Health and Human Rights: The Complications of Climate Change

There is little ambiguity that anthropogenic climate change—through the steady increase in the Earth’s mean temperature—poses the greatest threat to human rights of the 21st century, or even the entirety of human history depending upon whom you ask (Atapattu 2018, 252; Agence France-Presse 2019). Academic and public discourse has steadily grown over the past several decades from climate change being an abstract, far off, and fringe concept to one which is widely recognised as posing an existential threat to all of humanity (McKibben 2018). As the temperature of the Earth increases further above pre-industrial levels—currently at 1.1 Celsius—annual weather patterns alter in kind (NASA 2017). Among these altered weather patterns are increased severity in events such as El Ninos, or extended dry seasons lasting multiple years in nations such as Somalia (Steffens 2018). Each of these altered weather patterns—dubbed “climate shocks”—are tied to reduced annual rainfall, lower crop yields, inter and intrastate migration, food price shocks, as well as violent conflict and civil war ( 2019, iv; Maystadt and Ecker 2013, v). Among the nations which are worst affected by anthropogenic induced climate change is Somalia, where the people have suffered each of the problems listed above. The annual Conference of Parties (CoP) is an attempt by world leaders to find answers to halt, or slow climate change enough to avoid facing the same fate as Somalia; as nobody is immune to the forces of climate change ( When climate change recognised as a threat to all human life, there is little question that it threatens the fundamental rights of everyone. Article 3 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human rights states that “everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the security of person” (United Nations 1948). Climate change does not pose a threat to any single human right; it poses a threat to all human rights beginning with the most fundamental right; the right to life.

The connection between human rights and the health of individuals—with regards to the degradation of the natural environment—came to prominence in western discourse with the Civil Rights movement in the United States, beginning with the recognition that ethnic and minority communities had been placed where industrial pollutants were creating adverse health outcomes ( 2017). The health and human rights framework which showed that disadvantaged communities in the US faced poorer health outcomes was a far cry from the “Tragedy of the Commons” which posed the problem in Malthusian terms; allowing for natural Darwinism to determine who was fit to survive in a changing environment of depleting resources (Hardin 1968, 1246). It was not long before the international community began recognising that less-developed nations were under more significant environmental threat from the overconsumption of natural resources by developed nations. The very nature of a global capitalist economy based upon a depleting resource such as oil is one that is bound to create fundamental inequities, across all socioeconomic factors (Stevenson 2018). The 1972 Stockholm Declaration began connecting international obligations with maintaining an environment capable of maintaining the “adequate conditions of life” for all people (United Nations 1972). This framework was further built upon with the 1992 Rio Declaration stating that people are “entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature” (United Nations 1994). Eventually, more rights began to be acknowledged and associated with the natural environment as economic, cultural and social rights are now recognised (United Nations 1976). Other frameworks recognising the need for self-determination and public participation regarding environmental decisions have been realised with agreements such as the Aarhus Convention, and transboundary pollution (pollution flowing from one nation across the border to another) has gained legal force and even brought to the International Court of Justice (Koester 2007, 179; Kuokkanen2007, 165).

These early human rights frameworks which proclaim that people have a right to enjoy a world capable of providing an “adequate” environment only places a negative duty on states or other actors to refrain from degrading the environment beyond what is “adequate.” The later frameworks on economic, social and cultural rights reflect second-generation rights that place a positive duty on states to take actions which ensure the enjoyment of those rights. Terms like “adequate” are open to broad interpretation to what these rights entail, and are a great example of the slipperiness of human rights language when “adequate” can mean an environment which is only barely capable of maintaining human life (Hayward 2004, 5). The slipperiness of these terms has made it apparent that more concrete definitions of environmental human rights are required to avoid ambiguity. As the world and the mechanisms which produce pollutants become more complex, the difficulties in assigning negative duties to refrain from polluting become more complex as well. It is not easy, or even fair, to assign duties to refrain from polluting to an entire nation’s population, as not all members share equally in aggregate polluting activities (Shrader-Frechette 2002, 14). Efforts to define the aggregate environmental duties and responsibilities to state and other actors are taking shape. The additions of General Comments to the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the evolving language of the World Health Organization reflect the need to assign specific duties within a rights-based framework (United Nations 1976; 2020). 

