More Than Hot Air: Reflections on the Relationship between Climate Change and Human Rights

By Horn, Laura; Freeland, Steven | University of Western Sydney Law Review, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

More Than Hot Air: Reflections on the Relationship between Climate Change and Human Rights


Horn, Laura, Freeland, Steven, University of Western Sydney Law Review


CONTENTS

I    INTRODUCTION
II   ACTION TO PREVENT FUTURE VIOLATIONS OF THESE HUMAN RIGHTS
III  LEGAL PROTECTION OF HUMAN RIGHTS
IV   SOVEREIGNTY
V    UNITED NATIONS SECURITY COUNCIL
VI   HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL
VII  AVENUES FOR POSSIBLE INTERNATIONAL LEGAL ACTION
VIII PEOPLE DISPLACED BY CLIMATE CHANGE
IX   THE COMMON CONCERN OF HUMANKIND
X    A NEW INTERNATIONAL AGREEMENT
XI   CONCLUSION
POSTCRIPT

I INTRODUCTION

The two areas of human rights and climate change are inextricably linked. They are both dependent upon the international cooperation of states and are part of the domain of the common concern of humankind. (1) As such, the protection of human rights and of the climate depends upon multilateral action on the part of the international community, particularly in circumstances where human rights are violated due to the adverse impacts of climate change. A key argument in this article is that there should be a focus on addressing the causes of climate change by developing international environmental law, because climate change forms a fundamental threat to the welfare of both humankind and the environment. This form of protection is likely to lead to more effective prevention of human rights violations that occur as a consequence of climate change, rather than relying solely upon the present legal framework for international human rights law.

This article commences with a brief summary of the relationship between climate change and human rights and then examines whether there currently exists any adequate legal means of protection against violation of the human rights occurring as a result of the adverse impacts of climate change. The second part of this article considers whether there are effective mechanisms available to deal with these violations of human rights at international law and the third part examines the predicament of people who are, and might in the future be displaced by climate change.

This article is timely not only because of the importance attached to the fundamental human rights of individuals, but also due to the fact that the principal existing international legal regime regulating climate change--established under the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change ('UNFCCC') (2)--is due to be renegotiated at the Conference of Parties of the UNFCCC (COP15) in Copenhagen late this year. Indeed, a series of meetings leading up to the COP15 Meeting have already begun, and recent sessions in Bonn in June and August 2009 have highlighted how complex and difficult this process will be. It is certainly too early to have the confidence to predict how the international legal regime will develop at Copenhagen, and in the period thereafter.

Many state governments have been focusing on the economic and security aspects of climate change, without paying sufficient attention to the social and human rights implications. (3) However, a report issued by the Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights ('UNHCHR') in early 2009 has raised this relationship at the highest levels, by focusing on 'The Relationship between Climate Change and Human Rights' (the 'UNHCHR Report'). The UNHCHR Report set out to establish some of the key issues that characterise the relationship between human rights and climate change. It is apparent from the conclusions of the UNHCHR Report that the implications of this relationship are very serious. Many fundamental human rights will be affected by changes in the earth's climate--some of the main impacts on human rights are listed in the UNHCHR Report. They are highlighted in summary form below.

A The Right to Life (4)

Predictions by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ('IPCC') indicate that an increase in weather threats, such as heatwaves, floods, storms fires and droughts, will inevitably lead to an increase in human deaths. (5) These weather-related disasters are more likely to have an effect on the right to life of those in the developing countries, but will also have an impact upon other related human rights, such as the right to adequate food, due to the increase of people suffering from hunger. …

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