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Climate change policy and human rights

By Stephen Keim - posted Wednesday, 23 December 2009

A recent email from the University of California Berkeley Law School drew my attention to a report by two law students of that law school entitled Protecting People and the Planet: A Proposal to Address the Human Rights Impacts of Climate Change Policy (PDF 1.88MB).

The report calls for a formal process to be established and financed under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to provide mechanisms by which climate change policy development will incorporate a proper consideration of the impacts of the policy on human rights. The report urged the adoption of a “do no harm” principle in all climate change policy making. The email and the report were timely, crossing my desk as the Copenhagen Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC was commencing another stormy week.

The report’s authors, Zoe Loftus-Farren and Caitrin McKiernan, are Juris Doctor students at Berkeley attending as interns, as part of their law course, at the school’s International Human Rights Law Clinic. The report was edited by senior academics at Berkeley and at a similar Centre at the University of San Francisco.


The report provides a number of examples of the way in which climate change policies can impact adversely on human rights. One of the more obvious concerns is the way in which an emphasis on the production of bio fuels to avoid dependence on fossil fuels has led to the destruction of old growth forests and a loss of food security through lower production of grains for food and higher food prices.

The report also draws attention to the emphasis on hydro electricity projects as part of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) system instituted as part of the Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC. The building of dams for hydro results in people being forced to move from their homes often with drastic impacts on them and the communities into which they are forced to re-settle.

Hydro projects may be contrasted with using CDMs to gain carbon credits by providing new fuel efficient stoves or small scale solar power to displaced persons and members of poor rural communities in developing nations. The latter form of project is likely to have a much more positive impact on people’s human rights, health and lifestyles while also producing significant reduction in carbon usage and other positive environmental impacts. The lack of any proper human rights analysis in CDM guidelines is likely to result in inappropriate emphasis on developing hydro projects and insufficient funding for the smaller scale but much more positive projects.

The potential for thorny human rights issues arises in both mitigation and adaptation policy development. In some cases, adaptation will include migration from areas made unusable by climate change impacts. Migration of this kind also has the potential to affect the people being moved and the communities into which they re-settle. Policies need to be developed which allow problems to be identified and addressed rather than neglected until the negative social impacts have become too big to ignore.

One of the difficult issues identified in the report concerns the re-settlement of the whole population of affected island States. What provision should be made in those circumstances, asks the report, for the re-settled peoples to retain a form of national identity and even sovereignty after their national territory has become unusable and no longer available?

In Sub-Saharan Africa, especially in areas increasingly marginalised by drought and water inaccessibility, women have played a predominant role in agricultural production. This raises another example of the need for sensitivity in adaptation policy development. The design of systems to provide long term food aid to such communities needs to avoid de-stabilising existing social structures by undermining that important role of women as family food providers.


The report suggests four principles that should guide the required process. The process should aim to:

  1. clarify human rights principles applicable to the development of climate change policies;
  2. facilitate information sharing;
  3. provide technical assistance; and
  4. operate to achieve the “do no harm to human rights” aim at the international, regional and State level.

Information sharing and proper funding of the process are both very important. As individual countries or regional groups engage to solve particular aspects of the relationship between effective policies and positive human rights results, information sharing will avoid other policy makers from having to re-invent that solution allowing resources to be used more effectively.

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About the Author

Stephen Keim has been a legal practitioner for 30 years, the last 23 of which have been as a barrister. He became a Senior Counsel for the State of Queensland in 2004. Stephen is book reviews editor for the Queensland Bar Association emagazine Hearsay. Stephen is President of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights and is also Chair of QPIX, a non-profit film production company that develops the skills of emerging film makers for their place in industry.

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