Climate Change and Human Rights

This year, World Environment Day occurs during a meeting of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP), which is meeting in Bonn, Germany, to negotiate a climate agreement to be adopted this December in Paris. The theme for World Environment Day is “Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care.” As the UN Environment Programme explains, “Many of the Earth’s ecosystems are nearing critical tipping points of depletion or irreversible change, pushed by high population growth and economic development… Living within planetary boundaries is the most promising strategy for ensuring a healthy future. Human prosperity need not cost the earth.”

As human rights experts of the United Nations system, we take this occasion to draw attention again to the grave harm climate change poses to the worldwide enjoyment of human rights. Last December, on Human Rights Day, all of the UN human rights experts came together to urge States to recognize that climate change threatens human rights, and to urge States to include language in the 2015 climate agreement providing that the Parties shall respect , protect and fulfil human rights, in all of their climate change related actions. Since then, our work has further confirmed the urgent need to take effective action. Many of us recently prepared a report for the Climate Vulnerable Forum, an international partnership of twenty countries highly vulnerable to a warming planet, which explains that an average increase in global temperature of even 2.0° C will adversely affect a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, and water, among many others.

Climate change threatens these rights in many ways. Deaths, injuries and displacement of persons from climate-related disasters, such as tropical cyclones, will increase, as will mortality from heat waves, drought, disease and malnutrition. The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that the foreseeable consequences of even a 2°C rise include an increasing probability of “declining work productivity, morbidity (e.g., dehydration, heat stroke, and heat exhaustion), and mortality from exposure to heat waves. Particularly at risk are agricultural and construction workers as well as children, homeless people, the elderly, and women who have to walk long hours to collect water1.”

Climate change will exacerbate existing stresses on water resources and compound the problem of access to safe drinking water, currently denied to an estimated 1.1 billion people globally and a major cause of morbidity and disease. It is estimated that about 8% of the global population will see a severe reduction in water resources with a 1°C rise in global mean temperature, rising to 14% at 2°C2. Climate change is already affecting the ability of some communities to feed themselves, and the number affected will grow as temperatures rise. As the IPCC report states, “all aspects of food security are potentially affected by climate change, including food access, utilization, and price stability3.”

Climate change will affect most severely the lives of those who already struggle to enjoy their human rights, including women, children, the elderly and the poor. In the words of the Fifth Assessment report, “People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalized are especially vulnerable to climate change and also to some adaptation and mitigation responses4.” The report states that “future impacts of climate change, extending from the near term to the long term, mostly expecting 2°C scenarios, will slow down economic growth and poverty reduction, further erode food security, and trigger new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hotspots of hunger5.” Poverty becomes a particular vulnerability factor for children to fall victims of sexual abuse and exploitation. Some people will be forced to migrate. However, because the ability to migrate often depends on mobility and resources, migration opportunities may be least available to those who are most vulnerable to climate change, resulting in people becoming trapped in locations vulnerable to environmental hazards, further exacerbating their suffering. Moreover, where climate-change-induced migration is forced, people may be migrating in an irregular situation and therefore may be more vulnerable to human rights violations through the migration process.

Climate change will also devastate the other forms of life that share this planet with us. As temperatures increase more than 2°C, studies predict increasingly disastrous consequences for biodiversity. For example, one study found that 20-30% of the assessed plant and animal species are likely to be at increasingly high risk of extinction as global mean temperatures exceed a warming of 2 to 3°C6. These consequences will be felt by humans as well: with respect to the right to health, the fifth assessment report explains that biodiversity loss “can lead to an increase in the transmission of infectious diseases such as Lyme, schistosomiasis, and hantavirus in humans7.”

Bringing a human rights perspective to climate change not only clarifies what is at stake; it also helps to ensure that responses are coherent, effective and responsive to the concerns of those most affected. As the Human Rights Council affirmed in its Resolution 10/4, “human rights obligations and commitments have the potential to inform and strengthen international and national policy making in the area of climate change, promoting policy coherence, legitimacy and sustainable outcomes8.” Citing that resolution, the State Parties to the UNFCCC have already agreed, in the 2010 outcome document adopted by COP16 in Cancun, Mexico, “that Parties should, in all climate change-related actions, fully respect human rights9.” Respecting human rights in the formulation and implementation of climate policy requires, among other things, that the State Parties meet their duties to provide access to information in accessible formats and technologies appropriate to all, and facilitate informed public participation in decision making, especially the participation of those most affected by climate change and by the actions taken to address it.

We urge States to make sure that human rights are at the core of climate change governance. We encourage them to sign the Geneva Pledge for Human Rights in Climate Action, through which many countries have already voluntarily committed themselves to facilitate the sharing of best practices and information among human rights and climate experts at a national level. And we renew our call on State parties to maintain language in the 2015 climate agreement that provides that the parties shall, in all climate change related actions, respect, protect, promote and fulfil human rights for all.

Climate change is one of the greatest human rights challenges of our generation, and it is our generation that must meet it. Indeed, the heads of governments and their climate negotiators represent the very last generation that can prevent catastrophic environmental harm to a vast array of human rights. We will continue to support them and all those working to protect human rights from this grave threat.

This statement has been endorsed by the following (27) UN Special Procedures:

Ms. Mireille Fanon-Mendes-France, Chair of the Working Group of experts of people of African Descent;
Ms. Farida Shaheed, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights
Mr. Alfred de Zayas, Independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order;
Ms. Frances Raday, Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice;
Ms. Catalina Devandas Aguilar, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities;
Mr. John Knox, Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment;
Mr. Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights;
Ms. Hilal Elver, Special Rapporteur on the right to food;
Mr. David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression;
Mr. Dainius Puras, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health;
Mr. Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders;
Ms. Victoria Lucia Tauli-Corpuz, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people;
Mr. Chaloka Beyani, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons;
Ms. Elzbieta Karska, Chair of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination;
Mr. François Crépeau, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants;
Ms. Rosa Kornfeld-Matte, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons;
Ms. Maud De Boer-Buquicchio, Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography;
Ms. Urmila Bhoola, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and its consequences;
Ms. Virginia Dandan, Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity;
Mr. Christof Heyns, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions;
Mr. Baskut Tuncak, Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes;
Mr. Michael K. Addo, Chair of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises;
Ms. Rashida Manjoo, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences;
Mr. Juan Bohoslavsky, Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights;
Mr. Léo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation;
Ms. Rhona Smith, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia;
Mr. Gustavo Gallón, Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Haiti;
Mr. Bahame Tom Mukirya Nyanduga, Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Somalia


1. IPCC Working Group II, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, p. 811.

2. Ibid. p. 250.

3. Ibid. p. 488.

4. IPCC Working Group II, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Summary for Policymakers, p. 6.

5. IPCC Working Group II, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, p. 796.

6. Ibid. p.1053 (internal citation omitted).

7. Ibid. p. 1054.

8. Human Rights Council resolution 10/4 (25 March 2009).

9. FCCC/CP/2010/7/Add.1, Report of the Conference of the Parties on its sixteenth session, held in Cancun from 29 November to 10 December 2010, Addendum, Part Two: Action taken by the Conference of the Parties at its sixteenth session.

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Joint Statement by UN Special Procedures on the Occasion of World Environment Day