Human Rights in the Age of Climate Disruption

The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law Convenes a Forward-Looking Conversation on How Human Rights Are Linked to Climate Justice

New York, February 13, 2015—Protecting human rights is central to the emerging legal framework around climate change, said experts at a Feb. 4 Columbia Law School panel convened by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

As carbon levels in the atmosphere continue to rise in years to come, scientists expect consequences ranging from higher seas to expanding deserts. Such climate disruptions could contribute to mass migrations, armed conflict, and other challenges threatening the basic human rights of tens or hundreds of millions of people. A growing movement calls for “climate justice,” decisive action to limit the greenhouse gas emissions of the largest economies to help protect the world’s poorest countries.

Michael B. Gerrard, Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice and director of the Sabin Center, said scientists’ best-case scenario based on current data and trends is at least a meter of sea rise by the end of the century. That would likely include around 17 percent of the land in Bangladesh—one of many developing nations that are vulnerable to climate change—and result in the displacement of millions of people.

“All these people will need to resettle somewhere,” Gerrard said. “However, most of the habitable places in the world are already inhabited. The most prominent example in recent history of an oppressed and displaced people relocating to an area that was already populated is Israel/Palestine. Whatever else you say about that situation, it hasn’t gone smoothly.”

David Estrin, a leading climate change lawyer in Canada and co-chair of the International Bar Association’s Presidential Task Force on Climate Change Justice and Human Rights, explained that people displaced by climate change do not technically qualify as refugees under existing international agreements and said that human rights cases are a promising avenue to press for timely action. The task force recently released a report, Achieving Justice and Human Rights in an Era of Climate Disruption, available here.

Constraints in international environmental treaties, customary international law, trade law regimes, and human rights law, however, may limit the extent to which the human rights framework can advance climate justice, according to Gauthier van Thuyne, head of Allen & Overy’s Global Environmental Law Group and a member of the IBA task force. Pointing to precedents of the European Court of Human Rights, Thuyne advocated clarifying human rights relating to climate change and “greening” existing human rights.

Ken Rivlin, a lecturer at Columbia Law School and head of Allen & Overy’s Global Environmental Law Group, moderated the discussion.

The event was co-sponsored by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, the Environmental Law Society, the Environmental Law Clinic, and the Human Rights Institute.