Is There a Human Right to a Stable Climate?

Nations must put human rights on their agenda at Copenhagen

This page was published 14 years ago. Find the latest on Earthjustice’s work.

(Editor’s Note: Earthjustice attorney Martin Wagner is blogging from the Copenhagen climate change conference. Here is his report for Dec. 10).

Happy Human Rights Day.

Sixty-one years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was born. The Declaration and subsequent human rights agreements represent humanity’s best expression of the minimum conditions for a life of dignity, and of the need to hold governments accountable for guaranteeing them.

Climate change threatens those rights.

 Warming temperatures melt glaciers that communities rely upon for dry-season water, directly undermining their rights to water, health and life. Increased droughts and ecosystem loss threaten the right to food. Sea-level rise and more intense storms threaten to wipe out island and coastal communities, undermining their right to life and physical security.

The list goes on, with unfortunate emphasis on indigenous peoples, the low-income, women and people of color—all of whom are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

A decade ago, the effects of climate change on human rights were almost unrecognized. That has changed, in large part because Earthjustice first drew the connection between climate change and human rights.

Eight years ago, we began working to defend the lives and culture of the Inuit people from threats posed by climate change. The Inuit live in the Arctic, where snow and ice serve as their highways, their grocery stores and even their emergency shelters. As the snow and ice melt, the Inuit are losing their food, their homes, their health, and their lives.

In a first-of-its-kind human rights petition, Earthjustice and the Center for International Environmental Law helped the Inuit explain to the world how climate change is melting away the very foundations of their culture. We have followed that with submissions to the U.N. Human Rights Council, highlighting the impacts of climate change on human rights in Bolivia, Comoros, Fiji, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.

All of this work, strengthened by the work of others, caused international institutions to pay attention. Earlier this year, prompted by Earthjustice and other organizations, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recognized that "Climate change-related impacts … have a range of implications for the effective enjoyment of human rights."

Now we are focusing our efforts on the climate negotiations themselves. We are working hard to ensure that a Copenhagen agreement recognizes the link between climate and human rights, and includes human rights protections. This means reviewing the draft text that comes out of each of the numerous simultaneous negotiating sessions, proposing changes to add or strengthen human rights protections (you can see the most recent version of our proposal—which changes regularly during the negotiations—here), and then making contact with government delegates to encourage them to adopt our proposals. We appear to be having some success, although it is coming very slowly.

We are bolstering our efforts by building the coalition of government and non-governmental supporters of these efforts. Today, we joined with the Climate Law and Policy Center and the Government of the Seychelles to make a formal presentation on the need for human rights protections. We had a standing-room only crowd of about 250 people so enthusiastic that they asked questions afterward until we were kicked out by the conference negotiators to make room for the next session. (You can see French television footage here of a similar presentation I made at the "People’s Climate Forum" —a smaller alternative conference at another site in Copenhagen.)

Although a number of governments are wary (or worse) of acknowledging the climate-human rights connection, the enthusiasm we have seen at our events highlights something important: human rights give voice—and the authority of international law—to moral outrage over climate injustices. They are our vision of the society we know we can be, and focusing on them helps us realize that vision. We are working to makes sure this vision shapes the Copenhagen agreement.

From 1996-2024, Martin Wagner led the International program, specializing in taking corporations to court for practices that violate international human rights.

The International Program partners with organizations and communities around the world to establish, strengthen, and enforce national and international legal protections for the environment and public health.