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  • Deanna Wilken

Climate Change: The Greatest Human Rights Crisis

Author: Deanna Wilken

June 13, 2023

"Climate change is one of the greatest threats to human rights of our generation..."

- Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme

After decades of disregard for protecting our Earth and its natural resources, we are witnessing a global climate crisis. From destructive bushfires in Australia to melting icebergs in the Arctic to flooding across the African continent, climate change is no longer a deniable issue with its devastating effects being registered around the world. According to the National Centers for Environmental Information’s Global Climate Report, the ten warmest years recorded since global records began in 1880 have occurred in the last 12 years. The organization also predicts a 97.6% chance that 2023 will rank in line with one of the ten warmest years on record. Additionally, in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 2022 assessment report on climate change, IPCC warns that if global greenhouse gas emissions aren’t reduced by 43% by 2030, the world will face a complete catastrophe. What does this mean for the world’s population and how is this a human rights issue?

The Black Summer bushfires in Australia burned across more than 24 million hectares and had a drastic impact on the Earth's atmosphere. [Image credit: Jochen Spencer]

The simple answer is climate change affects the quality of a person’s life and livelihood, thus, with the climate crisis, people will have a poorer quality of life. However, it is more complex than that. The IPCC’s 2022 report states that roughly 3.6 billion people were highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change last year, experiencing severe droughts, floods, heat waves, rising sea levels, and other climate-related events. With rising sea levels and massive food shortages, hundreds of millions of people could be driven from their homes. Violent and deadly conflicts will likely break out as people compete for scarce resources. Lack of access to basic needs can lead to malnutrition and starvation, the outbreak of infectious diseases, forced displacement, and death. All devastating impacts on human life. The IPCC also says in its report that “the impacts of climate change have already significantly affected the livelihoods and living conditions, especially of the poorest and most vulnerable” and that “social and economic inequities linked to gender, poverty, race/ethnicity, religion, age, or geographic location compound vulnerability to climate change and have created and could further exacerbate injustices.”

In the same vein, on July 28, 2022, International Crisis Group’s Program Director of Future Conflict, Robert Blecher, appeared at a hearing before the United States’ House Committee on Foreign Affairs to discuss the connection between climate change and conflict. In his Congressional brief, Blecher stated that violence related to climate exacerbates human rights abuses, threatening lives and interfering with civil and socio-economic rights. Blecher also claimed it critical governments take action to mitigate the issues caused by climate change and work on prevention. “The actions of authorities matter: how equitable, competent, inclusive and accountable they are affects how climate resilient or fragile a region will be,” Blecher said. To support this claim, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) further highlights that the countries hosting nearly half the world’s refugee population are extremely vulnerable to climate change. These same countries support roughly 70% of people internally displaced persons (IDPs) by conflict as well. Refugees largely flee their homes in the face of extreme violence and persecution. Yet, they also face immense discrimination and inequality, often having their rights violated by those in the host country where they seek safety. IDPs are also at grave risk of rights abuses due to instability with loss of home and livelihood in their country.

[Image credit: IPCC]

While there have been international initiatives to combat climate change in the past, it wasn’t until 2015 that international governments met at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) to address the threats posed by climate change. As a result of that conference, on December 12, 2015, 196 Parties adopted the now well-known Paris Agreement, a legally binding, international treaty on climate change cooperation. The agreement was the first time in history that all nations were brought together to combat the climate crisis. However, its implementation and effectiveness have not been unified globally, as witnessed with the United States’ withdrawal from the agreement in 2019 and highlighted in Climate Action Tracker (CAT)’s 2021 report. Among the top greenhouse gas emitters, CAT reported a “lack of urgency” by China, India, and the US, with additional concern for Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, and Russia in meeting their emissions goals.

A few years after the Paris Agreement, the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) outlined its framework on the responsibilities and duties regarding human rights harms, “including those caused by environmental degradation”, called the UN Human Rights Management Plan 2018-2021. The plan was created to ensure all environmental and climate policies, both international and national, were implemented according to international human rights standards. Consulting hundreds of UN member states, stakeholders, UN staff, and regional consultants, OHCHR vowed to strengthen its work in conflict prevention, address violence and insecurity, expand civic spaces, and broaden the global constituency for human rights. OHCHR also committed to shifting its work to better understand and engage human rights issues in the areas of climate change, digital space, inequality, corruption, and people’s displacement and movement. Unfortunately, with the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, the goals were not met, and the plan was extended to 2024.

People wade past stranded trucks on a flooded street in Sunamganj, Bangladesh on June 21, 2022. [Image credit: Mamun Hossain/AFP/Getty Images]

Following the UN Human Rights Council’s vote to recognize the universal right to a healthy environment in 2021, Ian Fry, Tuvalu’s former ambassador for climate change, was appointed as the UN’s first Special Rapporteur on climate. In an October 2022 interview, Fry stated that millions of people were being denied basic rights because of climate change, including the right to life, food, water and sanitation, adequate housing, development, and self-determination. In his most recent report, Fry explained the main areas of focus to address climate change are mitigation action, loss and damage, access and inclusion, and the protection of climate rights defenders. He also highlighted the fact that wealthy countries and major corporations are not acting to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions appropriately, and the poorest nations consequently suffer. Fry’s report was completed ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in Egypt (COP27), where his findings and recommendations would be shared.

COP27 took place over the course of two weeks in November 2022. More than 100 state and government leaders and representatives attended, along with another 35,000 participants to the talks and activities surrounding the conference. Ambitious goals were set and agreed to, but the concern of meeting them in time is very high. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) concluded with five key points: 1. An agreement to establish a dedicated fund for loss and damage; 2. Maintaining a clear intention to keep 1.5°C (34.7°F) within reach; 3. Holding businesses and institutions to account; 4. Mobilizing more financial support for developing countries; and 5. Making the pivot toward implementation.

While quite admirable and reasonable, the emphasis on these particular goals reflects the continued struggle of meeting and overcoming climate change challenges. Decades of climate activism and research have yielded little international success. Nations acknowledge the tasks to complete, but most fail to follow through and the world and its people continue to suffer. We must be unified in our efforts to save this planet and the future, but how can we make this happen? In the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, “COP27 concludes with much homework and little time.”



  • Competent: Qualified, capable, adequate.

  • Exacerbate: To make more violent, bitter, or severe.

  • Inequity: Unfair, unjust.

  • Internally displaced person (IDP): A person or groups of persons who have been forced to flee or to leave their homes as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border.

  • Malnutrition: Inadequate or unbalanced nutrition intake. Lacking nutrition.

  • Mitigate/Mitigation: To make less hostile, harsh, severe, or painful.

  • Persecute/Persecution: To harass or punish in order to injure or cause suffering, especially those who differ in origin, religion, or social outlook.

  • Refugee: A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her home because of war, violence or persecution, often without warning. They are unable to return home unless and until conditions in their native lands are safe for them again.

  • Self-determination: The process by which a person controls their own life.

  • Socio-economic: The position of an individual or group on the socioeconomic scale, which is determined by a combination of social and economic factors such as income, amount and kind of education, type and prestige of occupation, place of residence, and ethnic origin or religious background.


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