Human rights and climate change are inextricably linked. The impacts of rising global temperatures—natural disasters, the proliferation of vector-borne diseases, climate migration, famine, and drought—negatively impact many human rights, such as rights to shelter, natural resources, mobility, health, employment, and livelihoods.
Whether caused by physical climate impacts (e.g., extreme weather events, flooding, heat stress, the spread of disease) or climate solutions themselves (e.g., communities excluded or left behind as companies install new infrastructure as part of their transition to a net-zero economy), climate change has disproportionate impacts on poor and marginalized communities, and it exacerbates the underlying systemic inequities that these communities already face.
As climate change magnifies inequalities and vulnerabilities, protection of human rights becomes even more urgent: where human rights protections are weak, individuals and communities are less able to adapt and build resilience to climate impacts.
Why This Matters for Business
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) serve as the primary internationally accepted framework for standards and practice regarding human rights and business. According to the UNGPs, companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, which requires that companies (a) avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities and address such impacts when they occur and (b) seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products, or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.
In the context of climate change, this means that companies have:
- A responsibility to address human rights impacts related to their physical climate impacts;
- A responsibility to address human rights impacts related to their transition to a low-carbon economy; and
- An opportunity to promote the realization, fulfillment, and enjoyment of rights in a resilient world.
The table below illustrates how physical climate impacts, transition risks, and transition opportunities should be considered in the context of a company’s climate and human rights strategy.