Could ‘climate justice’ be the rallying cry the world needs?


Could ‘climate justice’ be the rallying cry the world needs?

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Date: 9th May 2013
Type: Feature

Mairi Dupar of CDKN explores how countries could find many positive motivations for climate action, and agreement on a bold international deal. With reporting by Jorge Villanueva, CDKN LAC, from Santiago, Chile

As countries inch towards agreeing a global climate deal in 2015, their pledges to cut emissions are not yet enough to stop dangerous climate change.  Scientists’ warnings about the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and its rate of increase just don’t match the collective political ambition for tackling the problem.

Although many individual leaders are far-sighted in their vision for climate action, there remains a lack of ‘critical mass,’ especially among the big emitting nations. So, what does it take to jolt leaders into making collective commitments that are great enough?

A new initiative aims to promote climate justice as the big idea that could unify a critical mass of leaders and their citizens to deliver a global deal – and a deal that is fair. The Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice (MRFCJ) and World Resources Institute (WRI) have joined forces to “mobilise political will and creative thinking to shape an equitable and ambitious international climate agreement in 2015” (see

They are organising a series of meetings with thought leaders  around the world –  including climate negotiators and current and former government leaders  –  and linking them with people who are experiencing climate impacts and spearheading solutions. They hope that these leaders will rally around climate justice as an unassailable rationale for ambitious action at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks.

CDKN is one of many organisations and individuals that are backing this Climate Justice Dialogue. CDKN is sponsoring several meetings in the developing South and research on what has worked, and what hasn’t, for other multilateral agreements.

Why the world needs a new narrative

Until now, the international politics of climate change have been embroiled in a game of ‘who will move first?’ or ‘I will if you will.’ Climate action is falsely viewed as a dampener on economic growth and on countries’ international competitiveness.

Now the terms of the debate are shifting. Climate impacts once seemed like a far-off prospect, removed from the short term pressure for votes and quick economic gains based on fossil fuel use. Today, negative climate change impacts are before us. Rising sea levels are eroding coasts and overwhelming small, low lying islands. All world regions are experiencing a greater number of extreme weather events – whether it is heavy rainfall, high temperature, storms or drought. Climate impacts are affecting the world’s poorest citizens the most deeply, as they lack the resources to bounce back after climate-inflicted shocks.

An overwhelming moral case is building for action to help climate-vulnerable peoples, even more so, because they have done the least to cause climate change. Will the world’s government and business leaders, and their voters, embrace action for climate justice?

The moral case for action

Global recognition of human rights  has grown rapidly since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948. Some 70 human rights treaties have spun off from the Universal Declaration, including many to formalise the rights of disadvantaged and marginalised peoples . This evolved sensibility on rights over the past six decades, including what makes for just relationships among peoples and nations, sets the broad context for a debate about climate justice emerging on the world stage now.

Consider that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes individuals’ right to the pursuit of life and livelihood and "realisation of economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for [their] dignity and free development of [their] personality". It establishes the responsibility of the international community to promote and observe these rights.

Climate change impacts, caused by humankind’s release of historically unprecedented levels of greenhouse gases, threaten to cause the loss of culture, tradition, development and even self-determination of entire societies. A profound injustice  is unfolding today on a grand scale.

There cannot be a ‘freedom to pollute’ if it causes cataclysmic climate change, which in turn removes others’ basic  freedoms. This is especially so in a world where we have the technological know-how to separate development from climate pollution. The just course is for nations to pursue development with low greenhouse gas emissions, and so preserve the rights to development, self determination and  livelihood of themselves and others.

The Climate Justice Dialogue

In the shadow of growing climate injustice, it is fitting that the former UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, and former Irish President Mary Robinson should be the driving force behind a new initiative to promote climate justice, and an ambitious, equitable outcome in world climate talks.  President Robinson has called for a ‘human-centred dialogue’ to bring appropriate levels of compassion and commitment to the climate talks.

The Climate Justice Dialogue, launched in late 2012 by the MRFCJ and WRI, aims to generate a highest common denominator approach to tackling climate change. Andrew Steer, President of World Resources Institute, put it this way: “equity cannot be about sharing failure.”

The Dialogue places several key issues on the table:

  • How can equity and justice be defined when some countries are far more developed than others thanks to an industrial revolution that was powered by fossil fuels?
  • If human society can only afford to emit relatively few greenhouse gas emissions from now on, in order to avert dangerous climate change, how can the remaining global ‘carbon allowance’ (or ‘carbon budget’) be fairly apportioned among countries?
  • How can equity and justice be defined when the finance and technical know-how needed to spur the low carbon revolution is unevenly distributed?
  • What is the pathway to a fair outcome that  preserves and enhances the basic rights of the world’s peoples to development  - given this uneven  playing field?

The organisers intend to explore these questions through meetings in China, South Asia, the United States, Europe, Africa  and Latin America in the run-up to the 2015 deadline to agree a global climate deal.

The Climate Justice Dialogue comes to Latin America

The workshop held in Santiago, Chile in early April was co-hosted by the Government of Chile, Energeia, and the University of Chile. It gathered climate negotiators and thought leaders from the Association of Independent Latin American and Caribbean States (AILAC), including  Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Perú, Guatemala, and Panamá, plus Mexico and the Dominican Republic.  Climate Justice have released a film Highlights from the Climate Justice Dialogue in Latin America, in collaboration with CDKN.

One of the meeting’s strongest themes was Latin American countries’ self-interest in embracing low-carbon, climate-resilient development. As described by Yamide Dagnet of WRI and Tara Shine of MRFCJ in their blog, Reflections on Climate Justice from Santiago, Chile, participants recognise the multiple co-benefits of taking strong climate action at home – such as benefits to health and quality of life. They also recognise the competitive positioning they could achieve by embracing low carbon, climate resilient paths early, rather than lagging behind.

Mónica Araya, a climate negotiator from Costa Rica, called for a sea change in Latin American thinking, towards viewing climate resilience and low carbon development as immensely empowering choices – not sacrifices (see her related blog, A new 'why' for climate action).  She frames the call for equity as a call for the equal opportunity to adopt and benefit from low carbon, climate resilient development (and it does not depend wholly on foreign leaders but is a matter of national choice, too).

The workshop also explored how an equitable global deal would look in practice. Participants agreed that a sufficiently ambitious and equitable deal would be built on the following pillars: bold emissions cuts by wealthy countries; better mechanisms for delivering funding and technologies to developing nations; and transparency as the bedrock of international cooperation and mutual action.

In summary, this Latin American Climate Justice Dialogue had two intertwined threads.  Leaders are articulating nations’ deep self-interest in embracing a low carbon, climate resilient development transition. They are also expressing a deep-seated conviction in the need for climate justice based on a principle of deeper cuts by the world’s larger emitters: a reiteration of the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibility and Respective Capabilities found in the UN Framework Convention itself. Perhaps we can hope that these two very positive motivations – one for the national good, one for the greater common good – will build and build in the year ahead, providing a force for  transformational change within the UNFCCC and beyond.

History is littered with examples of how public and political opinion reached ‘tipping points’ on defining moral issues of their day, from slavery, to women’s rights, to decolonisation, to human rights, ushering in milestone agreements and dragging implementation behind. The Climate Justice Dialogue represents an effort to accelerate the tipping point on climate commitment and action.

Read about seeking climate justice in the courts in Mairi's related blog: Climate change litigation - a rising tide?

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