Climate Change, Well-Being and Human Rights

Authors: Anne Morin, Policy Research Initiative, Lorena Patino, Policy Research Initiative
Document Type: Archives
Published Date: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 - 4:00am
ISBN number: PH4-62/2010E-PDF , 978-1-100-15963-8


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Further Reading





“Climate change is a silent human crisis. Yet it is the greatest emerging humanitarian challenge of our time. Already today, it causes suffering to hundreds of millions of people most of whom are not even aware that they are victims of climate change. We need an international agreement to contain climate change and reduce its widespread suffering.” Kofi Annan, President of the Global Humanitarian Forum Global Humanitarian Forum, Press Release, May 29th, 2009.1

As the evidence and knowledge of the physical effects of climate change continue to grow, the world is starting to dissect how those physical changes (e.g. water scarcity, sea-level rise, increased temperatures), both current and predicted, will intersect with society and economies and the potentially significant environmental and human impacts that will result. Of emerging interest are the potential impacts of climate change on the enjoyment of human rights and wellbeing.2 Weather and environmental degradation have, as one of multiple stressors, threatened lives and livelihoods throughout history, but what makes this interaction more relevant today is the growing evidence that greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions have contributed and will continue to contribute to long-term or permanent changes to our ecosystems and landscapes and will increase the frequency and severity of extreme events. This amplifies existing social risks and vulnerabilities and will therefore increase the pressures faced by many disadvantaged individuals and populations here in Canada and abroad. 

On January 15 2009, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) released a study on climate change and human rights in response to UN Resolution 7/23 in which signatories expressed concern “that climate change poses an immediate and far-reaching threat to people and communities around the world and has implications for the full enjoyment of human rights.”3 The study was informed by dozens of submissions from States, UN organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and national human rights institutions, among others. Canada’s position is presented in Figure 1. 


Figure 1 - Canada’s Position 

Canada acknowledges that there can be an impact on the effective enjoyment of human rights as a result of situations arising from environmental degradation amplified by climate change. 

However, because Canada extends full legal protection of human rights to its citizens through various constitutional, legal and policy frameworks, should the human rights of any Canadian citizen be violated due to a situation arising in whole or in part from environmental degradation and /or the impacts of climate change, existing legal protections, policies and programmes would apply. Thus, no direct links are made between climate change and human rights. 

Priority should be placed on ensuring the effective enjoyment of human rights, under all circumstances, including where they may have been jeopardized as a result of stresses caused by the impacts of environmental degradation amplified by climate change. In this context Canada would urge all countries to extend full protection of human rights to their citizens by enhancing relevant legal frameworks and institutions, policies and programmes. 


The study reviewed the impacts of climate change and the implications for the enjoyment of human rights as well as the national and international human rights obligations. Figure 2, included as part of the Maldives submission to the UNHCHR study, presents an overview of the impacts of climate change on the enjoyment of human rights. Figure 2 depicts the Maldives’ interpretation of the linkages between climate change and human rights and may be debated by other States and institutions, including Canada. 


Figure 2 - Overview of the Impacts of Climate Change on the Enjoyment of Human Rights

This diagram illustrates the impact of climate change on sea level, temperature, weather, and precipitation.





















CEDAW – Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women

ICCPR – International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

ICESCR – International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

ICRC – (International) Convention on the Rights of the Child

UDHR – Universal Declaration of Human Rights 


A large part of economic output and growth in the past century has resulted in GHG emissions. Developing countries argue for the need to develop to overcome their poverty challenges (or have access to massive resources and low-carbon technology), while developed countries worry about maintaining their current levels of development and not hindering their economies. In this regard, the United Nations has indicated that developing countries, which comprise overwhelmingly most of the world’s vulnerable population, have historically 4 contributed the least to GHG emissions, but will “suffer earliest and most from harmful shifts in the environment”.4

In an attempt to address this challenge, the United Nations suggests the adoption of a development approach, by framing the climate challenge as a development challenge. It calls for a holistic definition of development, encompassing activities that produce GHG emissions, as well as elements that are essential for human well-being and climate change adaptation. Under this premises, development must be built under the principle of balance, “where people can both thrive and draw responsibly on natural resources.” 5 Since resources are finite, they must be shared.

