·       Support communities to participate in decision-making on climate strategies, especially those most affected by climate change.

·       Advocate for climate action policies that integrate are gender responsive and integrate the expertise of local communities and traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples.

·       Provide education on the human rights impacts of climate change and policies.

·       Support individuals who are negatively impacted by climate change or mitigation measures to have an effective access to remedy.

·       Engage with business and others on their roles and responsibilities.

·       Advocate protection for environmental human rights defenders.

NHRIs can also play a valuable ‘bridging’ role to support the exchange of information between policymakers, civil society and other stakeholders, including groups most affected by climate change.

In addition, NHRIs can contribute to regional and international processes to promote human rights-based action on climate change, including in relation to nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement, as well as share their findings and recommendations in reports to UN human rights treaty bodies and the Universal Periodic Review.

How did we do?

IGM Fact Sheet 4 - The Pacific Islands Forum

IGM Fact Sheet 6 - The Sustainable Development Goals and Human Rights