Cop 26 and Beyond: A Human Rights-Based Response to Climate Change and Scotland’s Contribution

by Professor Alan Miller, Professor of Practice in Human Rights Law at the University of Strathclyde By invitation, Climate


The science and living experience of climate change is no longer for debate. Its current and future impact upon our lives, livelihoods and ways of life represent the greatest 21st Century threat to the enjoyment of human rights. The UN Secretary-General is right to state we are at “Code Red” for humanity.

There is hope and it needs COP 26 to signal a leadership of both humility and ambition.

The best way to bring this about at and beyond COP 26 is through increased public participation and accountability.

Systemic and transformative change is required. Business as usual is unsustainable. Politics as usual is failing abysmally. Both are bringing humanity to the abyss. People’s interests and rights represent the future of humanity and need to be at the centre of all decisions. A power shift is required to enable this.

A human rights-based response to climate change

The best way to achieve this power shift is through adopting a human rights-based approach and promoting and demanding climate justice whereby people become empowered as rights-holders and governments become accountable as duty-bearers.

We are seeing this human rights-based response in the global mobilisation of youth demanding inter-generational climate justice, in the “debt for climate” – converting debt to climate action funding – demands of developing countries and in the increasing demands of civil society organisations for a transformative rights-based global governance and economy.

The UN continues to strive to take steps to respond to the groundswell of public demand for climate justice and a better world. These steps are significant, if painfully slow, and are currently being constrained by those member states seeking to undermine multilateralism and prioritise their own perceived narrow self-interest.

However, the tools do exist in the forms of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of 2015 and the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015.

Most importantly, both of these international voluntary agreements align with governments’ pre-existing UN human rights treaty legal obligations and, if implemented through the public holding governments to account on their human rights commitments, they can together transform our world.

At a national level, the experience and emerging good practice of UN field presences in countries across all regions is demonstrating that a human rights-based approach, including increased public participation and holding governments to account for their human rights commitments, are the key barometers of progress in the realisation of the SDGs, including climate action.

At an international level, a human rights-based response in response to growing public demand is also becoming increasingly evident.

For example, we can see this in the Human Rights Council resolution on the international human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, its mandate for the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on human rights and climate change and in the UNCRC Committee ruling on the extra-territorial obligation to curb emissions interfering with the human rights of children. These significant developments will give further impetus to the growing climate litigation around the world.

COP 26 in Glasgow and Scotland’s contribution to a human rights-based response

It is fitting that COP 26 is taking place in Glasgow in Scotland – a small country and yet a cradle of the industrial age based upon the exploitation of fossil fuels and now committed to a human rights-based response to climate change.

Scotland rightly has a humility in recognition of this past but also has an ambition and sense of responsibility to demonstrate leadership through a just transition towards a greener and fairer economy.

There is both ambition in its world-leading legal climate targets and being the first parliament to adopt climate justice as well as in its introduction of a new human rights framework to help meet today’s challenges.

The Scottish Government is currently preparing a Human Rights Bill based upon the Report recommendations of its National Taskforce for Human Rights Leadership.

This new framework, aligned with the SDGs and setting an example to the rest of the UK, will introduce the “right to a healthy environment”, incorporate key UN human rights treaties, including the UNCRC and ICESCR, and introduce innovative and effective forms of public participation and of accountability.

The impact of the pandemic – the systemic inequalities exposed along with the need of increased economic and social resilience – is serving to increase the determination and scale of ambition throughout Scottish society and well beyond to “build back better” from the pandemic and the underlying climate crisis.


A human rights-based approach to both the pandemic and climate change means that the public must increasingly hold governments to account.

Governments should simply govern. To govern is to respect and protect humanity and our environment and enable the enjoyment of human rights and lives of dignity for everyone in every part of our inter-dependent world.

What then does a human rights and climate justice response need at COP 26 and beyond?

Firstly, delegates and leaders need to demonstrate leadership based upon honesty and humility in their open recognition of the scale of challenge and the necessary transformation going way beyond any commitments and implementations to date.

Secondly, they need to act upon their duties under international human rights law, which underpin the voluntary Paris Agreement and SDGs, and demonstrate an ambition that is commensurate with the scale of the challenge. This must include meaningful public participation and accountability.

Thirdly, nothing will succeed without recognition of the inter-dependence and common but differentiated responsibilities within our societies and our world. Equity and a just transition within and among all countries need to be central to all efforts.

Whilst COP 26 itself is unlikely to achieve all of this in the current circumstances it needs to deliver, and in a convincing manner, the momentum necessary to enable this progress beyond COP 26.

Let Glasgow be the change we need to see.   


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