Climate Change & Human Rights

Boy drinking water from a faucet
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The Inextricable Link
Between the Planet’s Health and the Human Condition

by Lena Milton

Climate change is the most monumental human rights issue we face. 

While we often discuss the environmental impacts of climate change, we’re only beginning to discuss how environmental issues affect human rights. As we’re already seeing, climate change causes indirect human rights violations and will exacerbate current human rights issues. 

Climate change is causing more extreme weather, increased weather variations, and increased global temperature. This will cause a host of problems for humans, including loss of livable land and difficulty growing food. These seemingly ‘environmental’ issues will have a huge impact on many people’s ability to secure basic human rights.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, basic human rights include rights to life, health, food, and an adequate standard of living. This issue isn’t simply a vague theory of what might happen in the future; all of these human rights are already being threatened by climate change and will continue to be put at risk as it worsens.

This article examines not only whose human rights are most threatened by climate change, but also the various human rights issues that climate change is creating or worsening.

Lena Milton
Lena Milton

Who Will Be Impacted?

Climate change is disproportionately affecting disadvantaged populations such as women, children, ethnic minorities and poor communities. For example, according to the United Nations, women and children are 14 times more likely to die in a disaster caused by climate change.

This is felt on an international scale, as poorer and less developed countries are increasingly bearing the burden of climate change despite not being the primary drivers behind the issue. This may be worsened by the fact that poor countries are often in low latitudes with very high temperatures or areas with extreme dryness.

Climate Change’s Impacts on Human Rights

While the impacts of climate change are extremely far-reaching and too extensive to cover in a single article, the following are a few of the most pressing climate impacts that threaten human rights.

Food & Freshwater Scarcity

As climate change reduces access to freshwater and increases food scarcity, several human rights are threatened, including the human right to life, right to food and right to health.

Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of drought in already arid regions, which not only creates drinking water shortages but also makes growing food more difficult. Drought can also lead to desertification, the process by which land becomes more “desert-like” and less fertile. Desertification causes food shortages and forces migration as the region becomes incapable of supporting agriculture and other livelihoods.

Climate change is also causing sea-level rise, which leads to salinification (the process of becoming salty) of important freshwater resources. Climate change increases variations in amounts of precipitation, and significant shifts in rainfall can disrupt normal water flow and quality. For example, more, and more frequent, flooding can harm crop yields, increase sediment in rivers and potentially increase the flow of toxins from urban areas into water sources.

Adversely Affected Livelihoods

Climate change harms natural resources, thereby threatening many people’s right to livelihood.

Ocean acidification is caused by excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere being absorbed by the ocean, making the ocean more acidic. This acidity harms marine ecosystems and impacts human livelihoods that depend on the ocean’s resources. Ocean acidification is already severely impacting several countries; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates ocean acidification will cause a $140 billion loss of income in Hawaii, Florida and Puerto Rico alone.

Climate change (in addition to other factors) also is causing forest dieback as higher temperatures reduce the areas in which certain species can live. Forest dieback harms ecosystems that rely on trees to live, increases climate change by reducing carbon sinks, and harms wood production and human livelihoods dependent on trees.

More Disease

Climate change increases the spread of disease, which indirectly threatens the right to health.

As climate change increases temperatures and the frequency of extreme weather events, several diseases are expected to worsen. This includes malaria, dengue fever, West Nile virus and Lyme disease. Many of these diseases are carried by mosquitoes and ticks, whose survival is often influenced by temperature. 

Increased temperatures and shifting climates will likely allow disease-carrying bugs to survive in a larger geographic range where they can survive. Increased temperatures may even cause disease-causing parasites to reproduce faster, such as the Plasmodium parasite in mosquitoes that causes malaria.

Climate Migrations

According to a 2021 World Bank report, sea-level rise could cause the migration of 216 million people. As climate change causes sea-level rise, loss of freshwater and reductions of agricultural yields, communities facing these issues will be forced to move elsewhere. This will negatively affect human rights, including the right to life, right to housing and right to an adequate standard of living.

This will likely be an issue for coastal areas in particular as sea levels rise and storms continue to affect these regions. For example, according to a recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, sea levels are expected to rise by as much as 0.73 meters by 2100, which would submerge entire islands that thousands of people call home. Increased storms caused by climate change will also affect tropical regions.

Woman in open-air food market
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Solutions: How to Protect the Climate and Human Rights

Climate change must be addressed not only to reduce environmental impacts for the good of the planet, but also to protect global citizens from indirect human rights violations.

The first and most obvious solution is to slow climate change. For example, we should take actions that slow temperature increases and keep the global temperature below an increase of 2 degrees C.

However, it is important that our solutions to slow climate change do not increase threats to human rights. For example, several hydropower projects were the subject of allegations of human rights violations such as infringing on labor and land rights. 

While climate change is the biggest environmental and human rights issue we face today, it is not insurmountable. We must take action not only to mitigate climate change, but also to create solutions that make it easier to adapt to climate change and reduce its effects on human rights.

Any climate solutions must be implemented with human rights in mind. They could include:

  • Greater commitment to responsible global sourcing of goods to better support areas affected by climate change and reduce ethical and environmental violations in supply chains
  • Increased financial assistance to developing countries
  • Improved international coordination to help climate migrants
  • Implementation of regenerative agricultural practices to increase crop yields without degrading land
  • Creation of climate-resilient infrastructure to withstand storms and rising sea levels
  • Creation of early-warning systems to mitigate the damage caused by extreme weather events

We also need plans for relocating communities when mitigation infrastructure isn’t feasible or won’t be enough to hold back rising seas, and for doing so equitably.

Finally, we need to ensure solutions do not place the burden of developed countries’ mitigation initiatives on developing and underdeveloped nations or their citizens.

Individuals can also take small actions in their personal lives that reduce climate change. Most importantly, each of us can pressure elected officials and governments to pass laws that will lead to systemic changes and major global-warming reduction initiatives.

Please also check out our Climate Covenant and explore our site for some ideas of how you can positively contribute.

© 2022 Lena Milton

Lena Milton is Knight of the Climate Covenant and a freelance writer who covers sustainability, health and environmental science. She writes to help consumers understand the environmental and ethical challenges in everyday life so we can find viable solutions. Read more of her writing here.

Featured photo by Chaucharanje via Pexels

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