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Avoiding Adaptation Apartheid: Climate Change Adaptation and Human Rights Law

Written by  Margaux J. Hall & David C. Weiss

There is now little doubt that humans will be forced to adapt to the impacts of a warming world. There is also little doubt that the poorest people in the poorest countries will bear most of the burden of adapting to climate consequences they had almost no role in creating.  As the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has explained, “In the Netherlands, people are investing in homes that can float on water. The Swiss Alpine ski industry is investing in artificial snow-making machines,” but “[i]n the Horn of Africa, ‘adaptation’ means that women and young girls walk further to collect water.”  In the Ganges and Mekong Deltas, “people are erecting bamboo flood shelters on stilts” and “planting mangroves to protect themselves against storm surges.” A final adaptation strategy in the Mekong? “[W]omen and children are being taught to swim.”

Despite these sobering realities, the question of whether climate change implicates human rights law at all has been relatively unexplored until recently.  In 2007, for example, the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the primary report from the United Nations-chartered body responsible for reviewing and assessing information on climate change—scarcely mentioned human rights in nearly 3,000 pages of analysis.  However, multiple actors have begun to close this analytical gap: small island states and indigenous populations have claimed in a variety of international fora that climate change has threatened the human rights of their people;  an increasing number of academic commentators have worked to explain how climate change issues implicate human rights law;  and in 2009, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued the first UN report addressing the links between climate change and human rights.

The increasing incorporation of human rights law in climate change analysis is important, and the efforts to link climate change and human rights law have shifted from asking whether there is such a connection to examining the implications of the relationship. This recognition that climate change implicates human rights is significant because it provides a tangible legal framework for analyzing state actions that lead to climate change. Indeed, because the primary blame for climate change lies with the developed states that have caused the problem,  and because human rights analyses are typically centered on state action, human rights provides a lens through which to analyze developed countries’ culpability.