One little discussed effect of climate change is its impact on the human right to health. Climate change will inevitably impact food chains, housing, disease, and by extension our health.
The right to health is one of the human rights recognised under Article 12 of the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The ICESCR defines the right to health as “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”.
The right to health includes conditions which help people achieve a healthy life. These are understood as the underlying determinants of health and include factors like a safe and healthy working conditions and the adequate supply of safe food and nutrition. These conditions are in turn influenced by a number of socio-economic factors. Climate change is also increasingly becoming a prominent factor impacting these conditions and the right to health.
Climate change has several direct and indirect impacts on the right to health. The direct impact of climate change is seen through the increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather events. The World Health Organization reported that around 400,000 premature deaths globally have been linked to climate change and that approximately 250,000 additional deaths due to climate change effects are expected per year between 2030 and 2050.
A major indirect impact of climate change on human health will be changes to the geographic range and seasonality of some infectious diseases. Significant increases in temperature due to climate change will mean these diseases will be able to peak more consistently throughout the year leading to an increase in cases.
Climate change will also lead to the disruption of food production in many countries. Long-term climate processes, such as changing rainfall patterns, affect crop production which leads to economic and food shortages. These shortages then cause mass migration which lead to increases in health risks as large groups of people are forced into inadequate living conditions to escape these shortages.
It is also important to underscore the fact that the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people around the world are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change on economic livelihoods, access to health care, and social support structures. This is often due to the lack of adaptive capacities and dependence on climate-sensitive resources such as localised water and food supplies. For example, the Māori peoples of New Zealand face a number of barriers to adapting to climate change. These adaptation barriers increase the risk of harm to health and the determinants of health due to climate change. The lack of adaptive capacity of vulnerable communities creates a positive duty on governments to facilitate climate change adaptation.
Under the ICESCR, states have an obligation not to enact retrogressive changes. As climate change is likely to be retrogressive to the right to health for communities, in particular vulnerable communities such as Māori in New Zealand and First Nations people in Australia, governments should take all possible steps to ensure the provision of health care and equitable access to the determinants of health. Governments are also expected to prevent and mitigate the adverse impacts of climate change.
However, it is not only the obligations of states that must change in reaction to the anthropogenic effects of climate change. With the increase of large multinational corporations, the lines of responsibility for climate change no longer map neatly onto state actors within the formal human rights framework. This gap in the framework has resulted in several multinational corporations being able to evade accountability and responsibility for their greenhouse gas emissions. This gap needs to be filled. The leading institutions in health, medicine, science, and human rights, such as the WHO, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the UN Human Rights Council, must also come together to provide a cohesive international framework for the protection, fulfilment, and promotion of the right to health.
Addressing the impact of climate change on the right to health also requires a reorientation in approach. The global health effort is currently focused on “care and cure” for specific diseases. This approach limits the ability of the discipline to understand the global web of risk-factors. A human rights-based approach would enable states and governments, locally and internationally , to look to local communities to understand what issues they are facing and then build bridges, across institutions and key players to develop synergies which would allow funds to combat multiple crises at the same time.
A human rights approach would also involve the local community, particularly Indigenous communities, and other vulnerable groups to be actively involved in setting priorities about climate change and the right to health. This includes participation in decision-making processes, the delivery of mitigation and adaption programs, and holding duty-bearers to account. The importance of participation for Māori people in New Zealand is due to the importance of the expression of self-determination for the Māori people as established under the Treaty of Waitangi, and in obligations under the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
It is inevitable that vulnerable communities across the globe will disproportionately experience the effects of anthropogenic climate change into the future. Developed countries must work alongside these vulnerable communities to build up their adaptive and mitigatory capacity; thus, strengthening their sense of community, belonging, connection to land, and culture. These factors will be the foundation upon which all future impacts, whether slow-onset or sudden will be experienced, and, if in place, will provide communities with the practical and theoretical strength to deal with the challenges of the future.
Eleanor Rodger is fourth-year student at the University of Newcastle law school. She completed her Bachelor of Social Science in 2021 majoring in Politics and International Relations. She is hoping to develop into a lawyer whose practice is guided by the protection of the rights of the individual within unequal power dynamics across many areas of law.
This article is part of a series of submissions from students studying Human Rights and Climate Change-Induced Human Displacement at the University of Newcastle.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.