CIESIN Thematic Guides

Rights and Global Environmental Change

Controversies over the nature and scope of the human rights enjoyed by individuals and nations have important implications in global environmental change issues for several reasons.

First, the discussion of global environmental problems takes place in the context of real world political concerns. The rights of individuals, organizations, and nations are an integral part of debates over environmental issues.

Second, human rights can significantly affect the social and economic behavior that drives global environmental change. For example, changes in reproductive rights in populous nations can have enormous implications for world population growth. Similarly, changes in systems of land tenure can effect important changes in land use.

Third, the existence of a legitimate system for the definition of rights and the resolution of controversies enhances a political institution's ability to respond to complex issues such as global environmental change. In the United States, citizen environmental groups have historically played an important role in driving national environmental policy and awareness of global environmental issues. Conversely, until recently, the relative lack of Political and Civil Rights accorded the citizens of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe prevented them from mobilizing to respond to a wide variety of regional environmental problems with global implications.

Fourth, rights can also serve as a constraint on response to global environmental change. For example, some nations assert a Right to Development that takes precedence over their duty to prevent environmental harm. Similarly, the vested rights of economic entities in industrialized societies pose a significant limitation on the ability of economic and political institutions to control environmental implications of industrial processes.

Finally, certain rights are uniquely affected by global environmental change, including Intergenerational Rights and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.