Climate Change and Human Rights

10/30/2016 07:00 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2016

Combating climate change through a human right’s perspective

Florence Wang with Woodrow W. Clark II (*)


Climate change is one of the most critical problems the world faces today, accelerating both natural disasters and human conflict. Air pollution is not only the main cause of climate change, but also poses a direct risk to human health, currently causing an eighth of total global deaths. China, the world’s largest manufacturing nation, ranks the worst in air quality. Only 1% of the country’s 560 million urban residents breathing air are considered safe by the European Union. The basic re-search question is: To what extent are the health impacts of industrial air pollution in China human rights violations; and therefore what role can human rights play in combating air pollution?

The extensive health risk imposed by industrial air pollution in China is a clear human rights violation, breaching both substantive and procedural rights. Thus a human rights perspective can play a particularly important role in combating air pollution in China. Educating the public about their rights and empowering them to take action offer a new means to overcome the problems of weak monitoring and lax enforcement in existing government programs. Its effectiveness is further enhanced by the way people are connected in today’s world, with the dominance of social media and smart phone apps.


Climate change is one of most critical problems the world faces today, accelerating both natural disasters and human conflict. Air pollution is not only the main cause of climate change, but also a direct risk to human health, currently causing an eighth of total global deaths (“7 million,” 2014). China, the world’s manufacturing nation, is known for its widespread air pollution problem. According to the 2014 Environmental Performance Index, China’s air quality at a national scale is the worst globally. The new #13 Five Year Plan (March 2016) addresses the problem through “green development” ( This was reinforced by Chinese Premier XI at the UN G-20 Summit in Hangzhou, China September 3-5, 2016 (

Similarly, people around the world have come to recognize the links between human rights and the environment. The United Nations G-20 all supported measures to curtain climate change as the China Daily reported:

The UN states that “a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is integral to the full enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water and sanitation.” (“Spe-cial Rapporteur,” 2015). For example in Southeast Asia, extreme heat and weather changes in cities due to climate change means that there need to be “ambitious environmental, local public infra-structure, and health programs” for the people living and working there

The analysis herein is of industrial air pollution in China from a human rights perspective. There is an important and immediate need to explore how a human rights approach can help combat air pollution by empowering China’s public to act as a driving force behind stronger environmental protection.

Specific Human Rights Violated by Air Pollution

China’s air pollution has reached deadly levels: only 1% of the country’s 560 million urban residents breathe air considered safe by the European Union (Kahn and Yardley, 2007). In 2015, air pollution was already reported to cause 1.6 million premature deaths per year, 16 times the level of 1997 (Rohde & Muller, 2015, p. 1).



Figure #1: 2012 International Exposure to PM2.5 An Interactive Air-Pollution Map. Digital Image. Environ-mental Performance Index. Yale University, 15 June 2014.

These health impacts violate both substantive and procedural human rights. The substantive rights violated are the right to life (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 3) and the right to a standard of living adequate for one’s health and well-being (Article 25). The internationally recognized rights to clean water and food, safe and healthy working conditions, and the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health are also contravened. Human rights violations include the rights to information, participation and remedy. However, governments often hinder attempts to gain information despite a dearth of such information available to the public.


Figure #2: Impact of Climate Change on Human Health. Digital Image. Climate and Health. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2014.

It is important to recognize the debate between the universality of human rights and cultural relativ-ism when applying a human rights approach. To the universality school of thought, if human rights are the rights that everyone has simply by being human, then they are universal by definition (Don-nelly “Cultural Relativism,” 1984, p. 400).

Weakness in Conventional Methods of Fighting Air Pollution in China

Despite the criticism that they allow polluters to buy their way out of environmental respon-sibilities, cap-and-trade systems are at the centre of some environmental programs worldwide and have proven effective in many cases (Margolis, Dudek & Hove, 2015, p. 3). China has tried a lim-ited cap-and-trade (C&T) system, with seven carbon trading pilot programs established in 2011 and the full system to be launched in 2017. There are, however, two necessary conditions for an effec-tive cap-and-trade program: stringent monitoring of emissions and strict regulatory enforcement (Margolis et al., 2015, p. 5). Unfortunately, both are currently lacking in China.

With respect to monitoring, it was found with the pilot programs that there were great varia-tions in the consistency and reliability of the emissions data measured. This problem is only likely to increase as the program is scaled up to cover an even larger area. Regarding enforcement, China has a history of lax enforcement of environmental policies, due to a number of factors. The first is that heavy-polluting industries, iron and steel, are typically dominated by large state-owned enter-prises that have great influence over environmental decision-making. For instance, emission and fuel standards are issued by a committee of 30 to 40 members, most of which are from high-polluting state oil companies.

