The Green New Deal: On Systemic Justice and the Limits of a Human Rights Framework

by | Oct 14, 2019

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About Kayum Ahmed

Kayum Ahmed is Division Director at the Open Society Foundations in New York where he leads the Public Health Program’s global work on access to medicines and innovation. He also teaches a class on socioeconomic rights as an adjunct faculty member at Columbia Law School.


Kayum Ahmed “The Green New Deal: On Systemic Justice and the Limits of a Human Rights Framework” (OxHRH Blog, 2019) <> [Date of Access]




The Green New Deal is a United States (U.S.) Congress resolution that proposes a comprehensive plan to address climate change. At the same time, the resolution connects the dots between the climate crisis and the overlapping injustices brought about by economic inequality and racism. While the Green New Deal reads like a human rights declaration in that it mentions socio-economic rights like access to clean air, water, and healthy food, as well as civil and political rights such as the promotion of justice for communities of color and people living with disabilities, the resolution never once mentions “human rights.”

The absence of human rights language in the Green New Deal is however not surprising given that international agreements on climate change similarly fail to incorporate rights discourses. While the United Nations (U.N.) has worked on global warming since the adoption of the Convention on Climate Change in 1992, human rights is never mentioned in any of the founding climate change documents including the Kyoto Protocol. In the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, a fleeting reference to human rights is included in the preamble despite a comprehensive submission by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Because human rights tends to value the environment only in so far as the destruction of natural resources limits humans from claiming their rights, the anthropocentricism inherent in rights frameworks impedes its capacity to fully consider the impact of climate change on non-human nature. By continuing to center the human in human rights, as well as rely heavily on legalistic conventions and declarations to frame responses to climate change, the human rights approach to climate justice appears fragmented and outdated.

The Green New Deal on the other hand, which draws on President Roosevelt’s idea of a New Deal—a socio-economic plan developed in 1933 as a response to the Great Depression—establishes a framework that connects environmental, economic and social injustices. This systemic approach to injustice enables the Green New Deal to adopt as one of its goals, the promotion of “justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities…”

At the same time, the Green New Deal is not entirely immune from an anthropocentric human rights approach. But its ability to draw connections between climate, economic and social injustice suggests that perhaps it is time to consider new ways of thinking about oppression that moves away from the inherent limitations embedded in human rights, toward the idea of systemic justice. As an emergent idea, systemic justice could be constructed as a framework that recognizes the multiplying effects of structural and systemic injustices connected to climate change, economic inequality and the oppression of marginalized groups.

Furthermore, since human rights are constrained by declarationist frameworks that limit its ability to consider the impact of slavery and colonialism, a systemic justice framework would enable reparations and wealth redistribution by connecting historic injustices to the continued structural oppression of marginalized groups. In the context of catastrophic climate change, systemic justice would also expressly recognize the inherent value of non-human nature without being deferential to human existence.

The shift toward systemic justice therefore reflects a decolonial approach in that the proposed framework seeks to delink from the epistemic architecture that shapes human rights discourses. This framework could serve as a lens through which oppression is more holistically considered by taking account of all of its overlapping dimensions, thereby supporting new ways to resist and challenge power.

This proposal to replace human rights with a systemic justice framework should not only be seen as a provocation—it is a call to reconsider the effectiveness of a human rights approach in the context of an imminent climate crisis. Furthermore, by recognizing climate change as a human-made disaster intertwined with economic and social oppression, systemic justice may offer a framework that not only assists in mitigating future injustices, but also works toward undoing the erasure of historic subjugation that human rights discourses sometimes enable.


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