Psychology at the UN

Does climate change compromise fundamental human rights?

In the face of global climate change, the human rights of safety, security and dignity are at stake for many vulnerable populations.

By Neal S. Rubin, PhD, ABPP


Last fall, the devastating effects of Superstorm Sandy on the east coast of the United States dominated our national consciousness. As we experienced family, friends, neighbors and colleagues adjusting to “life after Sandy,” a question emerged leading to the title of this column. From Manhattan and Staten Island in New York City to small island nations around the globe, we wondered what the effects of climate change have been for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and other vulnerable locales. Since our consultations at the United Nations (U.N.) typically involve questions of human rights, we wanted to explore the effects of climate change in the context of the basic human rights imperatives of safety, security, dignity and freedom to live one’s life in a chosen cultural and economic tradition. We asked ourselves, “Has climate change affected human behavior, altering how people live their lives and if so, have the fundamental human rights of these populations been compromised?” If this is the case, governments and institutions dedicated to protecting vulnerable populations may be charged with addressing climate change as a violation of human rights.

Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (U.N., 1948) in Article 3 states: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”, and in Article 22: “Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to … the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and free development of his personality.” The member states of the United Nations have acknowledged that as part of their solemn oath to protect fundamental human rights, that everyone has the right to live free, safe and secure lives. Moreover, a component of the freedoms associated with human dignity involves the integrity of economic, social and cultural organizations that engender the full development of the person. From a 21st century perspective, then, how might we interpret the intent of the Universal Declaration with respect to reports regarding how climate change is affecting human security and social organizations?

Climate Change and Small Island Nations

In speaking to the General Assembly on September 29, 2008, Ahmed Khaleel of the Maldives, chair of the delegation of Small Island Developing States (SIDS), stated that the very existence of his nation was threatened by climate change. He asserted that global warming was not only a challenge to development, but also posed challenges to an array of human rights and security issues. He outlined an inverse relationship in which island states suffer the most from the consequences of climate change but contribute the least to climate change as measured by their relative global energy and water consumption, by their greenhouse emissions levels and by their carbon footprint (U.N., 2008a).

Earlier in February 2008, representatives of SIDS testified before the General Assembly that they were already experiencing sea level rise, increasingly severe hurricanes, extreme weather events, drought, coral bleaching and declining fish stocks (U.N., 2008b). Angus Friday of Grenada reported that for over 20 years, small island states had been emphasizing that coastal zones were rapidly eroding and hurricanes were increasing in their ferocity and destructiveness. During that session of the General Assembly, over 40 speakers emphasized looking beyond climatic and scientific consequences and recommended a focus on the human toll of climate change (U.N., 2008b). How is the way of life, the quality of family relationships, the organization of communities and societies affected by climate change? Here are some possible scenarios:

  • What of the fisherman who would lose his livelihood as increasing ocean temperatures destroy coral reefs, decimate local fish stocks and destroy the eco-structure and aquatic food chain?
  • What of the farmer unable to feed his family as a rise in drought and soil erosion causes an alarming decline in food production?
  • What of the bonds of family, community and perhaps nations that could be broken as storms become more intense and frequent, as sea levels rise and as piracy proliferates? Could people lose their homes and communities, be forced to eco-migrate and over time, perhaps even lose their island nations as they knew them (U.N., 2008a; Jasparro & Taylor, 2008)?

Two years later in the fall 2010 at a General Assembly meeting, Spencer, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, stated, “It is unquestionable that our actions alone cannot save us. The global community must act” (U.N. News Centre, 2010). Then, in February 2013, of this year deBrum, a minister from the Marshall Islands, testified before the U.N. Security Council regarding the risk to the existence of his country. He described the severe flooding resulting from rising tides that led to water rationing because the drinking water was contaminated by flooding salt water. Referring to their water supply, he stated, “It became unsuitable for human consumption, and dangerous to our staple food and citrus” (U.N., 2013). He emphasized that the threat to existence was not in the future but was already happening.

Superstorm Sandy

It is not only island nations that are being impacted by climate change. In the eastern United States in October 2012, the storm surge from Superstorm Sandy was 11 feet high at the tip of Manhattan Island in New York City. Huge pumps in the subway system pushed out 18 million gallons per day but could not keep pace with the rising water. It cost $5 billion to repair the subway system. Seventeen deaths were reported on Staten Island (a brief ferry ride from Manhattan); there were devastating fires in Brooklyn (connected to Manhattan by the Brooklyn Bridge); and downtown Hoboken, N.J. (overlooking Manhattan and the Hudson River) flooded. New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg proposed flood barriers that will cost between $10 and $20 billion. It is predicted by the year 2100, that the sea may rise by 5 feet in the mid-Atlantic region, not including the expected effects of the increase in the number and intensity of storms (Fischetti, 2013).

