In September of 2022, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that Australia’s failure to protect Torres Strait Islander people against the impacts of climate change violated their human rights. In March of 2023, the United Nations General Assembly, spear-headed by the Republic of Vanuatu, adopted a Resolution to seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on, among other things, the human rights obligations of States in respect of climate change1. These examples suggest that human rights law has the potential to drive actions that achieve climate justice.

Climate change already impinges on fundamental human rights, including rights to health, life, food, water, culture, and self-determination2,3. While these impacts are felt throughout the world, certain geographies—most notably small island states—are disproportionately affected. For the purpose of this special issue, we focus particularly on the intersection of climate change and human rights in Oceania, where long histories of colonisation and extraction coupled with challenging geographic circumstances have resulted in extreme vulnerability to climate impacts. Already, sea-level rise threatens to render low-lying nations such as Kiribati, the Marshall islands, and Tuvalu uninhabitable, violating individual rights and permanently limiting their peoples’ rights to self-determination4. While climate adaptation has the potential to prevent such irreparable damage5, current approaches to adaptation are piecemeal and insufficient to meet global needs, especially of the most vulnerable: least developed countries, small island states, non-self-governing territories, Indigenous peoples, and other marginalised communities6,7. A transformational shift towards more effective and just adaptation is needed to avoid further catastrophic climate impacts5,8.

In this commentary, we build on recent scholarship and legal actions to demonstrate that a right to adaptation already exists as a sine qua non of existing human rights norms, including individual rights and the peoples’ right to self-determination. We argue that these norms oblige States to undertake rights-protective adaptation domestically and—in the case of colonial and/or developed States—internationally. We show that human rights provide clear principles to guide implementation of adaptation that prioritises human dignity and well-being. And we explain how a rights-based approach to adaptation has the potential to achieve a step change in the magnitude, scale, and efficacy of adaptation policy and practice, which is key to advancing climate justice. While our focus is on Oceania—as the region perhaps most immediately and severely threatened by climate change—the principles advanced by this article have broad applicability that can inform the way adaptation can and should be implemented throughout the world.

Individual human rights norms require climate adaptation

An individual right to adaptation can be found in well-established human rights norms, including the right to health, life, food, water, and culture. Every individual holds these rights, is legally entitled to protection against interference with their rights, and is guaranteed an effective remedy if their rights are violated9. Given existing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, these human rights are and will continue to be impinged by climate impacts regardless of the most ambitious mitigation actions6.

Under the primary international human rights treaties, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), ratifying States assume binding legal obligations to uphold, protect, and effectuate the human rights of their citizens. Virtually all States have ratified these conventions. As such, they are obligated to undertake adaptation sufficient to protect all of their citizens against human rights harms that are already occurring and that are foreseeably threatened by climate change10,11. With respect to economic, social, and cultural rights, the principle of progressive realisation acknowledges that not all states have equal capacity and resources and therefore requires States to make maximum efforts towards fulfilling these rights at a rate that is commiserate with available resources and capacity. In any case, because States are obligated to ensure continuous progress towards the full enjoyment of all human rights, adaptation should not only preserve the status quo but facilitate improvement of human rights conditions. States must also ensure that adaptation actions themselves do not cause additional or incidental human right violations, requiring adaptation processes that are transparent, fair, and participatory2,11,12.

A human rights approach to adaptation also has the potential to address the transboundary nature of climate harms. Recent developments in international law suggest that, under the transboundary harm principle, States predominantly responsible for greenhouse gas emissions may be obligated to redress extraterritorial climate-related human rights harms. The prohibition on transboundary harm is a principle of customary international law that prohibits States from harming other States through their domestic conduct. In recent years, human rights bodies including the Inter-American Court on Human Rights and the United Nations Human Rights Council have relied on this principle to hold States responsible for human rights violations outside of their jurisdictions, especially in the case of environmental harm10,13. The application of the transboundary harm principle to address human rights harms is just beginning to emerge, and actual implementation of this principle will require clarification of complex legal questions, including the scope and nature of conduct that may constitute a breach. Nevertheless, the aforementioned developments suggests that a rights-based approach has the potential to promote climate justice by requiring those states most responsible for climate impacts to provide a remedy for resultant human rights harms beyond their borders. Application of human rights law and the transboundary harm principle to address climate harms has the potential to overcome the limitations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)/Paris Agreement, which impose no meaningful obligations on States to remediate harms caused by their contributions to climate change (Box 1).

Similarly, by virtue of their duty to cooperate, all States have a responsibility to move towards the universal realisation of human rights. In particular, developed States have obligations to assist developing States in realising the economic, social, and cultural rights of their citizens2. In the context of climate change, this duty suggests that developed States have a responsibility to assist with rights-protective adaptation.

The peoples’ right to self-determination requires international climate adaptation

A peoples’ right to adaptation can be found in their collective and immutable right to self-determination. The right to self-determination extends to all peoples—which can include the populations of states and territories, as well as groups of individuals who share a common identity, such as Indigenous peoples in settler societies. Self-determinations ensures all peoples' inalienable rights to political independence and self-governance, territorial integrity, and permanent sovereignty over their natural resources14.

