“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” — Martin Luther King Jr’s take on injustice in 1963, could very well be about the agenda of COP26 climate summit that opened in Glasgow, the United Kingdom, on November 1.
From the injustice of climate impacts on the poorer nations who were never responsible for the climate crisis, the injustice of lack of climate action by the rich countries to reduce emissions, and, most of all, the injustice of their refusal to take responsibility or pay costs for loss and damages caused by their historical emissions, overshadows what is dubbed as the ‘last-chance’ climate conference.
Now everyone from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres inside the plenary halls of the COP26, to the hundreds of youth and people of colour protesting outside the conference venue in Glasgow are demanding not only climate action, but climate justice. Even Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav “vowed to fight for climate justice at COP26.”
The truth is, attributing causes of Climate Change to ‘human activities’ may well be technically accurate, but it also obfuscates historical inequities, and shifts blame and the greatest costs of mitigation to those with the least political power, thereby creating, and perpetuating, environmental injustices.
The demand for climate justice comes from the fact that developing countries are responsible for 92 percent of the excess emissions that pushed the planet beyond a safe atmospheric CO2 concentration of 350 parts per million. Asia (excluding Japan), Africa, Latin America, and West Asia (excluding Israel) are responsible for just 8 percent.
“That is the greatest injustice of climate change,” says Mary Robinson, Adjunct Professor of Climate Justice at Trinity College Dublin, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and former President of Ireland. “That those who bear the least responsibility for Climate Change are the ones who will suffer the most.”
However climate justice is not about the inequality between countries but also within them. The world's richest 1 percent emit more than twice that of the poorest 50 percent, according to a study by Oxfam. In 2015, around half the emissions of the richest 10 percent — people with net income over $38,000 — are linked to citizens in the US and the EU, and around a fifth with citizens of China and India. Over a third of the emissions of the richest one percent — people with a net income over $109,000 — are linked to citizens in the US, with the next biggest contributions from West Asia and China.
Then there is the injustice of inter-generational impacts of Climate Change. According to the World Bank, by the time teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and her generation are in their late 20s, Climate Change could force an additional 100 million people into extreme poverty. A report for the UNFCCC revealed that even if all CO2 emissions were stopped today, most of the current effects of Climate Change would persist for centuries.
Therefore it is vital for climate justice to pursue a pathway to zero carbon emissions by 2050 to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, and to minimise the adverse impacts of Climate Change on people, and their human rights.
But can such a pathway be achieved without undermining human rights, and restricting the right to development. For that we will have to revisit the current approach to address Climate Change that places GDP growth, not ecology, nor climate, and certainly not justice, at the heart of the international and national policy agenda.
Ultimately, climate justice means that while all countries should participate in the drastic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the industrialised nations, which historically and currently are most responsible for global warming, should lead this transformation. It also means that World Bank, World Trade Organization, and other multilateral agencies should halt their funding, and promotion of fossil fuel-based globalisation, and instead foster the transformation to sustainable and equitable development based on clean energy technologies.
Now more than ever, to achieve climate justice we have to ensure that the voices, lived experience, and knowledge of minorities, and indigenous people are meaningfully heard by those in positions of power that can influence change.
To quote 19-year-old activist Xiye Bastida from Mexico, "Solutions must be aligned with the fact that climate justice is social justice."(Shailendra Yashwant is currently in Glasgow covering the COP26.)