Climate Change and Human Rights

18 Pages Posted: 14 May 2007 Last revised: 19 Oct 2014

See all articles by Amy Sinden

Amy Sinden

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law; Center for Progressive Reform


Global warming may well be the most profound moral issue ever to face the human species. Profound moral issues demand a profound response from law, and as we enter the twenty-first century, human rights is (at least at a rhetorical level) the law's best response to profound, unthinkable, far-reaching moral transgression. More fundamentally, it is the law's strongest condemnation of the exploitation of the weak by the powerful. As such, it was the law's response to the moral crises of the twentieth century, and I want to suggest that it may be an appropriate legal response to the moral crisis of the twenty-first century as well. Human rights function to counteract power imbalances in society. By acting as trumps human rights effectively put a thumb on the scale in favor of the weaker party in order to correct for the distorting effects of power. Because the economic model has become the dominant lens through which we view the world, climate change is often analyzed as a market failure brought on by the tragedy of the commons. But market failure is only part of the problem. There is a far more fundamental and intractable problem standing in the way of meaningful action to stem global warming. That is the political failure brought on by the enormous disparity in power and resources between those interests that stand to gain from climate change regulation and those that - at least in the short run - stand to lose. Thinking of climate change as a human rights issue can help us see that it is not just a matter of aggregate costs and benefits, but of winners and losers - of the powerful few preventing the political system from acting to protect the powerless many.

Keywords: human rights, climate change, global warming, environment

JEL Classification: K00, K23, K32, K33

Suggested Citation

Sinden, Amy, Climate Change and Human Rights. Journal of Land, Resources & Environmental Law, Forthcoming, Temple University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2008-49, Available at SSRN: or

Amy Sinden (Contact Author)

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law ( email )

1719 N. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122
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Center for Progressive Reform ( email )

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