A Legal Framework 

In the international and institutional forum, human rights are very much embedded in a legal framework with very specific meanings and implications. The field of environmental law is relatively new, with few precedents. Questions arise about the expertise and mandate of existing institutions to address the complexity of these intersecting issues. While this paper does not explore these questions in depth, it does flag them as needing further attention. More broadly, the notion of human rights is often used to address issues of equity and ethics as they relate to various aspects of an individual’s well-being. The legal community’s exploration of climate change and human rights has focused on questions of liability of large emitters with respect to human rights violations among vulnerable populations. To date, the only case in which human rights law was invoked for climate-related harm was the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) Petition against the United States which was rejected. A description of the Inuit case is provided in Figure 3. 

There are legal complications and concerns in linking GHG emissions directly with events that threaten human rights, including the inability to link cause and effect and the multiple stressors that contribute to the violations of rights. The first difficulty is the impossibility of linking a specific impact (and outcomes of the impact) to the historic emissions of one or more countries. For example, the increase in the incidences and severity of droughts and floods in Africa6 can not be traced to the emissions of one or more industrialized countries. The second difficulty is the multiple natural phenomena and processes that, like climate change, contribute to events like hurricanes and floods thus making it impossible to accurately label an event as being caused by human-induced climate change. For these reasons, it is very difficult for an individual or group to hold a State legally accountable for harm caused by climate change. 


Figure 3 - The Inuit Case 

The Arctic region is extremely susceptible to observed and projected impacts of climate change. Some of the most rapid and severe climate change on earth is occurring now in the Arctic. Climate change is expected to quicken over the next century, contributing to the major social, ecological, physical, and economic changes that have already started to occur. 

The impacts due to the Arctic environment warming up have been very challenging for the Inuit. The increase in temperature causes sea ice to be thinner; it freezes later and thaws earlier and more suddenly. The changes in the ice conditions have greatly impacted the Inuit way of life because they depend upon the ice for travel to their hunting and harvesting locations and as a communication link between communities. Shrinking sea ice cover has exposed Inuit communities to wind and wave erosion, causing homes to fall into the sea and contemplating relocation. Inuit hunters with many years of experience have been injured or died after they have fallen through ice that appeared safe. Arctic roads have buckled and building foundations have crumbled on account of the thawing permafrost. Resources that the Inuit depend on, such as polar bears, walrus and seals, are at risk of becoming extinct due to the loss of sea ice. 

In response to these changes to their environment, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) filed a 175-page petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on December 7, 2005. The petition is the result of a collaborative effort by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), Earthjustice, and the ICC. The petition seeks relief for the Inuit from violations of their human rights resulting from global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions from the United States. It focuses on the United States, saying that “it is by far the largest emitter of greenhouse gases,” and that it refuses to adopt significant domestic measures or join in international efforts to reduce emissions. The IACHR was asked to declare the United States in violation of the rights affirmed in the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and other instruments of international law.  

However, the petition was rejected without prejudice on November 16, 2006, by the IACHR, stating that it could not be processed because the evidence of alleged harm was not adequate. In response, the ICC requested a hearing with the IAHCR in January 2007, to assist the commission in investigating and better understanding the relationship between global warming and human rights, during their February 26 – March 9 session. The IACHR invited representatives of CIEL, Earthjustice and the ICC to meet with them February 1, 2007. On March 5, 2007, CIEL Senior Attorney Donald Goldberg, Inuit leader and former chair of the ICC, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, and Earthjustice Managing Attorney Martin Wagner provided testimony before the IACHR. Their testimonies focused on impact of global warming on the Inuit and other vulnerable communities in the Americas and the implication of these impacts for human rights. As of January 2010, the IACHR web site does not provide any insights resulting from the hearing. The IACHR is expected to produce a report on climate change and human rights sometime in 2010. 



Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. 2004. Impacts of a Warming Arctic. p. 10.

Watt-Cloutier, Sheila. 2007.“Global Warming and Human Rights” .

Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). 2005. “Inuit File Petition with Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Claiming Global Warming Caused by United States is Destroying Their Culture and Livelihoods.”

