The Human Right to a Stable Climate

September 25, 2023 | 10:48 am
Women with kids in a flooded villageKuntal Biswas/Pexels
L. Delta Merner
Lead Scientist, Science Hub for Climate Litigation

Scientists have unequivocally confirmed that human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, are driving unprecedented changes to the Earth’s climate, raising fundamental questions about our responsibility to safeguard the environment for future generations. Now, an ethical, moral and legal debate is emerging: do we have the right to a stable climate? The answer surely should be yes, we do.

Courts are hearing arguments on both sides. Last month, in a landmark decision, a Montana judge ruled that youth in the state do have the right to a stable climate. The highest court in Hawai’i ruled similarly in March, recognizing the human right to a stable environment. The right to a stable environment is also recognized in select jurisdictions across the world even though the US Department of Justice so far continues to contend that  there is “no [federal] constitutional right to a stable climate.”

As important climate litigation continues to work its way through the courts, such as the Portuguese Youth case which will be heard in the European Court of Human Rights on September 27, we all need to grapple with the question, what exactly is a stable environment? And is it a right worth fighting for?

What is a stable climate?

I live in a Baltimore row house. My husband and I bought it from a family that had owned the property for 70 years. Several generations of their family grew up within these walls. I’m not as confident that my family will be able to rely on these bricks for stable housing moving forward. Over the next 70 years, this home will likely face more intense rainfall, more heatwaves, and more frequent floods. The latest science shows clearly that the infrastructure in Baltimore will be taxed by sea level rise, extreme heat, and extended droughts. In short, the future inside these four walls is far less certain now.

The right to a stable climate is intricately linked to our well-being, safety, and the prosperity of future generations. A stable climate affords us a predictable environment where people can plan for the future with confidence, such as for agriculture, housing, or economic stability. While weather is always variable, a stable climate helps us safeguard against the devastating impacts of extreme weather events, sea-level rise, and disruptions to essential services.

The right to a stable climate embodies a profound ethical responsibility to preserve the natural world and its inherent value, recognizing that the health of ecosystems is critical for human survival. In essence, having the right to a stable climate is not just a matter of personal interest but one of collective and intergenerational significance, as it reflects our duty to protect the planet for the benefit of all life on Earth.

The legal right to a healthy environment

The legal framework supporting the right to a healthy environment is rooted in a series of international agreements. The Stockholm Declaration of 1972 laid the foundation by recognizing the importance of environmental protection. Subsequently, the Rio Declaration of 1992 highlighted the right to an environment that enables people to enjoy a quality of life in harmony with nature.

One of the most pivotal agreements in this context is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which kicked into force in 1994. It acknowledges that “the global nature of climate change calls for the widest possible cooperation by all countries” and outlines the objective of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that prevents dangerous interference with the climate system. This establishes a foundation for the right to a stable climate, as nations collectively commit to address climate change and its impacts.

Additionally, many countries recognize the right to a healthy environment in their constitutions and laws. For example, Ecuador’s 2008 constitution enshrines the rights of nature, acknowledging that “nature has the right to exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate its vital cycles.” Similarly, Norway’s constitution includes an article stating that “every person has the right to an environment that is conducive to health and to a natural environment whose productivity and diversity are maintained.” In the United States, we see similar rights enshrined in a few state constitutions, including in Montana.

The global legal system continues to address this question through advisory opinions, most notably the climate advisory opinion currently before the International Court of Justice, which may help to shed light on this heavily debated issue.

These constitutional and legal provisions not only emphasize the importance of a healthy environment but also imply the right to a stable climate.

The urgency of climate stability

The current urgency of the debate over the right to a stable climate comes from the profound and escalating impacts of climate change. Rising global temperatures, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels, have led to more frequent and severe heatwaves, melting ice caps and glaciers, intensified hurricanes, and erratic weather patterns. These consequences have devastating effects on communities, ecosystems, and economies.

In this context, the right to a stable climate is inherently linked to the right to life. Climate change poses significant threats to human health, food security, and access to clean water. Extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, displace communities and disrupt essential services. The resulting loss of life, property, and livelihoods underscores the moral imperative to address climate change urgently.

Furthermore, the impacts of climate change are not evenly distributed. Vulnerable and marginalized communities, often least responsible for global warming emissions, bear the brunt of climate-related disasters. This raises questions of justice and equity, as the right to a stable climate should extend to all regardless of their socioeconomic status or geographic location.

The imperative of our time

Climate change is a problem with implications far beyond the present generation. Its consequences will persist for centuries, impacting the lives of countless humans in the future. The concept of intergenerational equity underlines our ethical responsibility to ensure that the actions of today do not compromise the well-being of those yet to come.

By failing to take decisive action to mitigate climate change, we risk infringing upon the rights of future generations to live in a stable and hospitable environment. This raises ethical questions about the moral standing of our current actions and the legacy we leave for our descendants.

Our ethical responsibility to maintain a stable climate also extends beyond human interests to encompass the broader ecosystem. Ecosystems provide essential services such as clean air, fresh water, and fertile soil. They also support biodiversity, which has intrinsic value in itself. Climate instability disrupts these systems, endangering the delicate balance of nature.

We live in a pivotal moment in history, where our choices will shape the climate for generations to come. The consequences of inaction are dire, and the clock is ticking. To honor the legal, ethical, and moral obligations we hold, we must act decisively to mitigate climate change, transform our energy and economic systems for a sustainable future, and ensure that the right to a stable climate is upheld for all.

In the end, the right to a stable climate is not just a question of whether we possess this right but whether we have the courage, wisdom, and determination to protect it. The science is clear: the time for action is now. I am grateful that my city, Baltimore, is fighting for climate accountability through the courts, and I hope that our nation and our world leaders step up and lead us to a future with a stable climate for all. As scientists, policymakers, and global citizens, we must unite in our commitment to secure a stable climate, not just for ourselves, but for the generations that will inherit the Earth after us.