Monday’s U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report warned that major climatic changes are now inevitable, but that the worst-case scenarios can still be avoided. Whether the world avoids climate catastrophe depends in large part on the actions the world’s two largest emitters – the United States and China – take in the next decade. How the United States should approach this challenge has been a topic of great controversy.
For example, on July 7, over 40 progressive organizations sent a letter urging President Joe Biden and members of Congress to prioritize cooperation over competition with China, arguing that an increasingly hostile relationship between the United States and China would jeopardize the fight against climate change. Backlash to the letter quickly emerged, focusing on Chinese human rights abuses such as its mass detention of Uyghurs and its authoritarian crackdown in Hong Kong. According to these critics, the cooperative approach to China that the letter advocated would necessarily come at the expense of human rights. But this framing of human rights versus climate action misses a crucial point: climate change is a human rights issue.
Critics of the letter were implicitly applying a common but mistaken understanding of human rights. In this view – which was explicitly advanced by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights – human rights are equated with a narrow set of civil and political rights. And it is true that China’s record on civil and political rights is horrendous. In addition to outrageous abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, China persecutes dissidents and journalists, restricts religious freedom, and targets LGBTQ citizens.
But human rights as a matter of law encompass more than civil and political rights, and particularly when one considers economic and social rights, climate change is a human rights catastrophe. For example, the right to housing will be jeopardized as millions of people see their homes swept away by rising seas and extreme storms. The right to food is threatened as climate change decreases crop yields. And the increasingly frequent droughts that climate change produces challenge the exercise of the right to water. Moreover, the exercise of civil and political rights will likewise by impacted by climate change. The suggestion that U.S. foreign policy must – or could – choose between upholding human rights and fighting climate change is a misunderstanding of both issues.
The Human Rights Obligations Threatened by Climate Change
The United States has, regrettably, failed to ratify a number of treaties on economic and social rights, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) – though as a signatory of the ICESCR, the United States has an obligation to refrain from acts that would “defeat the object or the purpose” of the treaty. Moreover, despite the minority U.S. position that economic and social rights are not included in the pantheon of core human rights obligations, the majority of States recognize these rights as core human rights of equal stature and interlinked with civil and political rights.
In addition to the threats to economic and social rights posed by environmental disaster, climate change directly threatens a multitude of rights guaranteed by agreements the United States has ratified. A slew of human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), guarantee the right to life. Climate change’s threat to the right to life is enormous: scientists estimate that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius as opposed to 2 degrees Celsius would save 150 million lives from air pollution alone. The IPCC report outlines other catastrophic expected impacts of unmitigated climate change, including threats to life from heatwaves, drought, wildfires, and flooding. Climate change also threatens other rights contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, such as the right to a nationality and the right to self-determination: without drastic climate action, entire island nations are likely to be submerged by water.
Moreover, civil and political rights are inextricably linked to social and economic rights, and rights of each category are entwined in the daily experience of rights holders. For example, civil and political rights often cannot be fully enjoyed without the provision of economic and social rights. Consider the interaction between the right to a free press and the right to education: the world’s 775 million illiterate adults gain little from newspapers’ unrestricted ability to publish information. Second, the implicit (or explicit) claim that civil and political rights matter more simply does not match global understandings and experiences of human rights. The struggles to ensure adequate food and housing go hand in hand with struggles to achieve or maintain free expression and political representation. The Arab Spring protests of 2010-2011 – in which protests over the price of food coincided with demands for increased political representation, accountability, and freedom of expression – are a prominent example of the interplay between rights. When the United States recognizes the importance of the full spectrum of human rights, it lends credibility to its concerns about violations of civil and political rights; in contrast, the message that material sufficiency is not a human right rings hollow when delivered by one of the world’s richest countries.
Climate change as an issue is also particularly immune to common critiques of the theory of economic and social rights. Critics often argue that economic and social rights lack coherence because they require positive action from governments. In contrast, these critics argue that negative rights like freedom from torture only require that governments refrain from action which infringes the right – a concept sometimes summarized as the “right to be left alone.” But climate change’s relationship with human rights hinges on the negative: the right not to have one’s house flooded, the right not to have one’s crops destroyed by drought, the right not to die in an emissions-induced heatwave. The current trajectory of climate change will violate countless humans’ rights to be left alone by destroying the conditions necessary for life.
Human Rights and Climate Change in Foreign Policy
In light of climate change’s immense impacts on human rights, any discussion of human rights in the U.S.-China relationship must consider climate change. The two countries are by far the largest emitters in the world: China contributes 28 percent of the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions while the United States produces 15 percent. As the IPCC’s report makes clear, significant and devastating climate change is already locked in, but each additional fraction of a degree of warming comes with extensive human rights impacts. Not only do the United States’ and China’s emissions threaten the human rights of their own citizens – as illustrated, for example, by the recent deadly heatwaves in the United States – but the human rights of people around the world are directly impacted by whether or not China and the United States reduce their emissions.