The ICESCR places a duty on states and other parties to ensure that citizens can enjoy all aspects of the right to health which include “rights to food, housing, work, education, human dignity, life…freedoms of association, assembly and movement” (United Nations 1976, art3). It is within this language that the term, “climate justice” which is based upon the old idea that the poorest people in the poorest nations will suffer the greatest due to the aggregate pollution of the most affluent nations began taking shape at the 6th Conference of Parties in 2000 (Whitehead 2014). Climate justice groups quickly began adopting the same language regarding human rights and dignity as previous movements such as the US Civil Rights movement (Huntjens et al. 2018, 2). The 21st Conference of Parties (CoP21) in Paris is a prime example of the different notions of climate justice and approaches realising the full enjoyment of health and dignity mean depending upon where you live. A group of African nations stated that the terms in the Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rises to no greater than 2.0 Celsius (they wanted limits placed at 1.5 Celsius) above pre-industrial levels would equate to a “suicide pact” on their part (Chin-Ye 2016, 364). The fundamental concern here is that as the temperature increases, rainfall will be altered across many drought-prone nations such as Somalia, denying them to the most fundamental prerequisite for the right to life: water. 

ICESCR General Comment 15 explicitly states in its opening lines that water is both a limited resource and that it is fundamental to the enjoyment of all other human rights, specifically all rights related to life and health (and all other rights encapsulated within the rest of the ICESCR) (CRC/C/GC/15). While the WHO states that these frameworks place a legal duty on nations to ensure that these rights are not infringed upon, there is no legal obligation for nations to ratify the ICESCR and abide by its obligations ( 2020; It is this lack of legal obligation to ratify international agreements that led climate justice groups to employ strong human rights-based frameworks because, while they are “mushy or slippery” they provide a normative context which connects people through the shared experience of the human condition.

It makes sense that climate justice was coined in 2000, right to water placed in ICESCR 2003, and climate resilience in 2007 respectively (Whitehead 2014; CRC/C/GC/15; Boas and Rothe 2016, 613). Climate resilience is the use and adaption of available technologies and resources to prepare for future climate shock events ( 2020). Few nations have had to adapt and implement climate resilience projects to protect the health, human, economic, social, and cultural rights of their citizens as Somalia (Busby et al. 2013, 136). Somalia has spent decades being racked by political instability and food insecurity, usually exacerbated by water shortages as the climate crisis shortens its two annual rainy seasons (Tahir 2019). Climate change has been shown to worsen climate shocks, food insecurity, forced migration, and violent conflict ( 2017). The connection between climate change and these factors is so stark that the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, in cooperation with the World Food Programme produces an annual report on “Monitoring food security in countries with conflict situations” (this includes Somalia) for the UN Security Council ( 2019). The FAO/WFP report is considered under Security Council Resolution 2417 “Protection of civilians in armed conflict” ( 2018). While Security Council Resolution 2417 does not mention the word climate once, the FAO/WFP report does mention climate “shocks” and “hazards” at least acknowledging that the climate plays a factor ( 2018; 2019). There is some small evidence that under the Trump administration that the UN self-censors language that could connect climate change and migration, but this comes from a leaked report which received minimal news coverage (Stoakes 2019). Regardless of whether Security Council member-states have influenced the language in these documents, Resolution 2417 provides a clear linkage that food insecurity leads to a range of health and human rights abuses. The potential health-related abuses in 2417 range from starvation as an instrument of war, restricted access to medicines and other humanitarian aid, and arbitrary loss of life ( 2018). 

Since 2010 the United Nations recognised that humans have a right to both clean water and sanitation, (again under the term adequate) and how the looseness of that term applies to the interpretation of an adequate standard of living (Hayward 2016, 220). In a 2016 report, the United Nations Environment Programme listed explicitly that the right to clean water is a part of the rights to “sanitation, right to health, right to life, right to food, right to an adequate standard of living” (UNEP 2016, 3). Water is a resource that cannot be created, and nations wishing to shore up reserves on this commodity must sometimes get creative. In the case of Somalia, this came in the form of a sand dam project in the Puntland region, where the simple and low-tech solution of simply damming off water using sand banks has provided food and water security to millions ( The need for projects such as these to maintain adequate freshwater supplies is of the utmost importance in highly pastoral nations like Somalia that rely heavily on crop and livestock production for their nutrition and livelihoods ( 2019). Approximately 40% of Somalia’s annual domestic product comes from goat farming alone (Matstadtand Ecker 2014, 165). Other reports have shown that without efforts to limit climate change, the mean price of livestock will continue to rise as water becomes more scarce, costing people’s livelihoods in agriculture and livestock farming, with the predicted outcome of fuelling even more violent conflict and political instability (Maystadt and Ecker 2014, 165). 

