Climate Change: The Greatest Human Rights Challenge of Our Time

In 2013, results from the BSR and GlobeScan annual survey on the state of sustainable business identified human rights and climate change as the top two sustainability priorities; but what is often ignored is their connection. Failure to act on climate change undermines the realization of human rights, while building climate resilience strengthens them. This one-hour session will examine how climate hazards impact a range of rights, including adequate standard of living; minimum means of subsistence; and reliable access to food, water, and health care—and the implications these connections have for business. What can businesses do to build climate resilience and strengthen their commitment to promote and respect human rights through their supply chains and the communities in which they operate?


  • Allan Lerberg Jørgensen, Department Director, Human Rights and Business, The Danish Institute for Human Rights
  • Alice Thomas, Climate Displacement Program Manager, Refugees International
  • Jorge Daniel Taillant, Executive Director, Center for Human Rights and Environment (CEDHA)
  • Edward Cameron, Director, Partnership Development and Research, BSR (Moderator)


  • Climate change directly impacts people’s human rights. Climate-related disasters like typhoons and droughts have robbed people of their right to water, housing, and security.

  • Building resilience does not mean building hard infrastructure or giving aid. It means sharing information, tools, and access with the community so that they have agency to build resiliency into their own lives.

  • Using a human-rights approach to thinking about climate change, we can see that women are more vulnerable than men are to climate change. Through programs like HERproject, companies can invest in women’s health and education, and help communities build resiliency directly.

  • There is a trade-off between reducing energy and reducing poverty; if people have the right to food and a job, then you can argue that they have a right to energy. Businesses are crucial because they can develop technologies and products that can both satisfy the demands of people in emerging markets and also manage emissions.

Memorable Quotes

“The great value of human rights is that it provides people with agency. Most of the people who are dealing with [the effects of climate change] are proud people, who aren’t looking for aid or charity; they are looking for agency so that they themselves can build resilience into their own lives.” —Edward Cameron, BSR

“There’s a right to not suffer from poverty, to work, to have food … for that you need energy. So there is a right to energy … There’s a huge role for companies to solve that through technology and products. We need enough energy to eradicate poverty and gross inequality, and we need it in a way that will lead to a [only] 2-degree future.” —Jorge Daniel Taillant, Center for Human Rights and Environment


Edward Cameron started the session by sharing that his hero is Eleanor Roosevelt, who spearheaded the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Taillant added that the preamble of the declaration says that all actors—not just states—are responsible for protecting and promoting rights. Since then, we’ve been evolving our definition of human rights, from first civil rights and political rights to labor rights, to economic and social rights, to finally environmental rights, such as the right to clean and safe water.

Cameron asked Alice Thomas to share her experiences working in the field with people affected by climate change. Thomas said that she went to Philippines in 2013 after Typhoon Haiyan struck in November. The typhoon displaced 4 million people and left 8,000 people dead or missing. It affected the most vulnerable parts of the population—low-income fishing communities and coconut farmers living in coastal areas. As of the one-year anniversary of the typhoon, there are still tens of thousands of people who are displaced. The longer people are displaced, the greater the likelihood that they will suffer a human rights abuse.

Allan Lerberg Jørgensen said even though there are many links between climate change and human rights, it is also difficult to address climate change from a human rights perspective, because when talking about human rights violations, there’s a victim and a perpetuator, and when it comes to climate change, we’re all victims and we’re all perpetuators. He explained that if we want to point to a corporate perpetuator, we can point to the energy companies—but we are the ones burning the fuel. Additionally, there is a trade-off between reducing energy and reducing poverty. Emerging markets claim a right to the path of development that developed markets took, by using energy. Businesses can develop technology and products that can help eradicate poverty and equality, but also manage emissions.

Cameron asked the panelists how strengthening human rights could help build climate resilience. Thomas shared that we need to take a rights-based approach to thinking about climate change. Instead of focusing on hard infrastructure, we should focus on human vulnerabilities. Cameron added that 90 percent of the victims killed by the typhoon in Bangladesh were women. Reasons may include that the women were not taught to swim or could not leave their house without a man, or other reasons. Thomas emphasized that if we focus on identifying the most vulnerable people, we can create more resilient societies.

During the Q&A session, an audience member asked how companies can contribute to climate resiliency. Cameron said that IKEA has donated more to the Philippines for typhoon relief than China has. Information communications and technology (ICT) companies are providing mobile communications to farmers in India so they know when to sow and reap. Thomas added that electric companies are providing generators after a disaster. However, she emphasized that the most important things companies can do is to engage with the people in the communities where they operate.

Another audience member, Ben Ratner from Environmental Defense Fund, asked whether there are any tips or tricks that participants can bring back to their boards to advocate for action on climate change. Cameron recommended using a human rights approach to address climate change risks because companies see women as part of their customer base. He cited HERproject as an example. And while HERproject is not about climate change, it is about providing health and nutrition information to women, and it empowers them with tools that increase their resiliency. Taillant added that companies can look past CO2 and address short-life climate pollutants that also have a large effect on climate change. Decreasing pollutants like methane, HFCs, black carbon, emissions from diesel engines, refrigerants, among others would provide immediate impact. For example, The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo are replacing their refrigerants with alternatives that have lower global warming impacts.

To conclude, Cameron asked the participants to share one parting takeaway for the audience. Jørgensen said that companies should identify the most vulnerable community in their supply chain and try to make a difference for them. He added that even while we adapt to climate change, we should not lose focus on trying to solve the problem. Thomas said that we need to act now because the longer we wait, the harder it will be to manage the effects. Taillant said that we need leaders who are not afraid of risk and change. We know more or less what we need to do; we just need people to do it. Cameron urged all the participants to think about what they can do in their companies to provide agency to people around the globe affected by climate change, and to provide agency to leaders in companies who may not understand climate change, but do understand human rights.


November 5, 2014