Framing climate change as a human rights priority in China policy alongside issues like arbitrary detention and freedom of speech may be controversial, particularly as climate change is usually thought to impact economic and social rights, as discussed. But a true commitment to human rights – as espoused by Biden since his campaign – requires recognizing these rights and acting to protect them. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has likewise promised to prioritize human rights in U.S. foreign policy, asserting that “there is no hierarchy that makes some rights more important than others,” in a direct rejection of his predecessor’s attempt to construct such a hierarchy.
To be sure, incorporating a wide range of human rights concerns into U.S. foreign policy will be challenging, particularly in its relationship with a country as large and influential as China. Different human rights priorities may point in different policy directions, and a nonhierarchical understanding of rights will not provide easy answers. But these challenges are not unique to economic and social rights issues. Civil and political rights can conflict, too, such as when governments must balance freedom of speech with hate speech’s impacts on the right to freedom from discrimination. And recognizing the interplay between human rights and climate policy is necessary for either policy area to be coherent.
Understanding climate change as a human rights priority in the U.S.-China relationship can also be clarifying. First, to the extent that tradeoffs are needed, these tradeoffs can be made in light of their impacts on human rights. The United States should avoid direct complicity in human rights abuses even if there could be some negative impact on climate action. For instance, the Biden Administration’s decision to ban the import of solar panels linked to forced labor in Xinjiang was the right move. Further, climate action will not always require offering China carrots, but when it does, the United States can seek to avoid linkage with other human rights issues. Critics of a cooperative approach to China are quick to frame all tradeoffs as coming at the expense of human rights – in other words, pitting climate action against justice for Uyghurs, for example. But there are many contentious issues with little relation to human rights that are at play in the U.S.-China relationship, from which the administration could draw policy “carrots.” For example, despite anger at the neglect for human rights alleged to be inherent in a cooperative approach to China, few of these critics have asked whether the United States’ focus on Chinese intellectual property infringement – an issue that primarily concerns the profits of American corporations – may be standing in the way of action to address both climate change and other human rights issues.
A human rights approach also sheds light on the United States’ and China’s relative responsibilities for addressing climate change. Human rights recognize the entitlements of individuals, not States. Within this individual rights framework, per capita emissions are a more coherent metric than a State’s aggregate emissions for determining the distribution of climate responsibilities. The United States emits more than twice as much carbon dioxide per capita as China, and while the United States should of course insist that China reduce its emissions, the United States has an even greater responsibility to reduce its own. With climate policy hanging in the balance in Congress, it is far from guaranteed that the U.S. will do so. Still, an emphasis on per capita emissions is by no means exculpatory for China. In international climate negotiations China has advocated for sharp divisions between obligations for developed and developing countries – with China insistent that it belongs among developing countries – despite the fact that on a per capita basis, China emits 60 percent more than France, 411 percent more than India, and 7,400 percent more than Burundi.
Finally, a focus on human rights appropriately frames the debate between climate collaboration and climate competition not in terms of winning a great power rivalry but in terms of what will actually reduce emissions. The planetary calculus is clear: more emissions, the more likely it is people will lack access to food, water, housing, and other essential rights. Measures sanctioning China that are directly tied to climate outcomes – like a border carbon tax on high-polluting Chinese goods – can help reduce emissions. Healthy competition with China to develop green industries could be beneficial, but it should be undertaken within the larger goal of aggregate emissions reductions. China will remain a leading producer of renewable energy technologies for the foreseeable future, and the United States and China must avoid confrontation that could disrupt supply chains for these vital goods.
In contrast, great power competition seems unlikely to facilitate emissions reductions. Although it is in all countries’ shared interest to mitigate climate change, countries may also worry that they will take on a disproportionate burden of emissions reductions while others free ride off their efforts. If China fears confrontation with the United States, it will be particularly concerned that undergoing an energy transition could weaken its strength relative to the United States. Climate action does not depend on the United States and China becoming close allies, but each party must at least be confident that taking action on climate change will not come at the expense of its own security.
None of this implies that the United States should abandon efforts to support the human rights of interned Uyghurs or Hong Kong protesters. But a serious commitment to human rights – as the Biden administration has promised – demands that the United States does not stop there. Climate change jeopardizes the human rights of Black Americans facing disproportionate heat in historically redlined neighborhoods, residents of coastal China watching the sea come closer and closer to their homes, and children around the world who go hungry as their parents’ fields turn to dust. If the United States and China don’t get their climate policy right, there will be millions or billions more people whose human rights – both social and economic and civil and political – are violated.