Climate change has wrought devastating consequences in Australia — bushfires and floods have caused significant loss of life and mass displacement; bleaching events have affected large parts of the Great Barrier Reef; and rising sea levels are threatening Country protected by First Nations peoples since time immemorial.
The evidence tells us that the effects of climate change will become increasingly catastrophic. On the current trajectory, we are set to reach two degrees of warming by the end of the century. Under those conditions, extreme climate events such as heatwaves and bushfires will be more frequent and more intense, changes in rainfall patterns will lead to droughts, floods and an increase in mosquito borne diseases, and sea levels will continue to rise, destroying homes and communities. As we approach and surpass two degrees of warming, we are also at an increasingly greater risk of triggering ‘tipping points’ — critical thresholds that, once exceeded, lead to grave and irreversible changes in the Earth system.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that if we are to have any chance of preventing the worst of these effects, there must be deep and immediate cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. In short, we have a very small window to act.
Australian governments have obligations under international law and domestic human rights legislation to protect human rights. Climate change plainly threatens those rights in profound ways — particularly the right to life, the rights of children and the rights of First Nations peoples, as well as (among others), the rights not to be arbitrarily deprived of property, and not to have one’s home and private life arbitrarily interfered with.
The relationship between climate change and human rights has been recognised at the international level. In July 2022, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution recognising the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment and noting the relationship between that right and other rights and existing international law.
In its General Comment on the right to life, the Human Rights Committee observed:
Environmental degradation, climate change and unsustainable development constitute some of the most pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy the right to life … Implementation of the obligation to respect and ensure the right to life, and in particular life with dignity, depends, inter alia, on measures taken by States parties to preserve the environment and protect it against harm, pollution and climate change caused by public and private actors.
Treaty bodies have also recognised that climate change particularly affects the rights of children — both because they are particularly susceptible to its effects, and because the cumulative nature of greenhouse gas emissions means that the worst effects of climate change will be experienced by the children of today, and future generations. In a recent decision, the Committee on the Rights of the Child stated:
[Children] are particularly affected by climate change, both in terms of the manner in which they experience its effects and the potential of climate change to have an impact on them throughout their lifetimes, particularly if immediate action is not taken. Due to the particular impact on children, and the recognition by States parties to the Convention that children are entitled to special safeguards, including appropriate legal protection, States have heightened obligations to protect children from foreseeable harm.
Climate change also has particularly profound impacts on the cultural rights of First Nations peoples. As the climate changes, so too does Country, affecting cultural knowledge and practices. The low-lying islands of Zenadth Kes (the Torres Strait) are at particular risk — sea level rise threatens connections to sacred Country, and places entire peoples at risk of displacement from their spiritual lands.
It is imperative that Australian governments adopt a human rights-based approach to climate change policy. Liberty Victoria believes this requires our governments, in their respective areas of power and responsibility, to:
Sources and further reading:
 The scientific basis of the following information in this policy is taken from IPCC AR 6 Working Group II Synthesis Report, linked below.
 IPCC AR6 Working Group II, Summary for Policymakers at 32, linked below.
 Human Rights Committee, General Comment No 36: Article 6: Right to Life, 124th sess, UN Doc CCPR/C/GV/36 (3 September 2019) at 13 .
 Committee on the Rights of the Child, Views: Communication No. 107/2019, 88th sess, UN Doc CRC/C/88/D/107/2019 (22 September 2021) (Saachi v Germany & Ors) at 9.13