The people of Somalia are acutely aware of the reality that freshwater is the source of life and economic production, without which they have seen how fast their already fragile nation can slide into civil war. The reality of the importance of water is on constant display with 2.1 million people listed as “severely food insecure” or on the brink of famine, another 2.6 million people have been internally displaced as they have lost their livelihoods and ability to sustain themselves, and at least 1 million of those people are children on the brink of starvation ( 2019). 

While the above statistics paint a grim picture of the lives and livelihoods of Somalians, there is much early promise that the sand dam project is working. When comparing the situation reports issued by the Food and Agriculture Organisation between 2017 and 2019, a glimmer of promise can be seen. During those two years, there was a reduction of 1.2 million acutely food insecure persons, and the number of rural people facing famine is dropping drastically (fao.org2017; 2019). Adding to the positive benefits from this project is the fact that the sand dams can provide water for 255,000 livestock and can irrigate 6,000 hectares for 4,500 farmers during the two annual dry seasons ( 2019). This project is capable of creating a reserve of freshwater during already stressed rainy seasons. Without efforts to reduce climate change-related weather shocks, the future success of these projects may be uncertain if rainy seasons begin to disappear completely. The realisation of the right to water is apparently in the hands of the aggregate polluting nations, and the political will to enact policies which reduce emissions associated with climate change. Somalia is one of the first climate resilience projects to become operational since the UN Development Programme adopted it, but it is providing promise that it can provide some security for other vulnerable nations and communities across the world. Climate resilience projects are being planned and implemented across the globe to create a wealth of resilient communities, with the majority focusing on freshwater management ( These projects range from protecting communities near mountainous regions that face dangerous snow melts resulting from increased global temperatures to projects which will keep ocean water from contaminating freshwater sources on low altitude island chains from sea-level rise ( 

The success or failures of climate resilience efforts will remain contingent upon a litany of other factors which harm the environment. As was mentioned above, during the CoP21 talks the issue to address climate change caused a deal of tension between the global north and south as northern nations attempted to push climate mitigation efforts (Dimitrov 2016, 3). In essence, mitigation is the basic idea that the underlying causes of climate change, such as carbon emissions will be reduced, and the burden of emissions reduction efforts are often placed on the global south. During the CoP21 negotiations, there was nothing short of heated debate which eventually led to a series of closed-door deals as northern nations—specifically the US—did not want climate adaption/resilience language included in the agreement; the US even ensuring that the deal lacked any legally binding force (Dimitrov 2016, 3). The tensions between the global north and south, along with the demands of the US for less ambitious climate targets and the demand that all legally binding language be removed almost caused the CoP21 talks to fail (Dimitrov 2016, 6).

As the reality that there is an impending climate crisis approaching, and entire continents such as Africa stating that without a combination of mitigation and adaption/resilience efforts there might not be a future worth saving; the wheel is turning fully back towards using the strength of human rights language and imagery of the climate justice movement. Groups like Greenpeace used their ability to show the problems facing the environment through the constant abuse and degradation of the natural world in such raw, gritty detail that it would be the equivalent of a “mind bomb” that paints environmental activists in a heroic light (Zelko 2017). The reason that climate justice movement is here because when Greenpeace applied for insurance on its first boat, it was denied by a Canadian minister before public backlash made it clear that if he wanted re-election, it would require bending to the will of Greenpeace and the community (Zelko 2017, 320). If health and human rights are to be protected in a future where the world continues to be governed by anarchy, the only hope that these rights will be protected relies upon normative force (Wendt 2013).

Despite all of the efforts and closed-door meetings that it took to get the Paris Agreement signed and ratified, US President Donald Trump ran on a campaign promising to have the US withdraw from the deal (Hersher 2019). The Kyoto and Paris Agreements were each withdrawn from by successive US Republican presidents, creating a genuine reason for the global community to worry about the future realisation of environmental rights when all actors cannot be relied upon to meet their previous commitments (Hersher 2019). Climate change-induced human rights abuses are already severe enough of a security issue to warrant consideration by the Security Council. If the governments of developed nations are unwilling to accept their duties as aggregate polluters, and if, as with the Paris Agreement, the climate targets which have been set are indeed a suicide pact for African nations, then the promotion and funding of resilience projects offer the best chance of mitigating climate change-induced human rights abuses. 


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