Advancing corporate climate action using a human rights‒based approach
Written by Stacey King, MBA ’20
As we encounter more severe and destructive climate disasters globally, more people, including activists, politicians, and scientists, are calling for business to play a greater role in the climate crisis. The consequences of climate change may be more dire than previously thought. If emissions continue at today’s rates, global temperatures could rise by 5°C by 2100. At these temperatures, sea levels could rise high enough to cover over 1.79 million km2 of land. This threatens homes, food sources, and entire cities. From the business perspective, these effects put supply chains, employees, customers, and physical assets at risk. Accordingly, companies have a business imperative to raise their ambition in mitigating the worst impacts of climate change.
Approaching the climate crisis from a human rights‒based lens is an emerging method to more effectively encourage change. Generally, human rights and climate action operate in silos in large organizations. A more collaborative relationship between these two functions could help firms identify their obligations to the climate crisis, mitigate the risks of climate change to their businesses by building climate resilience, and drive the business case for action within and outside of their organizations.
Human rights encompass a broad range of freedoms and entitlements. One human right that climate change threatens is an adequate standard of living. Climate change has created thousands of climate refugees: people that have been displaced because of a major weather event. Some climate refugees are displaced because of a particular occurrence, such as the citizens of Puerto Rico impacted by Hurricane Maria. Other populations face long term risks because of factors such as rising sea levels and desertification. Human rights related to jobs, natural resources, mobility, health, and livelihoods are threatened by climate change as well.
There are actions that companies can take now to embark upon a rights-based approach to climate change. They can begin by understanding where human rights fall in their value chain, focusing particularly on their operations located in areas with high climate risk and weak protections of human rights. People in these places are the most vulnerable and acutely affected by climate change even though they have contributed the least to its causes. To help identify these responsibilities, businesses can reference the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. This framework requires that businesses:
a) Avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities, and address such impacts when they occur, and
b) Seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.
Using the Guiding Principles, firms can then create and adopt policies outlining their commitments to climate change and human rights. Additionally, they can provide more disclosure of the financial risks associated with human rights and climate change to stakeholders.
I was motivated to write about this topic because of my own personal experiences with climate change. I was trapped during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 in Houston. My first experience with campus closures because of wildfire smoke and power outages was here at the Haas School of Business, where I am currently pursuing my MBA. These experiences always make me wonder what the future will look like. Will we always have to wear masks outside? Will all coastal cities disappear underwater? While building climate resilience is important, significantly reducing the causes of climate change is even more urgent. I believe that framing climate change as a threat to human rights is an effective way to do that.
Stacey King, MBA Candidate Class of 2020
Prior to Haas, Stacey worked in manufacturing and supply chain in the energy sector. She is passionate about combining design thinking principles with emerging technologies to create more inclusive products that expand the benefits of tech to a more diverse population.