The second factor is that the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the branch of the gov-ernment dedicated to environmental advocacy, does not have the power to prosecute and ensure compliance from polluting companies through legal means. To make matters worse, the penalties for environmental infringements have historically been nominal financial penalties that are too low to deter violations (Wong “As Pollution Worsens,” 2013). Finally, corruption, a major social and political issue in China, amplifies all of the problems above.

Despite these technical weaknesses, the Chinese government has shown a stronger commit-ment to environmental protection. Based on the new #13 Five-Year Plan, there are likely to be oversight, changes and restrictions enforced on the C&T. As Premier Xi discussed in September 2016 at the UN B-20 Taskforce before the UN G-20 Summit, “action, not talk” is needed for what he called “eco-governance” through “global green development” that is “transparent”, “interconnected” and meant for the “joint well-being of humankind” (XI, September 2016). However, given the institutional constraints discussed above, it remains unclear how exactly the government would implement an eco-green governance. It is therefore timely to explore how alternative mechanisms may empower the Chinese government, as well as the public, to achieve their environmental goals.

A Human Rights Approach to Environmental Protection

In recent years, environmental law scholars and activists have looked increasingly to a hu-man rights approach to environmental protection (Shelton, 2010, p. 1). This approach directly ad-dresses the impact of environmental degradation on the life and health of individuals. Furthermore, it seeks to ensure the environment does not deteriorate to a point where basic human rights are im-paired. It is a powerful means of combating pollution, both conceptually and practically.

At a conceptual level, human rights are associated with high moral and legal obligations. This moral weight exercises legal compliance; thus, framing environmental entitlements as rights elevates their status above commonplace laws. While commonplace laws are subject to everyday revisions, human rights cannot be changed or discarded at will and bespeaks obligatory implemen-tation on the part of the rights-protector. Practically, a human rights approach enhances the status of environmental concerns and places it on the same level as other competing objectives, such as eco-nomic growth. It also provides an impetus for stronger environmental legislation and enforcement, as governments must now consider the implications of their actions on human rights.


Human Rights as a Means of Empowerment

The essence of rights discourse is that “if you have a right to X and you do not get X, this is not only a wrong, but a wrong against you.” (Weston & Bollier, 2013, p. 94) Utilizing human rights to empower the public in this way can contribute to public participation and ensure that action is taken to rectify the air pollution problem. This has proven effective in the past; for example, the 1962 book Silent Spring is said to have energized the US environmental movement and given impe-tus to the civic conversation and grassroots activism that were necessary in curbing pollution.

In China, a similar movement took place in 2015 with the release of a documentary, Under the Dome. The documentary exposed the alarming truth of China’s air pollution crisis, and the pro-ducer, Jing Chai, voiced these concerns in a candid manner from the perspective of an average citi-zen (Wong “China Blocks Web,” 2015). The documentary was viewed 300 million times before the government deleted it a week after its release.

The documentary also points out ways for the public to drive change, including monitoring nearby pollution through mobile apps, reporting excessive pollution to the Environmental Protec-tion Department, and posting photos of polluting sources - such as diesel trucks or restaurants lack-ing required filtration systems - on social media and boycotting their products. While there is no systematic evidence on civic participation due to government censorship, the market expected a positive change, For example, immediately after the film’s release, stocks of several environmental companies traded up to 10 percent higher, reaching their daily limits (Shao, 2015).

The human rights approach to combating pollution, as exemplified by Under the Dome, can be particularly powerful in China for at least two reasons. Firstly, it offers a solution to the prob-lems identified earlier in existing government programs, namely weak monitoring and lax enforce-ment. Secondly, its effectiveness is further enhanced by the way people communicate in today’s world, with the widespread influence of smart phone apps and social media.

On the lack of consistent monitoring, the human rights approach effectively decentralizes the monitoring process from the government to the general public, whose own health is at great risk and thus has the most incentive.

With respect to enforcement, the human rights approach strengthens the previously dis-cussed weak spots in the existing system. Specifically, it counter-balances the power of formidable state firms by empowering the public to fight for their rights and thus increasing the moral and legal obligations of these enterprises. Moreover, exposing polluting incidences on social media can quickly draw public attention and exert social pressure, which compensates, at least to some extent, for the lack of prosecuting power of the government environmental agencies.


