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The climate crisis: Future-proofing human rights research, teaching and practice - Proposal for a NNHRR working group on climate change and human rights

Credits: Climate Central

By David Patterson

The Holocene was humanity’s Garden of Eden - a 12,000-year period of climatic stability that allowed humans to settle, farm and create civilizations. We have now left this Garden of Eden and entered the Anthropocene. Human-induced climate change is now the pre-eminent threat to human and planetary health. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that at certain levels of global warming, we face tipping points: critical thresholds beyond which a system reorganizes, often abruptly and/or irreversibly. The scale of climate action until 2030 will determine our futures, and those of future generations for millennia.

This is admittedly hard for most of us to comprehend. The challenges and the speed of structural change required seem daunting, if not impossible. Eco-anxiety is well-noted, particularly among children and young people, including university students. Although the climate crisis affects the realisation of all human rights – directly or indirectly – the human rights community has been slow to respond. In most academic institutions the climate crisis is not yet a cross-cutting theme (as is gender and, increasingly, decolonisation) in human rights research and teaching.

Climate change impacts human rights in at least three major ways. First, the human rights impacts of climate change are visible now and will become increasingly severe. According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights:

'People who are disproportionately at risk from the adverse impacts of climate change may include indigenous peoples, local communities, peasants, migrants, children, women, persons with disabilities, people living in small island developing States and least developed countries, persons living in conditions of water scarcity, desertification, land degradation and drought, and others in vulnerable situations who are at risk of being left behind. Climate change impacts can vary based on a number of factors, including geography, poverty, age, gender, sex, disability, migration status, religion, race and cultural or ethnic background. Multiple forms of discrimination, including racism, sexism and classism, may combine, overlap, or intersect, especially in the experiences of people in vulnerable situations.'

Climate change impacts all human rights. Impacts on economic, social and cultural rights – particularly of people disproportionately at risk – are increasingly articulated in legal challenges to government and private sector climate (in)action in national and international courts and tribunals. As noted below, civil and political rights are essential to democratic engagement in climate policy development and implementation. 

Second, gaps between projected emissions from current policies and those from UNFCCC nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and finance flows fall short of the levels needed to meet climate goals across all sectors and regions (IPCC). The ‘decarbonisation’ of our societies – i.e., finding alternative ways of living and working that reduce emissions and capture and store carbon – requires rapid and major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The short-term impacts of decarbonisation will also be felt most severely by the groups disproportionately at risk noted above.

Third, civil and political rights and human rights-based approaches should underpin consultations with affected communities. These communities must be meaningfully involved in State decision-making around climate change mitigation and adaptation.

In September 2023, the Groningen Centre for Health Law at the University of Groningen and Tilburg Law School co-hosted a workshop entitled ‘Future-proofing your human rights research: Climate change as a cross-cutting issue for human rights research.’ The workshop was attended by students and staff from Groningen University, Leiden University College, Radboud University, Tampere University, and Tilburg University, and supported by a grant from NNHRR.

Dr Marlies Hesselman outlined the current state of climate science, drawing on recent IPCC report’s conclusions on remaining carbon budgets and the Climate Action Tracker on climate commitments and policies in place. Not only are global commitments off-track to meet Paris commitments of keeping global warming this century well below 2 degrees Celsius and preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Further, top fossil fuel producers plan even more extraction despite these climate promises. According to the UN Environment Programme, at the current pace the world could exceed by 2030 the remaining emissions budget compatible with a 50% chance of limiting long-term warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Dr Dalia Palombo explored how the NNHRR business and human rights working group tackled issues such as Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanisms through a decolonisation and climate change lens. As an example, the European Energy Charter Treaty is a trade agreement signed by European States and extra-European countries, including post-Soviet and Middle Eastern countries. Dr Palombo explored how European States quickly reversed their support for the Charter when it became clear that their national laws to address climate change could expose European States themselves to ISDS complaints.

Dr Otto Spijkers noted the emotional toll of climate change on students and researchers – with despair increasing even among climate scientists – and discussed some different approaches to teaching climate change.

Recommendations from the workshop included the development of a teaching guide, facilitating internships and courses in other faculties, inviting guest lecturers from other disciplines, exploring the intersectionality of climate change with other types of discrimination, and exploring the rights of nature and of future generations in the context of climate change.

A key recommendation from the workshop was the proposal for a NNHRR working group on climate change and human rights. The proposed working group will bring together academics studying the multifaceted ways in which climate change affects human rights. This includes collaboration with the existing NNHRR working groups on human rights in the digital age (emphasising the importance of civil and political rights in the digital space), migration, and business (as noted above).

The working group will be open to all NNHRR members seeking to understand how climate change is an underlying cross-cutting issue that affects all our human rights research. In short: how does climate change impact the types of research questions we ask? Without considering the impacts of climate change on all different areas of human rights research, can our human rights research be sufficiently ‘future proof’? How to ensure that human rights research is relevant in 2030, 2040 or 2050, in light of the climate crisis? Even more fundamentally: what role does and can human rights law, as a largely anthropocentric ‘human-oriented’ construct, play in this 21st era of climate crisis? Is there a need for more radical, green, ecological and eco-centric approaches, for example as represented by the concept of ‘rights of nature’? The working group will be open to different interdisciplinary perspectives on the study of human rights, as well as different methodological approaches and theories, i.e., ranging from positivist studies to critical studies.

NNHRR members interested in becoming a working group member or a coordinator should contact David Patterson email:


David Patterson is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Law at Groningen University. His research addresses the health impacts of climate change through a human rights lens. He is a member of the Groningen Centre for Health Law and the steering committee of the Law and Public Health section (EUPHA-LAW) of the European Public Health Association.

Comments (2) -

  • I could not agree more! Thank you very much for organizing this important meeting! I look forward to participate in the NNHRR working group on climate change and human rights.

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