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Climate Change and Human Rights

Rights and Freedoms

Climate change and human rights

Why are human rights relevant to climate change?

Governments have traditionally approached climate change as an ecological problem, or more recently, as an economic one. So far, the social and human rights implications of climate change have not been widely recognised. The effects of climate change may threaten a broad range of internationally accepted human rights, including the rights to life, to food and to a place to live and work. In addition, policies designed to address climate change themselves have the potential to impact on human rights. For this reason, it is important to look at how a human rights-based approach can contribute to the development of climate change policy.

Which human rights are affected by climate change?

There are many rights recognised in the key international human rights instruments that may be negatively impacted by climate change. Examples include the following:

  • The right to life: The effect of climate change on the right to life may be immediate - for example, death caused by extreme climate-change induced weather. It may also be more gradual - for example, when climate change causes people’s health to deteriorate, limits their access to safe drinking water or makes them more susceptible to disease.
  • Right to adequate food: Climate change will most likely lead to regional food production dropping. Increased temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns will lead to erosion and desertification. This will make previously productive land infertile and reduce crop and livestock. Rising sea levels will make coastal land unusable and cause fish species to migrate, while more frequent extreme weather events will disrupt agriculture.
  • Right to water: As the earth gets warmer, heat waves and water shortages will make it difficult to access safe drinking water and sanitation. There will be lower and more erratic rainfall in the tropical and sub-tropical areas of the Asia Pacific.
  • Right to health: Climate change will have many impacts on human health. These will mainly be caused by disease and malnutrition. For example, changes in temperature will affect the intensity of a wide range of vector-borne, water-borne and respiratory diseases.
  • Human security: Climate change has the potential to aggravate existing threats to human rights. The impacts of climate change will increase people’s vulnerability to poverty and social deprivation. People whose rights are poorly protected are also generally less equipped to adapt to climate change impacts.
  • Rights of indigenous peoples: Climate change has a big impact on indigenous peoples around the world. It impacts them in a unique way, due to the deep engagement they have with the land. For example, it has been predicted that northern Aboriginal communities will bear the brunt of climate change and will face serious health risks from malaria, dengue fever and heat stress, as well as loss of food sources from floods, drought and more intense bushfires.

How do climate change policies impact on human rights?

Responses to climate change have generally focused on the following areas:

  • Mitigation: Governments have primarily responded to climate change by introducing measures to lower its rate of acceleration, mainly by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Adaptation: Because climate change will continue, even with successful mitigation, governments are establishing measures that support affected communities to adapt to climate change, reduce the risks and limit the damage caused by climate change.
  • Relocation: There are communities around the world already being displaced by climate change. While some migration policies have been introduced, to date there has been no coordinated response from the international community to address the needs of these so called ‘climate change refugees’.

With climate change induced disasters expected more often and on a bigger scale, it is also likely that there will be an increasing focus on disaster relief. Governments will need to make plans for the evacuation and protection of large numbers of people.

However, the responses themselves can detrimentally impact on human rights and exacerbate already existing social inequity. Australia’s peak environment and welfare groups have highlighted that low-income and disadvantaged people may be disproportionately affected by measures pursued to minimise the risks associated with climate change. For example, using low carbon alternative energy sources means unit costs will rise. The most disadvantaged will struggle to live with increased costs.

Why should climate change policies incorporate human rights principles?

As a signatory to the major international human rights instruments, Australia has an obligation to protect people against the threat that climate change poses to human rights. But the challenge is to develop a response to climate change that distributes rights and responsibilities equally.

What then does human rights discourse offer governments when developing appropriate responses to climate change? The answer, it appears, is a lot.

A human rights-based approach to climate change refocuses and re-centres the debate on individuals and communities. The practical value of a human rights-based approach is that:

  • Individuals are seen as rights-holders, putting responsibility on government to make channels available for their participation and input into policy development.
  • There is an emphasis on local knowledge of the environment and ways to protect it. For example, incorporating traditional cultural practices of indigenous communities into climate change responses.
  • The principles of non-discrimination and substantive equality are a key element of policy formulation. Decision makers must weigh up the likely impact on disadvantaged or vulnerable groups when deciding on policy.
  • Core minimum human rights standards guide decision makers when they are weighing up competing demands on limited resources.

For these reasons, whether particular climate change responses relate to adaptation for local communities, to aid for adaptation overseas, or to immigration policies for people escaping environmental catastrophes, a human rights-based approach to policy development could, and should, be adopted to provide a standard for evaluating policy and resource allocation.

Past Projects and Publications

Australian Human Rights Commission Seminar:

Climate Change and Human Rights: A Tragedy in the Making

At this August 2008 seminar, former Commission President, the Hon John von Doussa QC, discussed a human rights approach to climate change. Emily Gerrard, former lawyer from Native Title Services Victoria, spoke about the impact of climate change on indigenous rights. This seminar was part of a series hosted by the Commission in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Australian Human Rights Commission Publications:

Climate Change and Human Rights: This article by former Commission President, the Hon John von Doussa QC, was published in the June 2008 issue of InSight, the monthly magazine of the Centre for Policy Development.

In April 2008 the Commission released a Background Paper looking at the human rights dimensions of climate change. The Paper looks at how the obligations on governments in international human rights instruments might apply when developing climate change policy.

The 2008 Native Title Report explored the issues of climate change and water resources, and what the government’s policies might mean for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The report includes two case studies – one from the Torres Strait Islands and the other from the Murray-Darling Basin – which highlight the particular challenges and opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.


The Commission made a submission to the Australia 2020 Summit in April 2008, supporting a human rights-based approach to climate change policy. 


Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples, Speech by Warwick Baird, Director of Native Title Unit, Australian Human Rights Commission, Native Title Conference 2008, 5 June 2008

Agenda 6: Half day discussion on the Pacific, Panel statement by Tom Calma, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, United Nations Permanent Forum, New York, 23 April 2008

Climate Change: Catastrophic Impacts and Human Rights, Delivered by the Hon John von Doussa QC, President, Australian Human Rights Commission at the University of Adelaide, 11 December 2007

To read more speeches delivered by Australian Human Rights Commission’s President and Commissioners, click here.