Academic journal article Australian International Law Journal

Human Rights and Climate Change

Academic journal article Australian International Law Journal

Human Rights and Climate Change

Article excerpt

Climate change, already affecting the lives of millions, is increasingly becoming one of the most urgent human rights challenges facing the global community. Yet government responses to climate change to date have tended to consider it an ecological problem or, more recently, an economic issue, with the social and human rights implications of climate change rarely featuring in policy debates about climate change. This article argues that human rights principles remain essential to effectively and equitably cope with the impacts of climate change. The paper explores how such a framework might apply in the context of climate change adaptation measures, aid for overseas adaptation, disaster management and in responding to 'climate change refugees'.


Climate change will have significant impacts in both Australia and across the globe. Australia is one of the most arid continents in the world. It is vulnerable to risks such as disruptions to water supply; increases in the severity of storms, floods and droughts; coastal erosion due to sea level rise; and to negative human health impacts, for example through an increase in the range and spread of disease. (1) The impacts of climate change are also a particular concern in the Asia Pacific region. According to the fifth report from the Working Group on Climate Change and Development, Up in Smoke? Asia and the Pacific, which was released in November 2007, 'the human drama of climate change will largely be played out in Asia, where over 60 per cent of the world's population, around 4 billion people, live'. (2)

In responding to climate change, governments have traditionally approached it as an ecological problem or, more recently, as an economic one. To date, the social and human rights implications of climate change have received little attention. (3) Yet the human costs of climate change directly threaten fundamental human rights--rights to life, to food, to a place to live and work--rights that governments have an obligation to protect. As Kyung-wha Kang, the United Nations ('UN') Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated:

  Global warming and extreme weather conditions may have calamitous
  consequences for the human rights of millions of people ... ultimately
  climate change may affect the very right to life of various
  individuals ... [countries] have an obligation to prevent and address
  some of the direct consequences that climate change may reap on human
  rights. (4)

Equity issues also arise in the climate change context because of its disproportionate impact on already vulnerable people and communities. As articulated by the United Kingdom ('UK') Secretary of State for the Environment, 'socially, climate changes raises profound questions of justice and equity: between generations, between the developing and developed worlds; between rich and poor within each country. The challenge is to find an equitable distribution of responsibilities and rights' (5).

What then, if anything, does the modern human rights discourse offer or require from governments when developing appropriate responses to the impacts of climate change? The answer, it appears, is 'a lot'. As noted by the Deputy High Commissioner, States have a positive obligation to protect individuals against the threat posed to human rights by climate change, regardless of the causes. The most effective means of facilitating this is to adopt a 'human rights-based approach' to policy and legislative responses to climate change; an approach that is normatively based on international human rights standards and that is practically directed to promoting and protecting human rights.

Part 1 of this article considers the human rights dimensions of climate change. Specifically, it looks at how the rights contained in the key international instruments are threatened by the impacts of climate change. Part 2 then goes on consider what obligations are imposed on Australia, in both international and domestic law, to respond to these threats. …

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