Written by Luke Cavanaugh

Part of the series ‘European Human Rights: A 21st Century Challenge’

I was recently watching a Ted Talk delivered by the former Irish President Mary Robinson. During the talk, Robinson detailed many of the challenges, milestones and experiences she faced whilst leading the country, before reminding an audience that “what I didn’t have to do as President was buy land on mainland Europe so that Irish citizens could go there because our island was going underwater” (Robinson, 2015). Well obviously, you might think. Robinson was the President of the Republic of Ireland in the 1990s, not ruler of the Lost City of Atlantis. Yet, Robinson continued, this was the exact action of the president of Kiribati back in 2016, when buying an insurance policy in Fiji just in case Kiribati is flooded entirely on account of rising sea levels (Robinson, 2015). Such an anecdote underscores the absolute inseparability of human rights and the climate crisis. Michel Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, began the 42nd Session of the Human Rights Council by reminding the delegates that “the human implications of currently projected levels of global heating are catastrophic”, concluding “we are burning up our future-literally” (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 2020). 

From infringing upon the Right to Water, with a Global Temperature Rise of 2 degrees Celsius forecasted to provide 100 million people with water insecurity, to the thirtyfold increase in global incidence of vector-borne diseases like dengue-fever, the threats to human life and prosperity go beyond the immediate ecological threats (UNEP, 2019). Certainly, according to the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, the climate crisis is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century (admittedly, this report was produced before Covid-19) and could reverse five decades of progress in global health (UNEP, 2019).

As a result, it is no surprise that the overwhelming majority of UN Member States have now recognised the right to a healthy environment as a fundamental human right, and as early as COP24, 34 UN human rights experts called upon countries to take a human-rights based climate action (Greenpeace, 2019). But why is this so important? More than just an arbitrary link, the fact that Human Rights legislation is so deeply enshrined in law (particularly European law) clarifies “the obligations of governments and businesses, catalyses ambitious action […] and empowers people to become more involved in designing and implementing solutions” (UNEP, 2019).

As a result, according to the environmental charity Greenpeace, thousands of cases have been filed on grounds of climate litigation around the world, including Pena and Others vs Government of Colombia, a landmark case where twenty five young people successfully sued the Colombian government for their failure to honour its commitment to tackling climate change (Greenpeace, 2019). The impacts on the EU are profound. In a fellow EST column, Joran Buwalda has been exploring the impact of the Green New Deal, but when it comes to falling foul of climate standards, a human-rights engendered judicial process is certainly enabling. Generally, the binding characteristic of human rights legislation varies: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not, for example. However, within Europe, countries such as Germany have enshrined human rights in its basic law, and both of these and the rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights and European Charter of Fundamental Rights (ECHR) can be invoked in a court of law. 

It is clear then that the issue of Climate Change is one that goes beyond green parties and protest, and has very real human rights implications. With NGOs putting increasing pressure for it to be considered as such, and court decisions successfully backing up these claims, there is a clear path to recognising this politically. Despite the painfully obvious human rights implications of climate change, addressing the climate emergency as a human rights issue per se, might just provide Europe with a stronger precedent to hold those that violate climate policies to account.


Greenpeace (2019), “What does Climate Change Have to do with Human Rights”, Greenpeace,  Retrieved October 2020 from https://www.greenpeace.org/international/story/19885/what-does-climate-change-have-to-do-with-human-rights/

Robinson, Mary (2015), “Why Climate Change is a Threat to Human Rights”, Ted, Retrieved October 2020 from https://www.ted.com/talks/mary_robinson_why_climate_change_is_a_threat_to_human_rights/up-next?referrer=playlist-why_climate_change_is_a_human#t-206934

United Nations Environmental Programme (4th October 2019), “Human Rights are at Threat from Climate Change, but can also Provide Solutions”, UNEP, Retrieved October 2020 from https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/human-rights-are-threat-climate-change-can-also-provide-solutions

United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, “OHCHR and Climate Change”, United Nations, Retrieved October 2020 from https://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/hrandclimatechange/pages/hrclimatechangeindex.aspx#:~:text=OHCHR%20and%20climate%20change&text=Storms%20are%20rising%20and%20tides,island%20nations%20and%20coastal%20cities.&text=Climate%20change%20threatens%20the%20effective,%2Ddetermination%2C%20culture%20and%20development 

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