Professors John Knox, Justin Catanoso put Paris climate change talks into perspective

Photo of Wake Forest Law Professor John Knox

Professor John Knox, United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment

Wake Forest University Professors John Knox and Justin Catanoso will be on hand as representatives from more than 190 countries meet over the next two weeks in France to work out a new international agreement on climate change. 

As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, Professor Knox has unique insight into this conference, known as COP21. Professor Knox says for those interested in learning more a good starting point can be found here  in a story on Vox by who provides an explanation of why Paris matters, a list of issues to keep an eye on and links to other sites for further reading. The story is titled, “The Paris climate talks won’t solve global warming. Here’s what they’ll do instead.”
Professor Knox was among the experts interviewed for an exclusive video series by Vikas Shah at Thought Economics, “The Greatest Threat Our Species Has Ever Faced.”
The series, which focuses on “How Climate Change and Environmental Damage Threaten Humanity, and What We Can Do to Protect Our Future,”  also features H.E Anote Tong (President of the Republic of Kiribati), Achim Steiner (Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme UNEP), Professor Brian Schmidt (Nobel Prize Winning Physicist), Professor Robert Bullard (Dean of the Barbara Jordan – Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs, Texas Southern University) and Professor Sir Martin Rees (Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge – Astronomer Royal to the UK). “We discuss the fundamental workings of our climate and environment, the potential impact of climate change and environmental pollution, and how we can change outcomes for the future,” the story says.

As part of this interview, Professor Knox answered the following questions, among others:

“Q: What have been the human implications of climate change?

I began to work on this issue [climate change and the environment] around 7 years ago, when I was doing pro-bono work for the Government of the Maldives.  The Maldives were trying to bring- to the UN- the idea that climate change was not just an environmental disaster, but a human rights disaster as well.  Over that time, I became increasingly familiar with the vast variety of ways that climate change is already beginning to interfere with the enjoyment of human rights to life, health, water, food etc- and how seriously it could affect those rights in the future.

Climate change is happening unevenly; for example, the poles are heating up much faster than other parts of the planet.  In the Arctic regions, indigenous peoples that rely on subsistence hunting  are already experiencing the effects of climate change.  Permafrost is melting, meaning their homes are often collapsing or needing to be re-built.  There are villages in Alaska that are already having to evacuate and move to firmer ground.  For people who depend on a symbiotic relationship with the environment, this is devastating.

As we go forward, those kinds of effects will be felt farther in the middle of the world.  We will have increasingly severe weather events… We’re already seeing examples of this.  The strongest hurricane in history hit the Pacific Coast of Mexico.  Fortunately, it hit in an area where relatively few people live, but it was devastating for people who were there.  The fact that this hurricane didn’t hit more populous areas was just luck, and as more of these extreme weather events happen, we may not be so lucky.  In the Philippines, they’ve had a whole series of devastating hurricanes- around one a year- which has changed the dynamic of their country politically.  They see climate change as not just something that could have devastating effects in the future, but as something that is happening now.

It’s really important to understand that the people who are most affected and devastated by climate change are also those who are most vulnerable for other reasons.  They are often the most marginalised, or who have the fewest resources.  They already have the least ability to protect themselves from man-made and natural disasters.  It’s unfair that these individuals are the least-able to protect themselves but also have had the least contribution to the problem.  The poorest people in the world are not significantly reliant on burning fossil-fuels to make energy.

Framing climate change as a human rights issue helps bring the urgency home.  The people who are most affected by it are the least responsible for it, and the most vulnerable for other reasons.

Q: How can we frame human rights within environmental law?

Nobody thinks human rights perspectives should replace the need for environmental regulations.  No-one thinks the UN Human Rights Council should try to negotiate a climate agreement.  What it can do is provide three kinds of attributes that environmental law and policy need.

First, human rights views make it clearer and easier to understand what the stakes are.  It’s not just technical or economic efficiency… A healthy environment is necessary for us to enjoy a life of human dignity, freedom and equality- and those are the things that human rights laws are there to protect.

Second, human rights norms help to explain how policies should be made and carried out- not just for environmental policies- but certainly including them.  Human rights norms make it clear that the people most affected by policies have rights to information, participation and remedy in those policies.  In the environmental context, that means that human rights law underpins the need for environmental impact statements, transparent and full dissemination of environmental information and the need for people to have their voices heard in the development of environmental policy.

Finally, human rights institutions can provide effective remedies.  Increasingly, at the national, and international level- human rights organisations and courts are hearing environmental cases in the human rights context.  More than 90 countries in the world now have a constitutional right to a healthy environment, for example… That’s built into their fundamental law!  Not all those countries have courts that are effectively implementing those laws, but an awful lot do…  If for whatever reason the environmental regulatory system is not doing its job, it gives people another mechanism to take those people to court, or through the remedy process, as environmental issues can significantly impact their human rights.

Q: What’s the state of environmental democracy around the world?

In many places around the world, being an environmentalist and standing up for the natural environment, is extremely dangerous.  A report by Global Witness in 2014 identified over 900 killings of environmentalists over the past decade, and the numbers are getting worse- we’re now at over 2 killings each week.  We cannot lose sight of the fact that in many parts of the world, it’s far too dangerous to be an environmentalist- this is urgent.

Around the world, environmentalists are at risk of being harassed, disregarded or even treated as an enemy of the state!  People who are questioning or opposing economic development project are not enemies of state or society, they are working for the better angels of our nature.  They want our society and economy to grow in ways that are sustainable in the long-term.”

Professor Knox is an internationally recognized expert on human rights law and international environmental law. In July 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Council appointed him to a three-year mandate as its first Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. In 2015, his role was extended for another three years as special rapporteur.

You can also learn more on his website at and follow him on Twitter @srenvironment

Professor Knox was featured in a interview in the Raleigh News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer written by Professor Catanoso that ran on Sunday, Nov. 29, here regarding the Paris talks. He was also interviewed by the Winston-Salem Journal, WXII and the British Sky World News about the climate talks here.  The story also ran in the Greensboro News and Record here.

Professor Catanoso was also interviewed by WGHP-TV to talk about the UN climate summit as well.