How do we tackle the injustices of climate change?

Illustration: Bipblob Chakroborty

Last week, I wrote about the rather esoteric issue of loss and damage from human-induced climate change and how this issue has been discussed under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) over the years, and what might be the possible outcomes at the upcoming 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) to be held in November in Glasgow, Scotland under the presidency of the British government.

One of the problems with the process of the official negotiations between governments of nearly 200 countries is that the language of the negotiations is frequently arcane and unintelligible to the general public. What are the broader issues related to this that go beyond the narrowly defined loss and damage language used in the UNFCCC? Even more importantly, what can non-state actors do to tackle these problems without waiting for governments to act?

The first point to make is that we are talking about how human-induced climate change is affecting, and will affect, some of the poorest people and communities in some of the poorest countries in the world. The best way to illustrate this is to look at how the global Covid-19 pandemic has been affecting communities around the world over the last year. In even the richest countries, the virus targeted and hit the most vulnerable people first and hardest. In addition to the elderly and vulnerable people, it also predominantly hit people of colour, immigrants, slum dwellers in the cities and indigenous people in the rural areas. This unequal impact of Covid-19 will be, and is being, replicated in even larger numbers by the adverse impacts of climate change.

This makes it a fundamental issue of human rights and tackling injustice in every country across the globe. Thus, the protests around Black Lives Matter in the United States and other protests in countries around the world over the past year are also part of the same struggle against injustice. In a very real sense, the struggle against injustice taking place in domestic contexts is, at the same time, linked to the same struggle against injustice at the global level; and climate change is a significant overarching issue to unite these struggles across the world.

However, we need to look at the ways in which this is being done already, as well as how to accelerate the pace of these actions by non-state actors.

The first group of people who deserve mention are the school children around the world who have been skipping school every Friday under the global banner of Fridays for Future. Initiated by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, this has brought together students from all parts of the world in solidarity to call for treating the climate change issue like the global emergency that it undoubtedly is. The Fridays for Future movement has already made a shift to include areas and people that are most vulnerable, and are building bridges across the global North and global South. These actions by school students has also been taken up by youth groups in every country, who are becoming active in tackling climate change. The challenge is now to link the groups in the global North with the global South. A good recent example is the launch of the Global Youth Adaptation Network of youth groups around the world.

A similar movement has been initiated, but needs to become much bigger, under the Locally Led Adaptation Action started under the Global Commission on Adaptation (GCA). Under this, grassroots groups from slums in all the major cities around the world, together with rural groups of farmers, fishers and herders, as well as indigenous populations, have been sharing their stories with each other and developing into a truly global movement that links the most vulnerable communities with similar groups in other countries on a global platform. While much progress has indeed been made already, these bottom-up efforts need a great deal more support from the top-down decision-makers in every country, as well as at the global level.

Another important aspect is global philanthropic and corporate social responsibility (CSR) related funding. It is now high time for all the major philanthropic foundations as well as major companies’ CSR fund managers to direct their resources to support the most vulnerable communities around the world, who are already suffering from the adverse impacts of climate change. For the companies that are part of the problem, such as fossil fuel companies, this is well beyond CSR only and more about providing compensation to the victims of their pollution.

Fortunately, a number of court cases are taking place in different national jurisdictions, where these polluting companies are finally being asked for compensation by their victims. This application of the “Polluters Pay” principle would go a long way in tackling the injustices of climate change. This is now in the domain of public interest lawyers around the world.

Another major, and very active constituency, are civil society groups, such as the Climate Action Network (CAN), as well as major international NGOs such as Oxfam, Greenpeace, Action Aid, CARE and many others, as well as the activists of Extinction Rebellion. These civil society organisations and activists can play major roles, both in terms of advocacy towards their own leaders in richer countries, as well as in a practical sense by linking up more closely with vulnerable communities in the global South.

Another very important group of leaders that can (and indeed are already) play a role are the religious leaders of major religions. In every religion, the need to both respect the environment and not harm others is enshrined in religious doctrine, and hence tackling both injustice as well as climate change is a moral issue for all religions. The Pope has already issued an encyclical on climate change and Muslim leaders have made similar statements. The Dalai Lama has also added his voice to the issue.

The final group who should be highlighted are parliamentarians from across the world who actually represent many of the most vulnerable communities in their respective constituencies, and have been playing quite an active role at both the national as well as global levels. A recent development has been the initiative by the Parliamentarians Group of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) to form a CVF Parliamentarians group to tackle climate change in their respective countries, with a focus on supporting locally led adaptation.

While there are many such initiatives at national and local levels around the world, and I have only cited a few of them, the challenge now is two fold—namely how to scale up these activities by many hundreds and even thousands of times, and secondly, how to effectively link up these largely bottom-up efforts with the more formal top-down governance structures that currently make all the decisions.

In the context of the UNFCCC, it seems to me that the Race to Resilience Initiative by the COP25 and COP26 Climate Champions for non-state actors is a good umbrella to bring these different voices together at COP26. At the same time, the Human Rights Rapporteur for climate change can also play a significant role in supporting the most vulnerable communities in their struggle to tackle climate change impacts.

Finally, it is important to highlight the role of the media, both at national levels in each and every country, as well as globally by the likes of CNN, BBC, Deutsche Welle, Al Jazeera etc. These media outlets are the way to reach the vast majority of the world’s citizens and link them up with the global struggle against climate change.

Bangladesh, in its capacity as leader of the CVF countries, can also play a big role in engaging with and mobilising global public opinion, using all the Bangladesh embassies and High Commissions in different countries. The citizens of developed countries such as in the US, UK, Japan and in Europe, can be good potential allies for vulnerable countries in advocacy around tackling the huge global injustice that the climate change problem represents.

Originally this article was published on February 17, 2021 at Daily Star. The author Prof. Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).