Finally, this approach imposes on polluters substantial costs in the form of lost sales when the public boycotts their products, and a tarnished social image when their pollution is exposed on social media. These costs, tangible as well as intangible, are particularly useful in China, since the penalties under existing regulations are too low to deter violations.


The extensive health risks that industrial air pollution in China poses to the public is a clear human rights violation. It breaches fundamental human rights including the right to life, health and equality, whereas the lack of information, outlets for participation and remedial action provided by the government violate the procedural rights to information, participation and remedy.

Human rights should play a particularly important role in combating air pollution in China. Educating the public about their rights and empowering them to take actions offer a much needed new means to overcome the problems of weak monitoring and lax enforcement in existing govern-ment programs. Its effectiveness is further enhanced by the way people are connected in today’s world, with the dominance of social media and smart phone apps.

It is imperative that action to reduce global air pollution is taken immediately given the se-verity of current-day climate change and air pollution’s role as its driving force. As China is respon-sible for a third of the world’s CO2 emissions, it is critical that the nation is part of - if not leading - this global effort. Everyone needs to watch China take “action” now; as Premier XI has stated, “talk” is not enough.

Finally, while the focus of this essay is how to combat air pollution in China, the arguments made are applicable globally. Other developing nations, such as India and Pakistan, will likely face similar issues of lax monitoring and enforcement of environmental policies, for which the human rights approach will be helpful. In more economically developed societies such as the United States or the EU, the rights of citizens are given more weight and the effects of the human rights approach may even be amplified.




APCO. “The 13th Five-Year Plan”, Beijing, China, September 26, 2016:

B-20 Task Force Reports (September 2, 2016):

“Causes of Climate Change.” Climate Action. European Commission, 17 August 2016. Web. 01 October 2016.

China Daily, President XI Jinping and President Barack Obama at G-20

Hangzhou, China (Sept 3-5, 2016) September 3, 2016

Clark, Woodrow W. II, “The Green Industrial Revolution in SEA” APO Article in Journal (Sep-tember - October 2016:

Dessler, Andrew Emory. and Edward Parson. The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change: A Guide to the Debate. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.

Donnelly, Jack. “Cultural Relativism and Universal Human Rights.” Human Rights Quarterly 6.4 (1984): 400-19. Print.

G-20 Summit, UN Hanzchou, China, September 3-5, 2016.

Margolis, Josh, Daniel J. Dudek, and Anders Hove. “Carbon Emissions Trading: Rolling Out a Successful Carbon Trading System.” Stronger Markets, Cleaner Air (2015): n. page. Sept. 2015. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.

“7 Million Premature Deaths Annually Linked to Air Pollution.” World Health Organisation. World Health Organisation, 25 Mar. 2014. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.

Rohde, Robert A., and Richard A. Muller. “Air Pollution in China: Mapping of Concentrations and Sources.” (n.d.): n. pag. Berkeley Earth. Berkeley Earth, July 2015. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.

Shao, Heng. “Only In China: Why A Smog Documentary Sends Chinese Stocks Soaring To Trad-ing Limit.” Forbes Asia. Forbes, 2 Mar. 2015. Web. 12 June 2015.

Shelton, Dinah. “The Environmental Jurisprudence of International Human Rights Tribunals.” Link-ing Human Rights and the Environment (2010): 1-30. Print.

“Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment (former Independent Expert on Human Rights and the Environment).” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, n.d. Web. 12 June 2015.

Weston, Burns H., and David Bollier. Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights, and the Law of the Commons. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013. Print.

Wong, Edward. “As Pollution Worsens in China, Solutions Succumb to Infighting.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 Mar. 2013. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.

Wong, Edward. “China Blocks Web Access to ‘Under the Dome’ Documentary on Pollution.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 8 Mar. 2015. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.

XI, Jinping, Premier of China, “Keynote Speech to UN B-20 Task Forces” Hangzhou, China, Sep-tember 2, 2016


(*) Florence WANG is a recent graduate of Chinese International School Hong Kong.

In her eighteen years, she has lived in New York, Beijing and Hong Kong, and credits

her international upbringing with her love of different cultures and much of how she

views the world. She is passionate about environmental and social issues, and is currently

on a gap year interning for Conservation International Hong Kong and teaching in Nepal.

In her spare time, she adores theatre, playing with her dog, and discovering new vegan recipes

With Woodrow W. Clark II, MA3, PhD is an author, writer, speaker and mass media executive

producer about the solutions needed to mitigate climate change. With 11 books out on the topic

from sustainable communities to The Green Industrial Revolution and for The Next Economics

(Qualitative, not quantitative) with his current book Smart Green Cities,

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.