The impacts of climate change on enjoyment of the right to health

The findings of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indisputably confirm that climate change is occurring and that human-produced greenhouse gas emissions are a primary cause. They also demonstrate that the impacts of climate change pose a clear threat to the full and effective enjoyment of human rights, including the right to health.

In Article 4(f), the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change  commits to adaptation and mitigation considerations and actions “with a view to minimizing adverse effects [of climate change] … on public health and on the quality of the environment”. Expanding on this, the Preamble to the Paris Agreement states that “parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity”. Inclusion of this language in the Paris Agreement reflects growing recognition of the connections between climate change and the enjoyment of human rights, including specifically the human right to health.

Climate change impacts health in a number of ways: directly, through extreme weather or changes in temperature; and indirectly through changes to natural systems that result in inter alia crop failures, expanding disease vectors, and displacement of persons. These mechanisms contribute to human vulnerability to disease and injury, diminished occupational and mental health, and risks posed by resource scarcity and migration.

According to the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC, climate change will result in greater risk of injury, disease, and death due to increased heat and fire; higher risk of under-nutrition due to decreased food availability and accessibility; lowered work capacity and productivity; and greater risk of food-, water- and vector-borne diseases. Globally, 400,000 premature deaths have been linked to climate change (DARA, 2012 ) and approximately 250,000 additional deaths due to effects of climate change are expected per year between 2030 and 2050 (WHO, 2014).  Furthermore, unmitigated climate change could undermine global development by “reducing average global incomes roughly 23 per cent by 2100 and widening global income inequality, relative to scenarios without climate change” (Burke et al, 2015). These effects of climate change are felt most acutely by persons, groups and peoples in vulnerable situations owing to factors such as geography, poverty, gender, age, indigenous and minority status and disability.

In this context, engaging with and addressing climate change-related impacts on health is vital. Approaches based on human rights obligations, standards and principles are critical to understand and address the threat that climate change poses to human health and well-being.  

Analytical Study on the Impacts of Climate Change on the Right to Health

Pursuant to resolution 29/15, OHCHR organized a panel discussion on the impacts of climate change on the right to health during the 31st Session of the Human Rights Council. The panel discussion was moderated by H.E. Mr. Trung Thanh Nguyen, Permanent Representative of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva. The concept note for the discussion and statements of the participants are available below as well as a summary report of the discussion.

In preparing the study, OHCHR requested inputs from relevant stakeholders and asked that they respond, as appropriate, to a short questionnaire on climate and health by 31 October 2015. Inputs received as of 25 February have been summarised in a conference room paper in order to inform the Human Rights Council panel discussion on climate change and the right to health taking place on 3 March 2016.

Based on the panel discussion and inputs received, OHCHR submitted its analytical study on the impacts of climate change on the right to health to the 32d Session of the Human Rights Council:

Human Rights Council Panel Discussion on the Impacts of Climate Change on the Right to Health

Pursuant to resolution 29/15, OHCHR organized a panel discussion on the impacts of climate change on the right to health during the 31st Session of the Human Rights Council. The panel discussion was moderated by H.E. Mr. Trung Thanh Nguyen, Permanent Representative of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva. The concept note for the discussion and statements of the participants are available below:

Statements by panellists

The right to health at the UNFCCC

OHCHR response to UNFCCC Secretariat request for submissions on the Nairobi Work Programme on impacts, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change: health impacts, including occupational health, safety and social protection, FCCC/SBSTA/2016/2, para 15(a) (i), August 29, 2016.

This submission highlights the normative basis and recommendations for protecting the right to health from the negative impacts of climate change in the context of the Nairobi Work Programme.