Could making climate change a rights issue help boost action?

Wednesday, 17 November 2021 13:33 GMT

Turkana people carry water near Lodwar, in Turkana County, Kenya February 7, 2018. Picture taken February 7, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

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A growing number of climate litigation cases demonstrate how climate change is increasingly seen as a human rights issue

By Beh Lih Yi

Nov 17 (Openly) - There are no words for "climate change" in the language of the Turkana people in northern Kenya, something that prompted campaigner Ikal Angelei to take a different approach when she began her environmental activism more than a decade ago.

Rather than framing climate change as a global environmental risk, Angelei explained how decreasing rainfall and parched riverbeds threatened local people's basic right to access water.

"Many communities in Africa are suffering the impacts of an extreme climate crisis," said Angelei, 41, co-founder of Friends of Lake Turkana, an environmental group in Kenya.

"We find ourselves currently in an extreme drought. We have not had rains in the last six months," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation's annual Trust Conference on Wednesday on a panel about climate change as a human rights risk.

From worsening droughts to rising sea levels, climate change is increasingly seen as a human rights risk and a growing number of climate litigation cases that invoke basic rights have been launched against governments and companies around the world.

Legal experts said the shift in the narrative on global warming - to focus on the risks it poses to fundamental rights - had been crucial in forcing governments to acknowledge the need for action to protect their citizens.

As demand grows for raw materials like cobalt and lithium, which are used in batteries for electric vehicles and to store renewable energy, Angelei warned about potential human rights violations of some of the world's most vulnerable communities.

"If you look at where these resources are, it is in the Global South," said the activist, who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2012 for her campaign against a massive dam on Lake Turkana, the world's biggest desert lake.

"We need the energy transition, but it is critical for it to be a just transition that not only continues to extract from poor people, from local communities," she said.


As global temperatures rise, the number of climate change-related lawsuits has soared worldwide especially since 2015, when nearly 200 countries around the world negotiated the Paris Agreement.

That deal aims to hold global temperature rise to "well under" 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with an aim of 1.5C (2.7 Fahrenheit), a level scientists say could help avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

The planet has already warmed over 1.1C - driving a surge in extreme weather around the world - and is on track to pass 1.5C of warming before 2040.

About 55% of 1,841 legal cases brought in 13 courts in 40 countries between 1986 and May this year were launched since 2015, a July study by the London School of Economics found.

Reframing climate change as a threat to fundamental human rights has helped unleash a wave of climate litigation cases, and changed companies' attitudes to now recognise its importance, said Dutch environmental lawyer Jorian Hamster.

"The very concept that climate change is a human rights issue was very novel 10 years ago," said Hamster, a senior associate at international law firm DLA Piper.

"But it's slowly gaining traction and then suddenly, there's this paradigm shift over the last couple of years where it has become a hallmark," he told the conference.

Green groups have racked up key legal victories, such as a landmark Dutch court ruling against Shell in May that ordered the energy giant to make deep emission cuts - but there have been setbacks in other cases.

Advocates say a new United Nations resolution - while not legally binding - could also help shape policy.

In October, the U.N. Human Rights Council declared access to a clean and healthy environment a fundamental right.

It also created the post of U.N. special envoy on climate change and human rights - a key demand of climate-vulnerable nations.


In the low-lying Marshall Islands, climate change is not only a human rights issue but also an existential threat that could see coastal land submerged and entire communities wiped out, said its former president Hilda Heine.

"Our language, culture, effectively our identity and our way of life will be lost," Heine said.

The Pacific Ocean island nation has drawn attention to how climate change threatens fundamental rights, and was the leading voice in the push for this year's creation of the U.N. special envoy on climate change and human rights.

"There are still people who are questioning the reality of climate change and whether or not it's really happening," said Heine.

"Our mission is to tell people it's here, we're experiencing it and unless other people in other countries do their part ... we would lose our homeland."

Related stories:

Warming-hit nations get closer to creating U.N. climate rights envoy 

UN declares access to a clean environment a human right 

Climate battles are moving into the courtroom, and lawyers are getting creative 

(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi in Kuala Lumpur @behlihyi; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit

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