Rights in a Warming World: The Intersection of Climate Migration, Climate Change, and Human Rights

By Margo Kenyon, PBI Intern

As climate change continues to leave lasting impacts on people all over the world, an increasing number of people are being displaced both internally and internationally from their homes, often referred to as “climate refugees”. In the year 2022 alone, 33 million people were displaced by natural disaster-related events. Many of the people most vulnerable to displacement live in countries in the global south and small island developing states (SIDS), which have historically contributed the least to global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) but have increasingly been the most impacted. Communities may be impacted by either slow onset events, rapid onset events, or a combination of both. Slow onset events, such as the more frequent occurrence of extreme temperatures and changing rainfall patterns, are said to more greatly exacerbate climate-related migration than rapid onset events, such as flash flooding and earthquakes. However, these two types of events are often intertwined, such as when a gradual sea level rise suddenly results in flash flooding, negatively impacting local communities. When faced with these rapid onset disasters, people may be more unequipped to deal with resulting damages and have no other choice but to relocate, whether temporarily or permanently, internally or across borders.

Despite the fact that the term “climate refugee” is used often in the media, the majority of people displaced by climate-related disasters relocate within national borders. Also, the term is not officially recognized by international law; the 1951 Refugee Convention only offers protection to those fleeing war, violence, conflict, or persecution who have crossed an international border. Protection related to cross-border climate migration is often indirectly provided under this Convention. Environmental disasters often coincide with political persecution, as literature suggests that gender-based violence and human rights violations are both exacerbated by climate change.

 Currently there is debate over which body of law governs protection of climate migrants: international refugee law, international climate law, or international human rights law. Nevertheless, many organizations are taking action to make a difference for those displaced by climate-related disasters.

For example, Environmental Law Institute (ELI) has advocated for the use of a ‘toolkit’ to identify options for protection and raise awareness to empower governments and other stakeholders. This “toolkit” approach involves the studying of cases and dissemination of information to support cross-border environmental migrants and promote harmonized global policymaking. Some of the legal tools ELI has offered consist of hosting debates, legal forums, and a meeting of experts on environmental displacement in the Pacific Islands.

The International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School is also doing work on the intersection of climate change and human rights. Clinic students have shared their cutting-edge research, discussing the implications of the Clinic’s recent report, titled “When the Water Runs Dry: Human Rights, Climate Change, & Deepening Water Inequality in Delhi, India,” with the UN’s Working Group on Business and Human Rights. The Clinic’s work, in partnership with the Center for Economic and Social Rights, has centered on discerning a framework to advocate for economic and social rights, such as the right to water, and how to prove when these rights have been violated.

In 2020, the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) set a precedent in Teitiota v. New Zealand, that forcibly returning a person to a place where their life would be at risk due to the impact of climate change may violate the right to life, according to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). This occurred after Ioane Teitiota, from the Pacific nation of Kiribati, was denied asylum as a climate refugee in New Zealand and was then deported. According to the Oxford Human Rights Hub, “While the Applicant’s claim was unsuccessful, the ruling has nevertheless been lauded as ‘landmark’ because the HRC accepted that states have an obligation not to forcibly return individuals to places where climate changes poses a real risk to their right to life. Consequently, it represents a significant jurisprudential development in the protection of climate refugees under international human rights law.”

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants joined other refugee resettlement and policy organizations to advocate for stronger pathways to protect those who have been displaced by climate change. In a letter to President Biden in September 2023, the group called for the use of existing mechanisms to extend protections to refugees that have been impacted by climate-related disasters.

For over twenty years, Pro Bono Net has provided disaster survivors with legal information, training lawyers and advocates for emergency response, and advocating for climate justice in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The group also provides accessible digital tools and resources to extend legal help to communities that have been impacted by climate disasters.

Looking for ways to directly get involved as a pro bono attorney? Connect with the Environmental Law Institute’s Pro Bono Clearinghouse, which connects individuals, communities, and non-profits with attorneys, non-legal experts, law clinics, and more. Other groups such as Advocates for Disaster Justice and Lawyers for Good Government work to educate and connect advocates, in addition to connecting individuals who have been affected by climate disasters to legal representation.

Want to learn more? For additional information and other ways to get involved with pro bono, including environmental and climate-related pro bono, please join us at the session “Pro Bono for a Greener Tomorrow: Environmental and Climate Law” on March 8 at the Pro Bono Institute (PBI) Annual Conference, in Washington, DC.