HKS Affiliated Authors

Director of Environmental and Natural Resource Program and Senior Research Associate
Senior Lecturer in Public Policy


In his essay for the Carr Center's latest publication, Making a Movement: The History and Future of Human Rights, Henry Lee discusses the impacts of climate change on our human rights—and how we must ensure equity in our global contributions to climate adaptation. 

Henry Lee, Director, Environmental and Natural Resource Program, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Senior Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School

"The United Nations has repeatedly stated that climate change has clear and immediate implications for human rights. Certainly, its impacts affect the lives and well-being of people around the world.

"Sudden onset events, such as more intense storms, floods, and wildfires, directly threaten personal security, while slower forms of climate degradation affect access to food, potable water, sanitation, and livelihoods. Internationally, there is relatively broad—though not unanimous— belief that these damages threaten basic human rights. However, there is far less consensus on who is responsible for protecting and fulfilling these rights.

"While governments in richer countries have the financial ability to move funds and protect the more vulnerable segments of their population, such is not the case in Bangladesh, Somalia, or Vanuatu. If we accept that all people deserve to be protected from climate-induced disasters, do the developed countries that historically contributed the most to the greenhouse gas concentrations have a moral obligation to protect the lives and well-being of populations vulnerable to the damages of climate change in the poorer regions of the world?

"There is broad agreement that it is not reasonable to expect Pakistan, or other poor countries, to shoulder the costs of climate adaptation and damage by themselves."

"Consider the floods that devastated Pakistan in 2022. That summer, Pakistan received 190 percent of its average rainfall in July and August, resulting in floods that submerged one-third of the entire country. A World Weather Attribution study found that climate change likely contributed to the extreme monsoonal rainfall. The deluge killed 1,700 people, displaced 8 million people from their homes, and destroyed huge swathes of agricultural land and infrastructure. Reconstruction will take years and cost over $16.3 billion, according to a Post-Disaster Needs Assessment conducted by the Government of Pakistan with support from the Asian Development Bank, the EU, the UN Development Programme, and the World Bank.

"There is broad agreement that it is not reasonable to expect Pakistan, or other poor countries, to shoulder the costs of climate adaptation and damage by themselves. What should be the obligation of the developed countries? In past international forums, they have committed billions of dollars to this cause, but these commitments have not always been honored. Further, the costs ten years hence will be much higher. The domestic politics within these wealthier nations makes it all but impossible for them to accept that their taxpayers have any liability for climate induced damages in Pakistan or any other developing country.

"These questions are fraught with moral hazard implications, and disagreement over how to answer them seems to have stalemated the implementation of the Loss and Damage Fund established at COP27 in 2022. But as the damages from climate impacts mount, and the threat to a portfolio of human rights grows more acute, it is critical that the international community reach some sort of compromise." 

Read the full publication.