Andrew C. Revkin. December 16, 2006. “Inuit Climate Change Petition Rejected.” New York Times. CIEL. 2008. “The Inuit Case.” CIEL. 2007. “Global Warming and Human Rights Gets Hearing on World Stage.”

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Accessed: January 18, 2010. 


A Broader Framework 

Legal issues aside, the broader questions around moral obligation and ethics still exist in the context of increased climate-related risk to well-being and existing policy responses (mitigation and adaptation). Although the UNHCHR study was approached from the legal perspective, the paper reaches a number of relevant conclusions that could inform broader discussions on the links between climate change and human rights and how the global community should respond to them. Among the many conclusions is the notion that human rights standards and principles should inform and strengthen policy measures in the area of climate change. 

As a result of the UNHCHR study, on March 28 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted Resolution 10/4 “Human rights and climate change” noting that “climate change-related impacts have a range of implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of human rights …” Resolution 10/4 recognizes that the effects of climate change “will be felt most acutely by those segments of the population who are already in a vulnerable situation …”. In addition, it recognizes that “effective international cooperation to enable the full, effective and sustained implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change … is important in order to support national efforts for the realization of human rights implicated by climate changerelated impacts” and affirms that “human rights obligations and commitments 7 have the potential to inform and strengthen international and national policymaking in the area of climate change”.7

The connection between climate change and human rights is increasingly part of the international dialogue on climate change. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen (COP15), in December 2009, the 43 member Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), including the Maldives, submitted a proposal aimed at protecting the Earth’s climate system and securing the future survival of its 43 members.8 The proposal calls for targets that would limit GHG emissions increases to below 1.5 °C, instead of the 2 °C being considered at the conference. It also takes note of UN Human Rights Council resolution 10/4, and calls for renewing the political determination “… to continue building an inclusive, fair and effective implementation of the [United Nations Climate Change] Convention that takes into account the first and overriding priorities of all developing countries” and recognizes: 

“… the need to address the health, human rights and security implications of climate change including the grave threat to the inherent dignity, livelihood, and security of the particularly vulnerable developing countries, as well as the need for initiatives, where necessary, to prepare communities for relocation.” (p. 1) 

Consistent with Resolution 10/4, the consideration of a human-rights or human focused approach, as opposed to being guided by legal obligations, could be built on a set of principles that add a “human-face”9 to the impacts of climate change. A human-based approach aims at addressing issues of participation, well-being, equity and questions of moral obligation and compliments the current emphasis on emission targets and physical science. The principles outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or those outlined in Australia’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission’s paper on Human Rights and Climate Change10, present the practical value of a human rights-based approach depicted in Figure 4. 


Figure 4 - The Practical Value of a Human Rights-based Approach Lies in the Following: 

  1. Gives a ‘human face’ to the issue;
  2. Focuses on the inclusion of excluded and marginalized populations – even if resource constraints imply prioritization; 
  3. Encourages accountability and transparency in policy decisions; 
  4. Encourages participatory and democratic processes; and 
  5. Provide sustainable outcomes – by building on the capacity of key stakeholders, strengthening social cohesion. 

Source: Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (2008). Background Paper: Human Rights and Climate Change. p.12


Potential International and Domestic Policy Considerations 

Although an understanding of the legal human rights frameworks provides an important context for informing discussion, approaching the topic of climate change and human rights from a broader perspective allows for a wider exploration of the various international and domestic policy implications that could arise. The international dynamic as it pertains to this issue is largely grounded by the widely recognized gap between those that are largely responsible for human-induced climate change and those that are experiencing the most severe impacts. Globally, it is the non-industrialized world that is, and will continue, to experience a disproportionate burden of climate change impacts that threaten human rights and wellbeing. For example, of the estimated 262 million people that were affected by climate disasters annually from 2000-2004, 98 per cent were in developing countries.11

Despite commitments made through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and other international bodies to cut emissions, emission trends among most of the 23 richest countries have yet to be reversed, although some such as Germany, the United Kingdom and Sweden12, are making progress in reducing emissions. However, given that the unequal burden of climate change impacts has been recognized, the failure to date of most rich countries to adopt effective mitigation strategies leads many in the developing world to question the commitment and credibility of many developed countries. In addition, the amount of funding pledged by developed countries to support adaptation efforts in poor countries could be interpreted by some as an absence of serious commitment.13

