Human rights, the environment and climate change: what are the connections?

By: Matthew Scott,

 By Dr. Matthew Scott

It doesn’t require extensive reflection to recognise the connection between human rights, the environment and climate change. Yet, it has taken the international community until October 2021 to recognise the right to a healthy environment, and to appoint a UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and climate change.

The impacts of environmental degradation and climate change on the enjoyment of human rights are deep and widespread.

People lose their lives, livelihoods, and homes in floods and storms, which are increasing in frequency and magnitude as the Earth warms. Crops fail, water resources dry up, and people move in a variety of ways as environmental pressures interact with other political, social, economic, demographic and other dynamics. Air pollution from fossil fuel burning increases respiratory disease incidence, and contributes to more than four million deaths per year, whilst toxic chemicals engender adverse health impacts, at times even across generations.

The international system for the protection of human rights has produced standards and guidelines that clarify the obligations of states to protect rights to life, to food, to water, to shelter, and to the highest attainable standard of health, including in the context of environmental degradation and climate change.

However, considering the contemporary emergency, well-reflected in models demonstrating that four of the nine planetary boundaries have been crossed, it is clear that we need more than international standards and guidelines if we are to survive the Anthropocene.

The human rights and environment programme at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law builds on the recognition that international human rights law can and does play an important role in this moment. Our point of departure is that human rights principles, standards and guidelines can contribute in different ways and in different contexts. It’s not only about demanding accountability for human rights violations.

Our work seeks to leverage the strengths of international human rights law in multi-level, multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral perspective in line with the post-2015 development agenda, anchored in the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the New Urban Agenda.

We consider that this approach helps to move beyond purely legalistic approaches that narrowly focus on judicial accountability mechanisms, by building networks with universities, civil society, the private sector, local and national government, the judiciary and national human rights institutions, international actors, and the media to contribute a human rights perspective in discussions and decisions relating to land use planning and sustainable development, disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, supply chain management, amongst others.

How does this work in practice?

Over the course of our engagement at the intersection of human rights and the environment, we have consolidated key international standards and guidelines into an approach consisting of four dimensions. We consider that for the right to a healthy environment to be realized, work needs to be done on 1) governance systems and structures 2) promoting non-discrimination and equality; 3) strengthening participation and access to information; and 4) focusing on fundamental rights, including the right to life, the right to health, the right to shelter, the right to food, amongst others reflected in international human rights law treaties.

Underpinning these four dimensions are principles, standards and guidelines relating, for instance, the rights of persons with disabilities, the rights of children, the rights of indigenous peoples, amongst others. We see all of these dimensions from a gender equality perspective.

Using this human rights-based approach, we contribute to international discussions through academic research that explores the practical interaction between human rights and the environment. We collate examples of good practice at the regional level and from around the world to help illustrate how human rights principles, standards and guidelines are already playing a role at this interface. We submit recommendations to global policy processes and contribute to the work of relevant UN special rapporteurs.

In our regional and national programmes, we build partnerships to promote understanding of and respect for human rights. As an academic institution, we recognize the critical role of universities in driving innovation and educating future decision-makers and practitioners. We work with partners to develop curricula on topics relating to human rights and the environment, and tailor materials to reach practitioners within the judiciary, civil society, and national and local government. Insights and materials derived from this work also feature in curriculum for the LLM in human rights and humanitarian law that we coordinate together with Lund University, including a specific course on human rights law, the environment and climate change.

We also see important connections between human rights and the environment at the local level, and collaborate on a number of initiatives that bring mayors, town planners, residents associations and others into dialogue, for instance through the World Human Rights Cities Forum.

In each of these contexts our focus is on how human rights law can contribute to the realization of the commitments under the post-2015 development agenda. We take inspiration from the recent recognition by the UN Human Rights Council of the right to a healthy environment, and the decision to appoint a special rapporteur on human rights and climate change. These achievements help to raise the profile of the importance of human rights in the current moment. We also celebrate the increased reliance on international human rights law in litigation initiatives designed to pressure high emitting states and corporate actors into taking the kind of action required prevent the planet warming beyond 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. It is now established that states have a duty under international law to respect protect and fulfill the right to a healthy environment. As an academic and network-based institute, we support a diverse range of actors around the world to support the realization of this right in practice.

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