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The effects of climate change are not always environmental

Submitted by on 30 Mar 2016 – 10:26

Climate change is the ‘threat multiplier’ that is linked to other global challenges and injustices. Though it may not be the root cause of migration, it affects people in a very disproportionate manner. Magda Stoczkiewicz, Director, Friends of the Earth Europe looks at climate change from an environmental justice angle

Magda StoczkiewiczThe scale of the climate challenge facing humanity cannot be underestimated. Large areas of our world are already experiencing man-made climate change. It can be seen in the form of rising sea levels, crop failures, wild fires, extreme weather events, and increasingly severe floods and droughts.

But it would be a gross oversimplification to think that the effects of climate change are only environmental. The difficult truth is that the effects of climate change are highly complex and go far beyond the natural world. Climate change is inextricably linked to other global challenges and injustices.
With this understanding, Friends of the Earth International together with a coalition of other non-government organisations established the Bali Principles of Climate Justice in 2002. These define climate change from a human rights and environmental justice perspective. Their starting point is that the effects of climate change are felt – and will increasingly be felt in the future – unequally by people around the world. Some countries bear the overwhelming historical responsibility for having caused the climate crisis but, perversely, it is other parts of the world which will disproportionately have to deal with its impacts.

Industrialised nations – predominantly the United States and Europe – have historically emitted about 80% of greenhouse gases globally, while it is developing nations from the Global South which face the direst consequences, affecting their lives, dignity, and basic human rights.
On average, 27 million people are displaced by climate and weather-related disasters each year – more than the entire population of Australia, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation. The United Nations Refugee Agency predicts that up to 250 million people will be displaced by 2050 as a result of extreme weather conditions, dwindling water reserves, degradation of agricultural land, and conflicts over resources.

Though climate change may not be the root cause of migration, it is likely to exacerbate other conflicts and crises which push people to flee their homes. Climate change is known as a ‘threat multiplier’. Places with ethnic, religious, political and other divides coincide with the regions that will be first and worst affected by climate change. Without more urgent, drastic action to tackle the climate crisis more people from these places on the frontline of climate change impacts will undeniably seek to move in search of safety and a better life.

Climate change affects people disproportionately within countries as well. Everywhere, including here in Europe, marginalised communities bear the brunt of its impacts. Climate change contributes to food insecurity and food price rises which affect more people in low-income communities. In Europe we are witnessing an increase in fuel poverty with more and more families unable to adequately heat their homes.

Studies have shown that black communities around the globe are more affected by pollution and extractive industries than white people. For example, although African-Americans have a smaller carbon footprint on average, they are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. So climate change is also a racial justice issue. Further, climate change isn’t gender neutral, with women more exposed to its impacts. Women are on the forefront of climate change all around the world. Women make up most of the world’s poor and are more likely to be climate refugees. They are often the last to leave disaster affected areas, and are more likely to die when natural disasters hit.

Viewed from an environmental justice perspective, it is only possible to judge the Paris Agreement on climate change, adopted by nearly 200 countries in December 2015, as a failure.

The Paris agreement is in fact a great escape by rich industrialised polluters. It allows them to avoid being held accountable for the climate crisis they have caused. It allows them to ignore climate justice.

The soaring rhetoric we heard from political world leaders in Paris is not matched by the details of the deal. The overall agreement has nothing in the way of fair, equity and science-based binding targets for developed countries, only countries’ self-determined piecemeal pledges to ‘pursue efforts’ to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees. Combined with this, the provision of finance and technology from rich to poor countries for an energy shift is weak. Without the required financial flow, emissions reductions targets are nothing more than empty words and the burden for achieving them falls unfairly on the poor.

The Paris Agreement recognizes more funding is needed for frontline communities to adapt to climate change but does not include any solid steps or figures to help make this happen, and importantly no urgency. There is no compensation mechanism for irreparable damage so the most vulnerable countries will be left alone to pick up the pieces. Because of the way climate change is linked to and deepens existing social inequalities, it cannot be tackled in isolation.

Emissions reduction targets cannot suffice unless they are matched with a fair distribution of the effort to achieve them, and much greater solidarity for those vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. We stand with those who are least responsible for causing climate change, who will suffer most and whose voices are most overlooked in the negotiating halls, and in 2016 people around the world will be fighting more than ever against the interconnected causes and effects of climate change and injustice.