On December 10 we celebrate the World Human Rights Day, a reflection on the link between human rights and climate is not avoidable. 

For too long the problem of the rise in the average global temperature has been addressed only with scientific and technical approaches, without taking into account the social contexts and power relations within societies. Sociological research and the pressure made in recent decades by civil society (the realities that arise from associative, economic, cultural and social relations between citizens) have allowed changing this approach: to counter the climate crisis and its impacts is not enough technique, but it is necessary an intersectional approach that also includes principles of human rights.

Climate change exacerbates the conditions of vulnerability of many individuals, groups, communities and nations around the world. This situation is the result of imperfect societal systems, with unbalanced power relations, the legacy of cultural legacies such as European colonialism that have devastating consequences and still survive today in new forms contributing to fuel inequalities.

If we add to these problems caused by climate change, such as rising ocean levels, loss of ecosystems and extreme weather events, it is clear that those who pay the most dramatic consequences of these impacts are those who do not have their rights fully recognized or implemented, and therefore have fewer protections and resources to adapt their lives to the new reality that presents itself before them.


Climate affects a wide variety of human rights, including the right to life, self-determination, food and water, and health.

Extreme weather events are among the impacts that make the link between human rights and climate most visible. In 2016, Typhoon Goni struck four nations (the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), killing at least 24 people and injuring 399. It was estimated that 130,266 people lost their homes, and approximately 845,000 were left in a highly vulnerable condition. The study Recent intense hurricane response to global climate change confirmed that these phenomena are increasingly intense due to the climate crisis.

Rising temperatures are not only causing more extreme weather conditions, but huge economic, food security and potential abuse problems. 

The World Bank’s Groundswell Report estimates that by 2050, 216 million people will migrate internally to their countries due to climate change. The risks faced in such situations include slavery, torture, hunger, sexual exploitation, and other forms of abuse, as confirmed by the recent analysis of Climate-induced migration and modern slavery, the first report to outline the critical link between climate-induced migration and modern slavery. As if that were not enough, the World Health Organization paints a worrying picture for the right to health: between 2030 and 2050 there could be an additional 250,000 deaths per year caused by malnutrition, malaria, dysentery and overheating.

Identifying the individuals and groups most at risk from climate change is simple: just look at the levels of recognition and implementation of human rights in the societies in which they live and the type of discrimination they suffer.

First and foremost, women, who despite representing half of the world’s population, remain among the most discriminated groups in the world and therefore among the most susceptible to the impacts of climate change. Children, adolescents and the elderly often depend on the role of care forced on women and do not have sufficient protection. The same can be said for people with disabilities or mental disorders. If we look at the history and the political and economic situation of a given country, we can find among the groups discriminated against indigenous peoples, ethnic, political-cultural and religious minorities, and even those who in most cases are kept on the margins of society: refugees, migrants, stateless persons and displaced persons.

Despite the discrimination they face and the growing impacts of climate change, these individuals and groups often emerge in their communities as agents of change, becoming key players in climate change mitigation and adaptation solutions. When integrated into climate policies and programs, these solutions can make a difference for more just and effective climate action that leads to emission reductions without leaving anyone behind.


Cultural rights are also negatively affected by climate change, with dramatic consequences, especially for indigenous peoples, who live most respectfully of the ecosystems that host them. In fact, since indigenous peoples have a direct link with the environment in which they live, nature for them represents not only access to the resources necessary for their survival, but is an integral part of their culture and identity. The loss of ecosystems that have guaranteed the subsistence of these populations is increasing environmental migration, and with it the risk of losing entire cultures. It is already happening to the Inuit populations of Canada, even if they are still present in their territories of origin, are losing their cultural identity because of the deep changes in the Canadian ecosystem.

Even more dramatic is the situation of the populations of many island states that are losing their national territory due to rising oceans. The Republic of Kiribati, for example, is a small island nation in the Pacific with a severely depressed territory that could become completely uninhabitable by 2050 and then disappear by the end of the century. To cope with this scenario, a migration strategy has been implemented aimed at gradually transferring the entire population to other countries, disrupting the community and cultural identity. The prospect of having the entire population of a state “deprived” of its national territory further complicates the situation, questioning the nature of nations and citizenship of its members, pushing the limits of their current definitions in international law and opening a grey area that risks leading to further human rights violations.


The protection of human rights requires global action to counter the causes and consequences of climate change, and climate action requires the application of human rights principles (participation, information, transparency, accountability) to be effective and equitable. The risk is that, in the name of reducing emissions, programs and policies harmful to people and ecosystems are implemented, perpetrating systems of discrimination that in the future could affect the majority of the world’s population for the benefit of a privileged minority. Ignoring the social consequences of climate change, and stubbornly seeking only technical solutions that have no connection with the reality in which they should be declined is a short-sighted strategy and is likely to do further damage.

In conclusion, we can affirm that human rights act as social and environmental safeguards for climate action, and must become the framework within which to build all climate action. Because climate change is a human rights issue, and human rights are part of the solution.

Chiara Soletti

Published online for Italian Climate Network on the website of the organisation.