UCLA Law conference will explore connection between human rights and climate crisis


Woman and child in Jakarta flood

World Meteorological Organization

“There is a persuasive case that major contributors to climate change – who know the consequences of their actions – may be committing crimes against humanity,” said UCLA’s Kate Mackintosh.

A complaint filed to the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child by activist Greta Thunberg and 15 other children in December used a legally innovative argument in an attempt to fight climate change. With the U.N.’s 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child as its basis, the filing claimed that by contributing to climate change, five nations — Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Turkey — are violating their human rights.

The action was part of a building wave of human rights–based legal actions seeking to hold governments and private enterprises accountable for greenhouse gas pollution and the climate change it is causing. And that trend is the focus of a conference at UCLA School of Law on Feb. 28.

“Human Rights and the Climate Crisis” will bring together leading lawyers, scholars and activists to examine how laws that guarantee the rights to life, health, food, an adequate standard of living, and other human rights, can be applied to seek redress for the harm that climate change is creating.

The event is being organized by UCLA Law’s Promise Institute for Human Rights, Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, and Journal of International Law and Foreign Affairs.

“Wildfires, flooding, intense storms and other effects of climate change are having an immediate and significant impact on vulnerable groups around the world,” said Kate Mackintosh, executive director of the Promise Institute. “It is increasingly clear that climate change is a human rights issue. And there is a persuasive case that major contributors to climate change — who know the consequences of their actions — may be committing crimes against humanity.”

Among the UCLA event’s keynote speakers will be Kumi Naidoo, the former head of Amnesty International and Greenpeace, who will be making his first public appearance since stepping down from Amnesty in December. In recent years, Naidoo has been outspoken on the need to unite the human rights movement with activists working on climate issues.

Naidoo and Jennifer Morgan, the executive director of Greenpeace International, recently wrote about the topic in an op-ed for the Thomson Reuters Foundation: “Real solutions to the climate breakdown must place people and our fundamental rights at the core. The human rights community can bring key constituencies, power and skills to the fight for climate justice.”

The conference’s closing keynote speaker will be Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, leader of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH. Zúñiga took over the organization after her mother, Berta Cáceres, was murdered in 2016 for her activism opposing construction of a hydroelectric dam project on the Gualcarque river in the territory of the Lenca people in Honduras.

Since 2008, the U.N. has adopted a series of resolutions linking climate change and human rights, but only recently have rights-based lawsuits captured the attention of the public and, in some cases, landed major victories. In December, for example, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that the government of the Netherlands must reduce greenhouse gases by the end of 2020 by at least 25% below 1990 levels — the result of a suit brought by an environmental advocacy group on behalf of hundreds of Dutch citizens.

Also in 2019, the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights found that oil and cement companies could be held liable for contributing to climate change. The commission’s decision followed a request for an investigation by citizens and activists after the devastation caused by a typhoon in 2013, and it was the first ruling of its kind by any country’s human rights body.

UCLA faculty have closely followed and commented on rights-based litigation in the United States and international jurisdictions, including the high-profile Juliana v. United States lawsuit, which the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed earlier this year. A member of the Juliana litigation team will speak at the UCLA event.

“The Juliana lawyers introduced a very persuasive case that the U.S. Constitution should recognize the children’s right to a safe climate system,” said Ann Carlson, UCLA’s Shirley Shapiro Professor of Environmental Law. “While the Ninth Circuit ultimately dismissed the case, advocates will be looking to the Juliana case for lessons in how to move rights-based arguments forward — in the U.S. and around the world.”

The conference will also feature discussion of a movement to designate environmental destruction as an international crime, which could open new legal avenues for activists and advocates working to protect the planet.

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