The Right to a Healthy Environment
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Outline the components of the right to a healthy environment that are deemed essential according to human rights norms.
- Analyze how different government systems treat the right to a healthy environment around the world.
Many human rights organizations are now asserting that environmental damage, including climate change, is a violation of human rights because it impacts the ability of people to live safe and healthy lives.105 The UN Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment sets forth “basic obligations of States under human rights law as they relate to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment” and lists “potential benefits of recognizing the right to a healthy environment,” including:
- Stronger environmental laws and policies
- Improved implementation and enforcement
- Greater public participation in environmental decision-making
- Reduced environmental injustices
- A level playing field with social and economic rights
- Better environmental performance106
More than 100 countries have added the right to a healthy environment to their national constitutions.107
In the United States, pending lawsuits assert that failure to follow good environmental practices is causing damages to individuals. Juliana v. United States is one such landmark suit. This suit, brought by a group of children, alleges that the US government’s failure to address environmental and climate change issues is damaging their future lives and that the government can be held accountable for damages. The case is being closely watched worldwide.108
Juliana v. United States: The Climate Lawsuit
The plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States have presented such compelling evidence of the damaging effects of climate change, and of the United States’ government’s decades-long knowledge of the threats of climate change, that they have forced those who once dismissed the suit as frivolous to take it seriously. Still, how the case will unfold remains unclear.
As climate change becomes an increasingly urgent issue, the implications for human rights will be a growing area of political and legal debate. The UN is actively addressing the problem and has issued guidance on the protection of climate change refugees, although the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) does not endorse the term climate refugee and notes that “it is more accurate to refer to ‘persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change.’” The UNHCR further states:
“The impacts of climate change are numerous and may both trigger displacement and worsen living conditions or hamper return for those who have already been displaced. Limited natural resources, such as drinking water, are becoming even scarcer in many parts of the world that host refugees. Crops and livestock struggle to survive where conditions become too hot and dry, or too cold and wet, threatening livelihoods. In such conditions, climate change can act as a threat multiplier, exacerbating existing tensions and adding to the potential for conflicts.
Hazards resulting from the increasing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as abnormally heavy rainfall, prolonged droughts, desertification, environmental degradation, or sea-level rise and cyclones[,] are already causing an average of more than 20 million people to leave their homes and move to other areas in their countries each year.”109
Climate change and disasters have forced some people to cross borders, and these people may need international protection in some circumstances. UN member countries send aid through UN organizations and may even send personnel to act under UN administration. Refugee and human rights laws, therefore, have an essential role to play in this area.110 Climate change is a growing concern, and countries will increasingly have to address the issue of whether to recognize the right to a healthy environment.