Whereas the stringency and nature of mitigation efforts will continue to factor into this discussion and have implications for the severity of impacts over time, the global response and approach to adaptation will become increasingly important as policy challenges relating to humanitarian crises, environmental displacement and security begin to emerge. The relocation of individuals and Figure 4 - The Practical Value of a Human Rights-based Approach Lies in the Following: 1) Gives a ‘human face’ to the issue; 2) Focuses on the inclusion of excluded and marginalized populations – even if resource constraints imply prioritization; 3) Encourages accountability and transparency in policy decisions; 4) Encourages participatory and democratic processes; and 5) Provide sustainable outcomes – by building on the capacity of key stakeholders, strengthening social cohesion. Source: Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (2008). Background Paper: Human Rights and Climate Change. p.12 9 communities as a result of environmental degradation (whether planned or forced) is occurring and is likely to increase over time, in several regions around the globe and will be particularly problematic in Africa and South East Asia. The consequences of environmentally induced displacement and migration could include increased pressure on densely populated cities, contribution to slum growth, stalled development and escalated humanitarian crises.14

Although largely contained within the borders of affected countries, the anticipated increase in environmentally displaced people is eventually bound to reach across borders and across oceans. Predictions for climate-induced migrations estimate as many as 200 million by 2050.15 These anticipated displacements will result from natural disasters and long-term environmental degradation (e.g. sea level rise) that will make many areas uninhabitable. The displacement of people may also be caused by military conflict and political instability arising at least in part from environmental stress.16 In her confirmation hearing as US Secretary of State in 2009, Hillary Clinton stated that climate change “could well incite new wars of old kind — over basic resources like food, water and arable land”17 and referred to climate change as an “unambiguous security threat.”18

The increased risk of war and violence around the world, exacerbated by environmental degradation and climate change, is a security concern in and of itself. Given the indirect links to GHG emissions, new security threats to developed states could become a reality. According to Australia’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, it is within Australia’s security interests to be responding to climate change impacts overseas. If countries that are considered primarily responsible for contributing to GHG emissions are seen as turning a blind-eye to the climate related threats to human rights, “the resentment and anger that will follow could foster conditions for political extremism”.19 The 2010 US Quadrennial Defence Review notes that climate change “may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict”.20 The UK has also recognized the security threats posed by climate change – in its 2008 National Security Strategy, it referred to climate change as “potentially the greatest challenge to global stability and security, an therefore to national security”.21

Questions around climate change, moral obligation and ethics exist domestically as well. Our most vulnerable populations including some senior, aboriginal and low-income Canadians face a number of pressures that are addressed in various ways by public policy and programs. Looking forward, climate change and possibly the resulting policy responses (e.g. carbon pricing), may add to the pressures faced by these groups and others. Canada’s North has experienced some of the most dramatic climate-induced changes worldwide leaving many communities vulnerable to the ecological and physical impacts. Given the ICC’s petition citing human rights violations, it is clear that many Inuit feel threatened by the changing climate and the impacts that are adversely affecting their wellbeing are only expected to get worse in the future. The increasing erosion of the Inuit traditional capacity to provide for their livelihoods could lead to increased 10 threats to safety and traditional practices, as well as forced or voluntary relocations including to urban areas - a trend that has been observed amongst indigenous populations worldwide that have been affected by environmental degradation.22

The movement of people from rural and remote areas to urban areas is not a new trend in Canada. However, climate change will add to the multiple stressors that contribute to this movement over time as different areas across Canada become less desirable due to economic and environmental pressures that affect livelihood and well-being. Increased pressure on traditional lifestyles and our urban environments are two examples of the potential policy challenges that could emerge in Canada as a result of climate-induced human impacts. Other broad issues relating to poverty, social exclusion, education, housing and health point to the need for effective adaptation at home. As underlined in UNHRC Resolution 10/4, people that are already vulnerable and marginalized are also particularly exposed to climate change-related threats. Thus, “climate change is related not only to environmental factors but also to poverty, discrimination and inequalities– this is why climate change is a human rights issue.”23


