Key findings from the report to the United Nations General Assembly by David Boyd- the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. This report was developed with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme as part of our continued partnership with the Rapporteur’s office on advancing environmental rights.
How climate change infringes on human rights
Climate change is here, and it is impeding the fulfilment of our rights. The right to life is universally recognized as a fundamental human right, yet, every year, 150,000 premature deaths are being linked to the climate crisis—a number set to increase with rising temperatures.
Climate-related deaths are caused by extreme weather events, heat waves, floods, droughts, wildfires, water-borne and vector-borne diseases, malnutrition and air pollution. The climate crisis threatens the right to water and sanitation, contributing to water crises like the one in Bolivia, where glaciers are receding, and water rationing has been required in major cities. At 2°C, 100 million more people are forecasted to face water insecurity.
The climate emergency also violates the right to health, not only through premature deaths, but also through increased incidences of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, malnutrition, stunting, wasting, allergies, injuries and mental illness. For example, dengue fever is the most rapidly spreading vector-borne disease, with a thirtyfold increase in global incidence that is largely attributable to climate change. According to the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, the climate crisis is the biggest global health threat of the twenty-first century and could reverse five decades of progress in global health, particularly as it endangers the right to food.
“Climate variability and extremes are among the key drivers behind the recent uptick in global hunger and one of the leading causes of severe food crises. The cumulative effect of changes in climate is undermining all dimensions of food security—food availability, access, utilization and stability,” says the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in its 2018 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World.
Entire communities, such as Vunidogoloa, Fiji, have been or are in the process of being relocated owing to rising sea levels, coastal erosion, storm surges, salinization and other climate impacts. It is estimated that by 2050, 150 million people or more could be displaced by the impacts of the climate crisis. Over a longer timeframe, entire states are at risk of becoming uninhabitable, including Kiribati, Maldives and Tuvalu. This displacement is threatening the right to a healthy environment.
Using human rights approaches to inform climate change policies
The right to a healthy environment is recognized in law by at least 155 Member States. The failure of states to take adequate steps to address climate change may constitute a violation of the right to a healthy environment, as several courts have recognized.
As detailed in the Safe Climate report, governments have an obligation to take effective measures to mitigate climate change, enhance the adaptive capacity of vulnerable populations and prevent foreseeable loss of life. This includes preventing the potential violation of rights by third parties, especially businesses, as well as establishing, implementing and enforcing laws, policies and programmes to fulfil their citizens’ rights.
Importantly, the Special Rapporteur calls on wealthy states to contribute their fair share towards the cost of mitigation and adaptation in low-income countries—as countries are not equally responsible—nor affected—by the climate crisis.
Meanwhile, in his report he also identifies that, as a first step, corporations should comply with the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as they pertain to human rights and climate change. Businesses should adopt human rights policies, conduct human rights due diligence, remedy human rights violations for which they are directly responsible, and work to influence other actors to respect human rights.
Applying a rights-based approach clarifies the obligations of governments and businesses, catalyses ambitious action, highlights the plight of the poorest and most vulnerable, and empowers people to become involved in designing and implementing solutions.
The human rights obligations related to climate change have been explored by various organizations, including international courts, governments and United Nations human rights bodies. These aforementioned experts, which include David Boyd, have reached two common conclusions: first, climate change and its impacts threaten a broad range of human rights, and second, as a result, states and private actors have extensive human rights obligations and responsibilities.