Climate change impacts such as flooding, drought, and coastal erosion are degrading marine and terrestrial natural resources, depriving affected peoples of permanent sovereignty over the same4,15. Sea level rise is already compromising territorial integrity, and is predicted to divest entire States, colonised peoples, and Indigenous peoples of their territories, thereby impeding political independence, self-governance, and full expression of sovereignty4,15. While there is much debate about the effect that loss of a habitable territory would have on the sovereignty of an affected state/people, it is clear that a deterritorialized people—even if legally recognised as sovereign entity—would be unable to enjoy full expression of that sovereignty. This is because territory is inextricably linked with core aspects of sovereignty, such as the ability to exercise criminal and civil jurisdiction, the ability to control borders, and the ability to manage and make use of natural resources. Moreover, the ability of a people to be self-governing would necessarily be limited if they are forced to reside within the territory of another sovereign.

The threats that climate change poses to self-determination are immediate for many of the small islands in Oceania. Without swift and large-scale adaptation, the lowest lying island states may be uninhabitable later this century6. Adaptation could prevent such rights violations, but the most threatened largely lack the resources to undertake necessary interventions4,15.

Any violation of a peoples’ right to self-determination is impermissible under international law. In addition to its codification in the joint first articles of the ICCPR and ICESCR, self-determination is broadly recognised as a jus cogens norm, meaning that all States are obligated to uphold the principle, with no exceptions permitted16. These obligations are owed erga omnes: by the entire international community to each member and vice versa15. Thus, it follows that the right to self-determination contains an absolute right to adaptation sufficient to preserve territorial integrity and full sovereignty—regardless of cost or difficulty. Likewise, the self-determination principle instils the entire international community with absolute legal obligations to provide the assistance necessary to achieve the required level of adaptation (Box 2).

A rights-based approach can transform climate adaptation policy

As we have argued, and as legal actions are increasingly demonstrating, a right to adaptation exists as an indispensable element of human rights law. Recognition and application of this right could have a transformational effect on both the efficacy and equity of adaptation practice.

Human rights provide an ethical framework to guide adaptation—one grounded in human dignity, equity, and justice, rather than prevailing economic and ecological values. Moreover, a rights-based approach means that adaptation can no longer be regarded as voluntary and aspirational, as it is under the UNFCCC/Paris Agreement, but is in fact legally binding. In short, existing human rights obligations already require States to undertake adaptation actions.

A human rights-based approach to adaptation could also promote more effective and equitable adaptation by addressing underlying vulnerabilities. The limited adaptive capacity and disproportionate climate vulnerability of developing states and marginalised peoples are not innate characteristics but are instead the result of colonisation, dispossession, and appropriation of resources by the same nations who are primarily responsible for the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere4,8,17,18. Yet these underlying causes of climate vulnerability have been largely overlooked in mainstream approaches to adaptation, which tend to focus on technical responses to physical hazards. This results in incomplete and unfair solutions4,8,17.

Within States, a rights-based approach has the potential to address both underlying vulnerabilities and the impacts of climate change through genuine implementation of the human rights principles of non-discrimination and equality. These principles do not require States to provide the same level of support to all citizens. Instead, because the human rights of marginalised and vulnerable groups are already more compromised, States are obligated to take extra care to ensure their protection2,12. In reality, implementation of these principles has often been poor. The most vulnerable groups often receive lower levels of support from the State, including in the context of climate adaptation2,19,20. Nevertheless, these principles have legal force, which vulnerable groups can draw upon to vindicate their rights. Already, the ever-intensifying threats posed by climate change have spurred vulnerable groups to pursue (and prevail in) legal actions to hold States accountable for providing the required level of adaptation support under human rights law (Box 3).

A human rights approach also has the potential to address injustices and inequities that exist between states. Under the conventional approach to human rights, the State is solely responsible for the individual human rights of its citizens—regardless of the source of the violation. Yet for many of the most vulnerable countries, including throughout Oceania, colonisation and exploitation have left the State without the resources and capacity to fulfil or protect the human rights of its people. Climate change exacerbates and reproduces these inequities. The same colonising States are primarily responsible for the climate crisis, while those States still grappling with the harms of colonialism and extraction are also worst affected by and least able to respond to climate impacts. Though still far from settled, the emerging application of the transboundary harm principle in the human rights context has the potential to promote climate justice by imposing greater obligations on those States that are responsible for both high greenhouse gas emissions and for underlying social vulnerability as a consequence of their political and economic empires.

Finally, the international legal norm of self-determination was originally intended to address historic injustices, and can be applied to do so in the climate change context. The right to self-determination was first codified in international law as a remedy to colonisation21. Though now recognised as a universal human right, it continues to carry special force with respect to decolonising peoples, all of whom continue to grapple with the legacy of colonial violence. This implies that States may have responsibilities to provide adaptation as a remedy for climate vulnerability caused by colonial violence22,23.

To date, implementation of human rights has largely failed to address the historical injustices and inequities that impair full enjoyment of human rights in most of the world18. Nevertheless, human rights law provides a framework capable of doing so, and application of human rights law to the new challenges posed by climate change offers a chance to reevaluate and reform human rights practice in order to achieve outcomes that better align with human rights ideals.

Nevertheless, and as we have demonstrated, it is clear that existing human rights law guarantees all individuals and peoples the right to climate adaptation. With the window of opportunity for effective adaptation rapidly shrinking, it is time for the role of human rights to be acknowledged. Doing so could transform adaptation such that it is comprehensive, effective, and just. Nowhere is this more needed than in the small island states of Oceania.

Reporting summary

Further information on research design is available in the Nature Research Reporting Summary linked to this article.