The increased interaction of climate change and human rights raise a number of policy challenges and perhaps opportunities over the medium to long-term. In this context, the following questions are raised:

  1. What are the implications of climate change (as well as climate change mitigation and adaptation measures) for the full enjoyment of human rights, especially among vulnerable population groups? 
  2. Will a more human-focused terminology emerge in considering human rights and climate change? Will it enable a broader response to the issues? 
  3. Will a process that links human action and climate change and its effects on human rights emerge? Will that process confer the capacity for remediation and redress? 
  4. Will adequate responses to deal with emerging issues that do not fit neatly into existing institutional mandates and structures, both national and international, surface? For example, how will the global institutions such as the UNHCR, UNFCC, WTO deal with these complex issues? Are new institutions required or can the institutional responses bring the appropriate level of integration to addressing these challenges?
  5. Might human rights principles and obligations factor into international and national climate change policy? How might policies be affected?
  6. What are the policy challenges that will emerge in Canada with respect to climate change and human rights and what is required to address them?
  7. What can Canada learn from other countries’ experiences in terms of mainstreaming human rights and climate change? How are they aligning international and domestic commitments? 
  8. What are the policy challenges that will emerge in Canada with respect to climate change and human rights and what is required to address them? 

Further Reading 

Climate Change Reports 

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability: Summary for Policymakers. 

Human Rights and Climate Change 

UN - Human Rights Council Resolution 7/23 on Human Rights and Climate Change 

UN - Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on the relationship between climate change and human rights

Canada’s submission to UN OHCHR report 

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (Government of Australia) Background Paper: Human Rights and Climate Change. 

Organisation of American States 2008 Resolution on Human Rights and Climate Change in the Americas

Oxfam Policy Paper: Climate Wrongs and Human Rights 

Climate Change and Well-being – not Specifically Human Rights

2009 Global Humanitarian Forum – Human Impact Report: Climate Change – The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis 

Commission on Climate Change and Development: Closing the Gap

International Institute for Sustainable Development - Beyond Borders: the need for Strategic Global Adaptation (written by Ian Burton)

Website - UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, related to climate change

Website - The Canadian Index of Well-being


1 Global Humanitarian Forum. 2009. Press Releases.

2 The Canadian Index of Well-being offers the following definition: “…well-being involves a multi-dimensional array of social, economic and environmental factors. The way they connect and interact has a large effect on our well-being.”

3 United Nations Resolution 7/23. 2008. Human Rights and Climate Change.

4 Adams, B. and G. Luchsinger. 2009. Climate Justice for a Changing Planet: A Primer for Policy Makers and NGOs. United Nations, New York.

5 ibid

6 The World Bank. 2010. World Development Report 2010: Development and Climate Change.

7 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. accessed January 18, 2010.

8 Alliance of Small Island States. 2009. Proposal by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) for the survival of the Kyoto Protocol and a Copenhagen Protocol to enhance the implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

9 Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission.2008. Background paper: Human Rights and Climate Change.

10 ibid

11 United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report 2007/2008, Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World.

12 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. 2009. National greenhouse gas inventory data for the period 1990-2007. Note by the Secretariat.

13 Commission on Climate Change and Development. 2009. Closing the Gaps: Disaster risk reduction and adaptation to climate change in developing countries.

14 Morton, A., P.Boncour, and F. Laczo .2008. “Human Security Policy Challenges”. Forced Migration Review. Issue 31.

15 Stern, N. 2006. Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. Executive Summary (full). HM Treasury.

16 Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission.2008. Background Paper: Human Rights and Climate Change.

17 Statement of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton Nominee for Secretary of State, Senate Foreign Relations Committee. January 13, 2009.

18 ibid

19 Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission. 2008. Background Paper: Human Rights and Climate Change.  

20 US Department of Defence. 2010. Quadrennial Defence Review Report.

21 Cabinet Office.2008. The National Security Strategy of the United Kingdom: Security in an Interdependent World. 

22 Yescas, C and A. Trujillo. 2008. A framework for understanding indigenous migration. Prepared for the International Organization for Migration.

23 Opening remarks by Kyung-wha Kang, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Council Panel Discussion on the relationship between climate change and human rights, June 15 2009. Geneva.