Climate change and human rights


By Klaus Reiche

Kiribati is the first state which has been forced to prepare plans for the evacuation of the whole nation due to climate change.

The state consists of 33 islands and its habitable area is on average three metres above sea-level. Due to climate change, permanent ice sheets will melt and heat will be taken up by the oceans and thus sea levels will rise by around 1.00 to 1.24 metres by the end of this century. If a certain temperature threshold is crossed, the complete Greenland ice sheets could melt and sea level rises of up to seven metres over a millennium are possible. This will cause serious harm to countries like Kiribati, which is now preparing to escape future harm.

The Kiribati case shows that climate change is already happening, with a serious human rights impact both now and in the future. As well as sea level rise, climate change will lead to higher temperatures in the mid-latitudes, more intense and more frequent extreme weather events like storms, and changed precipitation patterns. Storms and heatwaves have already killed many thousands of people, like in Paris, England and Wales during a heatwave in 2003 and in Venezuela in 1999 due to a storm.

Flooding also destroys many lives in coastal areas, for example in Bangladesh. These areas are mostly occupied by poor people with limited ability to adapt. Heatwaves and storms will also increase the number of people suffering from a range of climate-sensitive diseases. This increases the costs of healthcare systems in many countries.

The risk of hunger also increases with rising temperatures. For example, in the book Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, Hare states that 45-55 million people will be at risk of hunger with a temperature increase of 2.5◦C by 2080, and even 65–75 million with a 3◦C increase. These examples show the serious impact climate change already has had.

This impact arise from man-made climate change; that is, human activities causing high emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Thus, climate change is not a natural phenomenon. Secondly, climate change is characterised by a dispersion of causes and effects of both space and time; therefore the effects of high emission activities are felt elsewhere in the world to where they occured. Due to the longevity of CO2 the effects of these activities can also materialise a long time after emission. In addition, it is nearly impossible to identify the individuals whose emissions have caused this or that specific effect.

Under these criteria, one can say that climate change violates human rights, both now and in the future. In Climate Ethics, Caney argues that at least three basic human rights are threatened: the human right to life (through storms and heatwaves), the human right to health (through the risk of climate-sensitive diseases and bad climate conditions) and the human right to subsistence (through an increase in the risk of hunger because of losses in the agricultural sector).

Since culture forms a crucial part of our personality, humans might also have a right to a cultural life, which has possibly been violated in the Kiribati case. According to Caney, in general the basic nature of human rights is to ‘specify the minimum thresholds to which all individuals are entitled, simply by virtue of their humanity, and which override all other moral values’. This definition refers to at least four components of human rights: humanity, moral thresholds, universal protection and liberty/equality. Following this understanding, each person has rights simply because they are humans. These rights define certain thresholds under which people should not fall (moral thresholds) and which are to be protected (universal protection) with priority over any other value like, for example, efficiency.

In addition to these protecting components, human rights establish a relationship between the individual which is protected by its rights and the individual that has to respect these rights and thus has the duty to act appropriately. Assuming that human beings will exist for sure in the future and that potentially bad effects of our actions materialise in the (very) distant future, human rights of future individuals and thus future generations will be threatened as well – and even worse.

Acting in a way that worsens climate change means that we impose harm to people who are at our mercy. Second, it also means that the harms will last longer and thereby will impose harms on additional generations than we would have if we had fought against climate change. Third, we leave future generations to greater dangers because the risk of catastrophic changes in the climate system will increase and the possibilities of future generations to fight climate change will diminish.

Therefore, strong and immediate action is needed to protect from harm both existing and future individuals through constitutional changes and precautionary principles.


Klaus Reiche is a potential PhD student studying international justice and climate change. He has previously studied sustainability science and environmental science. Last Sunday (21 September) was the International Day of Action on climate change. 

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