Youth holds signs at 'Fridays for Future' climate change

Climate and environmental rights

Our ability to enjoy our human rights rely on having a healthy environment. Climate change is the most structural challenge humanity is facing right now.

Environmental damage, deforestation, and the increasing effects of climate change are an increasing threat to the enjoyment of human rights, environmental rights and are putting environmental human rights defenders at risk.

“The world has never seen a threat to human rights of this scope. This is not a situation where any country, any institution, any policymaker can stand on the sidelines.”

This was the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet’s compelling call to action for the world to urgently address climate change.

Whether it’s rising sea levels displacing entire communities, increasing occurrence of extreme weather events destroying our housing or causing loss of life, or increasing temperatures destroying our crops – climate change will continue to have an increasing impact on our human rights.

The intersection of human rights and environmental protection have been highlighted by a number of recent landmark court cases seeking to secure meaningful government action to limit climate change. Such environmental human rights litigation is likely to increase if corporations continue not taking their responsibilities to minimise their environmental impacts more seriously. 

Protest rights 

Efforts to protect the environment and human rights often have a lot in common as much environmental activism relies on basic human rights such as our right to protest which is covered in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights articles about our freedom of expression, association and assembly. Everyone has the right to peacefully come together to express their opinions on issues they care deeply about. 

Business, human rights and climate change

All businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights. Companies need to assess the potential impacts on human rights from their own operations, but also within their supply chains and where and how their products or services are used. Companies need to prevent negative impacts and also ensure they have in place fair and effective processes to remedy any human rights violations they cause or contribute to.

These responsibilities extend to human rights harms caused by climate change.

Fossil fuel companies are among the most responsible for climate change – with just 100 companies responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. Our governments are failing to adequately regulate the corporate sector and not moving quickly enough to transition our economies to clean energy.

Human rights laws are increasingly being used by community members – particularly young people, to challenge the practices of fossil fuel corporations and prompt governments to take action to mitigate the severity of climate change.

Environmental human rights defenders

People who speak up or take action to protect the rights, environment and lands of their communities or in solidarity with others, are often referred to as environmental human rights defenders or activists.

Although they might concentrate on a particular dispute or area, their work can be important for all of us because of the interconnected nature of many environmental issues and their connection to the overall health of the planet. Looking after our mountains, rivers and forests benefit all of us. However, environmental activists are often the target of harsh repression and reprisals – with powerful vested interests thinking they can get away with intimidating, attacking and criminalising environmental protesters.

Read more about the work ISHR does to support environmental human rights defenders access the UN human rights system to help their efforts to protect people and the planet.