Linking Human Rights and Climate Change at the United Nations

22 Pages Posted: 19 Aug 2009 Last revised: 19 Oct 2009

See all articles by John H. Knox

John H. Knox

Wake Forest University - School of Law


This essay describes and analyzes the recent report by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights ('OHCHR') on climate change and human rights, the first effort by an international human rights body to examine the relationship. The OHCHR report reaches several important conclusions: (1) climate change threatens the enjoyment of a broad array of human rights; (2) climate change does not, however, necessarily violate human rights law; (3) human rights law nevertheless places duties on states concerning climate change; and (4) those duties include an obligation of international cooperation. Although some of these conclusions are likely to be controversial, they are all firmly grounded in human rights law.

The report portends a sea change in the consideration of climate change by international human rights bodies. Citing the report, the U.N. Human Rights Council has already encouraged its special mandate-holders to address climate change within their specific mandates. It seems likely that the report will also help to spur human rights treaty bodies to take climate change into account as they monitor state compliance with their treaty obligations. It is far less clear, however, whether the consideration of climate change by human rights bodies will affect the negotiation of a new climate agreement.

Keywords: human rights, climate change, United Nations, UN

JEL Classification: K32, K33

Suggested Citation

Knox, John H., Linking Human Rights and Climate Change at the United Nations. Harvard Environmental Law Review, Vol. 33, 2009, Wake Forest Univ. Legal Studies Paper No. 1457793, Available at SSRN:

John H. Knox (Contact Author)

Wake Forest University - School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 7206
Winston-Salem, NC 27109
United States

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