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It’s Getting Hot in Here: Climate Change and Human Rights

Written by Lydia McCoy, BA International Affairs, Russian; MA International Policy


Climate change seems like an intangible, nebulous problem that has no clear solution. 2019 was the second-hottest year on record, and this heat affects every inch of the globe, from international economic activity to individual health. While climate change itself may not have one, clear, tangible solution, there are things individuals and governments can do to ameliorate climate change and set us on course for a safe, healthy, and sustainable future. The goal of this brief is to discuss climate change and the human rights implications involved with it. The brief concludes with a set of policy recommendations for both the U.S. government and global leaders regarding climate change and human rights.

Understanding Climate Change

Climate change is quickly becoming the biggest and most complex challenge facing the global population. Climate action is goal thirteen of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The current crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic places governments across the globe in a unique position to combat climate change because fewer people are contributing to global emissions. With more people working from home, traveling less, and being health-conscious, governments have the ability to restructure their response to climate change in a way that promotes resilience, health, and safety.

The IPCC, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, consists of world-class scientists that are focused on studying climate change, its effects, and ways to stop the climate crisis in its tracks. The IPCC 2021 report is the first major review of climate change science since 2013. Of the plethora of information in the report, we can examine five key takeaways. First, the global surface temperature between 2011 and 2020 was 1.09 °C hotter than any time in the period between 1850 and 1900. Second, the past five years alone were the hottest on record since 1850. Third, the current rate of sea-level rise has almost tripled in comparison to 1901-1971. Fourth, heat extremes such as heatwaves have been more frequent and more intense since the 1950s, while cold extremes have been less frequent and less severe. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, human influence is the main driver of climate change, specifically regarding the retreat of glaciers since the 1990s and the overall decrease in Arctic sea ice.

Furthermore, the IPCC report alludes to four future impacts of climate change if action is not promptly taken. Temperatures are likely to reach 1.5 °C above the 1850-1900 levels by the year 2040, regardless of any action taken to reduce emissions. Moreover, the number of extreme weather events will increase without immediate climate action; this includes events such as fires, droughts, floods, and heatwaves. Third, the Arctic will likely experience an ice-free month at least one time before 2050. Finally, extreme sea-level events that were once a rarity are projected to occur annually, if not more frequently, in a wider variety of locations by the year 2100.

The Human Rights Implications of Climate Change

The effects of climate change are far-reaching, including extreme weather, droughts, flooding, rising levels of ocean acidity, glacier melt, sea-level rise. Beyond the physical, scientific changes constantly focused on in the news media, there are also vast human rights implications that are directly related to climate change. Changes in weather and climate directly affect people. For example, the growing number of California wildfires, largely due to climate change, affects all people, but it also disproportionately affects low-income communities and people of color. The air pollution resulting from the wildfires disproportionately affects those with health issues and disabilities. Climate change threatens every person’s way of life. It influences food production and security, water security, sanitation, health, housing, culture, development, self-determination, and, most importantly, the right to life.

Climate change-related events have immeasurable impacts on mental health, but many of its effects are measurable. Air pollution is the fourth-leading risk factor for deaths across the globe. Weather-related disasters cause more than 60,000 deaths each year, primarily in developing states. Low- and middle-income states bear the brunt of climate change. Since the Industrial Revolution, developed states have been the leaders in emissions production. Developing states, especially those in Africa and Southern Asia, are struggling to catch up to the industrial standards in the rest of the developed world while also being under the pressure to be climate-conscious. Furthermore, developed states tend to move manufacturing and other carbon-heavy industries to these developing states to create the image that they are paying attention to climate change within their own borders. The reality of the situation is that those states left to bear the brunt of carbon-heavy industries have a lower quality of life due to the actions of larger, more developed, and more economically powerful states.

A good example of this phenomenon can be found in your shirt label. Many Americans wear clothing with a label that says “made in Bangladesh.” The Bangladeshi government has no good reason to turn an American business away from investing in their country; rather, it makes economic sense to welcome American industry into the state because it provides jobs, technical expertise, and equipment to help Bangladesh transform into an industrialized state. However, this industry contributes to carbon emissions, water and air pollution, and climate change at large. This transaction then benefits the American government because the emissions are not coming from America and, in the eyes of the United States Government, are not necessarily their problem.

Policy Recommendations

Below are options that the U.S. Government should take to ameliorate the effects of climate change specifically on human rights. These recommendations involve international cooperation.

  1. The United States Government must immediately restate its commitment to fighting climate change and human rights abuses. This statement should come directly from the President.

  2. The United States Government must immediately commit to shifting industry and infrastructure towards becoming carbon neutral immediately, with a goal to be completely carbon neutral by 2050. In doing this, the US Government should:

    1. Ensure the creation and perpetuation of green, sustainable jobs;

    2. Provide incentives for companies to become carbon-neutral;

    3. Provide adequate training for those wanting to join green industries.

  3. The United States Government must immediately take steps towards aiding developing states in the fight against climate change, specifically:

    1. Provide education and training for developing states on climate science, how to fight climate change, and the human rights implications of climate change;

    2. Provide incentives (monetary and otherwise) for developing states to reduce carbon emissions and create green, sustainable economies;

    3. Encourage other developed states to support developing states (monetarily and otherwise) in the fight against climate change.

  4. The United States Government must immediately and publicly draw the link between climate change and human rights. In doing so, the U.S. Government should also do the following steps:

    1. Explain the connection between climate change and human rights to American citizens

    2. Provide an avenue for citizens to take action against companies that have violated their human rights due to their contribution to climate change

      1. Although this action cannot be retroactive and can only affect companies actively or passively participating in climate change via carbon emissions, pollution, etc.


The UN Secretary-General posits six climate-positive actions for governments worldwide to take as they rebuild their societies and economies in the aftermath of COVID-19. They include transitioning to green economies through the decarbonization of industry, the addition of green jobs, the growth of inclusivity in the workforce, investments in sustainability, the confrontation of climate change head-on, and the engagement in international cooperation. In other words, economies must transition to being carbon neutral or negative, become more sustainable, and include everyone. No person, industry, or country can be left behind in this transition. These ideas are what the aforementioned policy recommendations are founded on. Without properly addressing climate change and its ramifications on human rights, not only will people be left behind, but whole communities will flounder and climate change will rapidly speed up. This is our shot at ensuring a safe and sustainable future. Climate change is not a partisan issue; it is a human issue.


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