Promoting Behavior Change and Protecting Human Rights

Psychologists have studied methods to engender behavior change in relation to the factors that contribute to global warming and that compromise the human rights of citizens. Yet, psychological research, principles and interventions may be underappreciated for their contributions to limiting climate change. Until recently, what has been missing from the climate change debate has been how psychological strategies might motivate changes in human behaviors, which contribute to global warming (Swim et al., 2011).

Psychologists at the U.N. have begun to assert leadership for the inclusion of psychologically sophisticated language into U.N. policy statements, accords, resolutions and other documents that advocate for limiting climate change. They do this by identifying psychological research, education models and intervention strategies intended to change the behavior of governments, communities/clans/tribes, households and individuals (Swim et al., 2011). Specifically, psychology nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as the APA, International Council of Psychologists (ICP), International Association of Applied Psychology (IAAP) and Society for the Study of Psychological Issues (SPSSI) as well as individual psychologists who are employed by the U.N. or its affiliates (e.g., UNICEF), participate in UN-sponsored activities and conferences addressing climate change, and they broaden discussions to include the psychology of changing human behaviors. For instance, Susan Nolan, an APA NGO representative serving with other representatives on the NGO Committee on Sustainable Development has been active in raising awareness among U.N. staff, civil society and other NGOs about psychology’s contributions to addressing behavior which may limit climate change (Nolan, 2009).

Psychology organizations such as the APA also have a role to play in limiting global climate change. Collectively, APA’s leadership, journals, divisions, NGO representatives at the U.N. and general membership have acted to limit global climate change. For instance, APA’s Resolution on Affirming Psychologists’ Role in Addressing Global Climate Change (n.d.) supports psychologists’ involvement in research, education and interventions that (1) improve the understanding of the effects of global climate change and (2) contribute to the adaptation initiatives that pair human behaviors and environmental consequences. Additionally, in 2011, the American Psychologist (Psychology, 2011) featured a special issue on addressing global climate change which served as an update of APA’s Task Force on the Interface between Psychology and Global Climate Change (2009).

A review of the special issue of the American Psychologist and other psychology literature reveals a growing body of psychology-related and interdisciplinary research about climate change. In order to effect change, the literature suggests targeting at the levels of government policy, community initiatives/programs and household/individual activities, using culturally sensitive consultation and intervention strategies. Swim et al. (2011) assert psychology’s roles in limiting climate change: (1) describe and explain the human causes of climate change; (2) describe and explain the human consequences; and (3) articulate how people’s experiences with changing climatic conditions might impact their change in behavior if their experiences are direct (i.e., displaced by Superstorm Sandy) or indirect (i.e., watch news reports about severe droughts on other continents).


Overall then, to our question regarding whether climate change compromises the fundamental human rights of people residing in vulnerable locales, we answer “yes.” It impinges on the rights of safety, security and the inherent dignity for the freedom to pursue one’s way of life. Through research and advocacy, the discipline of psychology is in the process of formulating intervention strategies for solutions for global climate change and in the process, psychology is supporting human rights.

As we look forward as a profession, psychologists might consider becoming conversant with research concepts and language used by other disciplines that address limiting climate change. In doing so, interdisciplinary consultation and collaboration will extend the collective efforts of all disciplines to limit climate change through research, education and culturally sensitive interventions, especially regarding human behavior and personal choice.


American Psychological Association. (n.d.). APA resolution on affirming psychologists’ role in addressing global climate change.

American Psychological Association. (2009). APA task force on the interface between psychology and global climate change. Psychology and global climate change: Addressing a multifaceted phenomenon and set of challenges. (PDF, 10.9MB)

Fischetti, M. (2013). Sea level could rise 5 feet in New York City by 2100. Scientific American.

Jasparro, C., & Taylor, J. (2008). Climate change and regional vulnerability to transnational security threats in Southeast Asia. Geopolitics, 13, 232-256.

Nolan, S. A. (2009). A role for psychology in the shadow of the UN conference on climate change. APA Psychology International.

Psychology and global climate change. (2011). [Special Issue]. American Psychologist, 66(4).

Swim, J. K., et al. (2011). Psychology's contributions to understanding and addressing global climate change. American Psychologist, 66(4), 241-250.

United Nations. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New York, NY: UN Department of Public Information.

United Nations. (2008A). General Assembly 63rd General Debate.

United Nations. (2008B). General Assembly 62nd General Debate.

United Nations. (2013). Press conference on the impact of climate change. New York, NY: UN Department of Public Information. 

UN News Centre. (2010). At UN, small island nations press for urgent action on climate change financing.  

About the Co-Authors

Juneau Gary, PsyD, (APA main representative to DPI) is a professor in the Department of Counselor Education at Kean University in New Jersey. Neal S. Rubin, PhD, ABPP, (APA representative to DPI) is a professor at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology of Argosy University in Chicago. Both are APA NGO representatives to the United Nations Department of Public Information and are co-editors of this column.