The Social and Legal Aspects of Climate Change
Edited by Anna Grear and Conor Gearty
Chapter 5: Climate ethics and human rights
Compared to other ethical approaches to climate change, a human rights approach has several advantages: it draws on a widely accepted, coherent and well-developed set of legal norms, it places the human beings most affected by climate change at the centre of its analysis, and it has strong connections to mechanisms of implementation and enforcement. Human rights already provide a sturdy framework for addressing climate change at the micro level of specific projects and national adaptation policies, but face greater challenges at the macro level of global mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, human rights law contains elements that should allow it to address climate change as a global challenge to human rights. Keywords: climate change, human rights, United Nations, Human Rights Council The host of issues raised by climate change includes questions of science (what can be done?), economics (what can we afford to do?) and politics (what can we agree on?). The most fundamental question, however, is essentially an ethical one: what should we try to do? Science, economics and politics may help to define the possible climate policies, but they cannot determine which policies we should adopt. Of course, we need no ethical system to justify our pursuit of policies that protect our own interests; pure self-interest motivates us to do that. But proposals that ask us to compromise those interests for the benefit of others are usually premised, tacitly or explicitly, on ethical principles. For example, arguments that the largest emitters of greenhouse gases should rectify the harm caused by their historical and current emissions draw on principles of corrective justice. Proposed policies based on the greater vulnerability of many developing countries to climate change, or the greater ability of developed countries to pay for mitigation and adaptation, incorporate tenets of distributional justice. Other proposals emphasize concepts of equality, legitimate expectations, avoidance of the risk of grave harm, assurance of minimum levels of access to goods, and a wide range of other factors based on ethics at least as much as on economics or science.1 The persuasive weight of these factors depends on our agreement with the various ethical premises underlying them.
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