In the run up to the Conference of the Parties 26 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26) currently taking place place in Glasgow (1-12 November 2021), the Society's Working Group on COP26 & Climate Change organised a roundtable event in September to consider the topic of COP26, climate change and human rights. Alison McNab and Gillian Mawdsley provide a round up from the event.

If there had been any lingering doubt about the relevance of the climate crisis across the spectrum of our society’s responsibilities and interests, this was dispelled by the input from the range of speakers and the active engagement and participation of attendees at this event. The Society’s Vice-President, Murray Etherington, introduced the roundtable, recognising that human rights affect us all – no matter which groups of society we form part of.

Human rights and climate change

Dr Elisa Morgera, Professor of Global Environmental Law at the University of Strathclyde and the Director of the UKRI GCRF One Ocean Hub, opened the event, highlighting the importance of a human right to a healthy environment. She discussed the work which was carried out by the National Taskforce for Human Rights Leadership, established in 2019, to prioritise actions to progress human rights and equality in Scotland. This discussion highlighted the need to understand that human rights and environmental protection are equally important matters, and recognised the importance of both substantive and procedural elements of the right to a healthy environment.

Dr Morgera touched on the global leadership opportunity offered by COP26 in the area of climate justice. This includes opportunities to raise the ambitions in tackling the inter-connected climate change and biodiversity challenges. With climate change happening, temperatures are rising, extreme weather events are starting to occur more frequently, rainfall patterns are shifting, glaciers and snow are melting, and the global mean sea level is rising.

Taking action

We need to act now to limit the emissions linked to human activities in order to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Adopting the theme of “cradle to grave”, the panel session, chaired by Working Group Convener Emma Dixon, sought to engage attendees by highlighting how the climate affects us all at different stages throughout our lives. It specifically discussed the implications of developments in climate change and rights, in relation to children, business and the older person. That meant for:

  • children and young people, their role as ‘human rights defenders’;
  • businesses, particularly in the developing area of due diligence, a recognition of the implications and their duties; and
  • older persons, the challenges and opportunities in tackling the climate crisis. 

The discussion fully recognised that climate change heightens existing inequalities, similar to what has arisen with the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic.

There is an overwhelming need to protect those who are most vulnerable to environmental harm, including young people, persons with disabilities, and older people. This is not just about the effect on our own narrow corner of society, but it is much greater and wider – looking out to our responsibilities regarding all in society that are adversely affected.  

We suggest that we can draw parallels with the development in equality and diversity policy as steps have been taken incrementally over the years to embed changes. This recognises the importance of inclusivity - a key aspect drawn out by the three panel speakers. We are all in this crisis together.

The specialists’ views

Maria Galli, Legal Officer (Investigation & Strategic Litigation), Children & Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland, reflected on the significant impacts of the climate on children and young people who are less resistant to environmental harm than others in the population. Children are at the centre of our society – and it is their future that we need to respect. The significance of actions taken by children and young people to draw attention to their concerns reflects the importance of the climate crisis to them – we can look towards youth day at COP26 (5 November).

Dr Claire Methven O'Brien, Baxter Fellow and Lecturer in Law at the University of Dundee and Chief Adviser and Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, discussed shifts in the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in recent decades and the developing area of corporate human rights and environmental due diligence. New laws establishing due diligence duties for companies have been passed in a number of European states and are expected at EU level.  These laws are impacting how businesses evaluate and manage human rights and environmental risk, including in relation to climate change, going forward. Statutory due diligence duties will also affect companies’ and regulators’ approaches to non-financial reporting and ESG investments. This will be an important area of work for the legal profession going forward and one with relevance in the context of climate commitments.  

Dr Cara McDonald, Consultant in Old Age and liaison psychiatry and Clinical Lead in Old Age Psychiatry, Dundee, discussed the impacts of climate change on older people. She referred to particular impacts of the climate crisis on this sector of the population, for example, with the development of respiratory problems as a result of poor air quality, fluctuations in temperature which causes thousands of deaths worldwide each year, and poor disaster response in older people.

While older people stand to gain from improvements in relation to climate change, there is the potential for loss too, with challenges around costs and complexity of making lifestyle changes and the potential for greater social isolation as a result of changes to the use of green spaces and transport links. Graphically, she highlighted issues over recognising the need to be socially responsible, for example, challenges around changing energy tariffs.

Dr Annalisa Savaresi, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Law, University of Stirling and Director for Europe, Global Network on Human Rights and the Environment, concluded the roundtable event. She discussed the role of human rights in climate change litigation. There has been a considerable increase in climate litigation since the ratification of the Paris Agreement of 2015. This was therefore an important topic on which to reflect. While the body of climate legislation is growing, this is not being fully utilised. There are a number of reasons for this, for example, there are limits embedded in legislation itself and on the powers of the decision-maker. Human rights litigation is a particularly important tool and plays a significant role when there are no other remedies are available.

Reflections on the role of the legal profession

The importance of the roundtable event helped to bring to life the human rights implications of the prevailing climate crisis for all aspects of society. There is much more to consider and opportunities to grasp. These include seeking to understand and educate ourselves about the impact of climate change and the differing impacts and interests that this has on our population, locally and globally.

The importance of, and therefore the opportunities, in seizing leadership are there. These opportunities can seek to tackle the climate crisis, both at COP26 and crucially beyond, and cannot be underestimated. These are vital for our young people, as they are the generation of the future, and must be given a voice to orchestrate change.

Looking to our own profession, the developing trends in climate legislation and litigation supports the need to equip lawyers with these skills and understanding for the future.

As well as the clear messages around the importance of the forthcoming COP26 conference, there is a clear role for education about climate change, highlighting the differing rights, responsibilities, and interests across society.

For us, one of the most significant points of the discussion was the need to consider the possible opportunities provided by and benefits of inter-generational learning. Leaving with that thought, think about the climate crisis and your responsibilities in:

  • your role, individually
  • your role as part of the societal groups to which you belong – for example, thinking about your age, disability, religion or belief, sex, profession, where you work and live. We are all members of numerous groups in society - are the responsibilities the same?
  • your role as member of our global community and planet.

COP26 takes place from 31 October - 12 November. Use this unique opportunity to consider if you might, could, should do more to equip yourself and help others to address climate change.