BERKELEY — Two UC Berkeley law students are trying to make sure human rights do not get swamped as the planet's climate changes.

Caitrin McKiernan and Zoe Loftus-Farren, both second-year students at Boalt Hall, will travel next week to United Nations-led climate talks in Copenhagen to present recommendations on preserving the rights of those displaced by global warming.

The women are suggesting that world leaders adopt a "do no harm" approach that would protect both those displaced by rising oceans and other planetary changes and those affected by an influx of refugees.

"We want any policy to relocate people to consider access to food and water," McKiernan said. "And if they're relocated to another country, what about the people already in that country?"

In Denmark, the students will rub shoulders with world leaders, including the former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, who agreed to let the pair speak at an event she will host. Robinson, also a former U.N. human-rights commissioner, is a friend of Alice Miller, a UC Berkeley law lecturer.

"The reason we were able to do that is because we're at Berkeley, quite frankly," said Laurel Fletcher, a Berkeley law professor who directs the school's International Human Rights Law Clinic. "We're able to leverage our academic capital."

The world, the students said, faces unprecedented human-rights issues as oceans inundate islands and low-lying countries and as rising temperatures kill off crops. The pair hopes to stimulate discussions among nations about protecting the most vulnerable people.


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"We want to bring as many people into this process as possible," Loftus-Farren said.

Those discussions need to happen soon, said David Battisti, a climate scientist at the University of Washington. Farmers in the Andes already are being devastated by a decline in runoff water, he said, and hundreds of millions of people likely will need to flee rising waters in places such as low-lying Bangladesh in the next 20 or 30 years.

"These are places where these changes are going to play out really quickly," Battisti said, adding that human rights will be tested most in the poorest nations. "You'll see a major change by midcentury."

Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Reach him at 510-208-6488.