House washed away.Forty-five million people go hungry or undernourished because of droughts and disasters wrought by climate change, according to a recent report by the Global Humanitarian Forum. Climate change leads to 300,000 deaths a year, the organization concludes, a toll that will reach 500,000 by 2030. Many of those who starve will be children. Of course, those numbers don’t begin to convey the human suffering that lies behind them. And so on and so forth.

Also, your family’s ski vacations could be completely ruined by climate change. If your taste leans tropical, your favorite beachside resort—the one with the awesome mojitos and coconut shrimp—could also be imperiled by rising sea levels and fiercer storms caused by climate change.

So which is more likely to prompt you to do something? What’s going to prompt the average American, or the average citizen in the developed world, to demand action?

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Ski resorts or starving third-world babies—it’s a blunt and maybe crude way to put the question, but there’s a fundamental tension between these poles for how we tell the story of climate change. Whether they make their decision consciously or not, anyone who must communicate about climate—activists, politicians, journalists, anyone directly affected—must choose whether to appeal to altruism or to self interest.

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I’ve been thinking about this after spending last Thursday and Friday at the Three Degrees conference on human rights and climate change, hosted by the University of Washington School of Law. If there was a central message from the diverse group of scholars, humanitarian aid workers, scientists and lawyers who spoke there, it was that climate change needs to be framed as a human rights problem.  The climate crisis is too big, the argument goes, to be viewed as a “nature” problem typecast as something for scientists and treehuggers to worry about. And it’s too morally significant to be a mere political issue.

Three Degrees speakers were squarely in the appeal-to-altruism camp. A panel of aid workers spoke of how climate change functions as a “stress multiplier,” worsening almost every problem they deal with. It heightens food and water insecurity, creates refugees, ramps up the potential for violent conflict, exacerbates tropical diseases, and leads to more disasters that demand urgent responses.

There was a lot of talk about future generations, who will bear the cost of our ecological behavior. I briefly mentioned Carolyn Raffensperger’s work to create formal guardians for future generations in the legal system, but it’s a fascinating idea that deserves real attention. (See for more.) Several speakers argued this expands the appeal of a human rights approach to climate, as those who have trouble relating to coastal Bangladeshis or Somalis are more motivated to help their own grandchildren.

But does this approach accomplish anything? We already understand third-world health as a moral issue, but that hasn’t stopped millions of people from dying of preventable diseases, John Knox, a senior advisor to the Center of International Environmental Law and a Wake Forest University law professor, pointed out.

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“If we’re not getting worked up about that, why are we going to care about the grandchildren of those same people,” he said on a panel on Friday. He went on to clarify: “I believe moral arguments have some purchase, otherwise I wouldn’t be working in human rights.”

The conference didn’t include a lot of talk about the strategic implications of telling the climate story as a human rights story, so here’s a stab at some:

What’s gained

  • New supporters. Making climate a human rights issue could enlist conscientious folks who aren’t environmentally minded. Those turned off by the culture-wars baggage of traditional environmentalism might be willing to look at the issue anew.
  • Legal remedies: Using the muscle of the courts, including criminal courts, against greenhouse gas-causing emissions could be the biggest practical strength of a human rights approach. The Kivalina case, a suit against fossil fuel companies by a coastal Alaskan village under threat from climate change-driven erosion, serves as a bellwether to the potential of this approach.
  • International clout: Human rights values have older and deeper roots at institutions like the United Nations. One speaker, Andrew Mack of the Human Security Report Project at Simon Frasier University, said the Nairobi-based UN Environmental Programme is somewhat marginalized from the halls of diplomatic power in Geneva and elsewhere.
  • The big picture. The late, great TV show Arrested Development had a brilliant gag with TV newscaster John Beard, who ended every teaser by promising to reveal “what that means for your weekend.” As in, “We’ve obtained photographs that officials call definite proof of WMDs in Iraq. What that means for your weekend at 10:00.” Not every story affects your weekend. Ask people to care about more than their immediate concerns and long-term plans become an easier sell.

What’s not gained

  • What new supporters? Human rights doesn’t carry an obvious new constituency. Idealistic leftie-types are already on board the climate movement. Whether human rights messaging plays with religious conservatives is a bigger question. Plenty of religious groups do humanitarian work, though secular “rights” language may not resonate with them.
  • Simplification. The approach risks caricaturizing people into villains and victims—first-world polluters tromping on the third-world’s downtrodden. It’s not that simple.
  • Legal paralysis. Anyone want to rave about the judicial system’s clarity and efficiency in addressing complex systemic problems? Didn’t think so.

Somewhere there’s a high school debate student calling me out for pitching a false dichotomy. Fair enough. You don’t have to choose only appeals to altruism or only appeals to self interest. And “selfish” reasons aren’t all as trivial as vacations. The first ways most Americans feel the effects of climate change may well include rising grocery prices because of droughts, rising home insurance rates because of increasingly severe and unpredictable weather, and other genuine day-to-day living concerns.

Still, framing a climate plan as a provider of, say, “America’s Clean Energy and Security” makes one sort of appeal. As a body of relief workers, legal scholars, wonks, and activists argued last week, it’s not the only method available — and it may not be enough to spur the world to action.