Climate News

Silencing the demand for justice denies the right to a healthy environment

Published by HEINRICH-BÖLL-STIFTUNG

Political participation is correlated to the impact a process has on a person’s well-being and the possibility of effectively influence a decision. These are drivers that motivate people to join up, become a political public, and participate.  However, any participation of the public is limited by how a mechanism of participation is established and by the agency of those in power. These are concepts that are constantly in my mind as I listen to discussions about the fate of millions of people in the Global South communities that will face the dire impacts of climate change for generations to come. Discussions that usually take place in rooms filled with environmental diplomats from developed countries that have no direct connection with this menacing future. It is a silent sorrow to hear these mechanical discussions devoid of humanity and that extend for decades. 

At SB56, from my perspective, one of the greatest challenges faced by NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and government representatives from the Global South is to juggle with two possible realities. Either the inability of privileged environmental diplomats from the Global North, be it from NGOs or governments, to grasp the urgency and scale of the negative effects of climate change in the lives of people. Thus, leading decision-making processes into dialogues that are so displaced from the needs, dignity, and right to justice of people that makes you become disheartened or enraged. Or possibility also echoes in my mind, that these people are unable to value or perceive my community on equal standing in terms of rights and human dignity. In either case, I do not believe that these realities come from an innate ill will, but as a result of structural injustice, racism and discrimination. Intensive carbon economies and colonialism have helped define their societies and build up the privileges that surround them, which limit their understanding and morality. 

Climate change in the collective imaginary has a face of a global south person in need.  However, in the halls of international climate change decision making it is highly unlikely to find these affected persons and neither their perspectives nor urgency. Also, the conceptualization of what is this need diverges when spoken about by the representatives of historically carbon-intensive economies. Our need becomes one of aid, voluntary pledges, and assistance as if some tragic disgrace or inherent misfortune has landed in our homes and determined for us a future plagued with suffering and insecurity. Yet, as we sit in these rooms and in the instances that we are allowed to speak, our faces and voices echo a need for justice and not charity. 

The desire to avoid liability and not accept differentiated responsibility for a socio-natural phenomenon that has its origin in the wealth of the global north, as is climate change, is driven by fear. It is the fear of the fact that developed countries are responsible for transboundary environmental harm because of their carbon-intensive economies. And, that their privileges and comfort stand on the transgenerational suffering of others. There is no science-based, legal or moral subterfuge to escape this historical indictment.  

The loss and damage generated by this harm is paid for by vulnerable communities every day. It is already a significant part of the economic reality of our countries. The negative environmental externalities of the current economic system are measurable in the infringement of human rights of communities in Central America and elsewhere. The degree of harm is such that is rendering our community´s future bleak and their ancestral lands have become in some instances unable to foster livable conditions. 

At SB56, Global South delegations advocated for the establishment of a financial mechanism for loss and damage, but this was again denied. And now, we must wait another six months for COP27, while families in vulnerable conditions in our countries deal with the consequences of climate change. We and generations to come will live in a climate that was changed to generate profit and privileges for the few in developed countries, at the expense of our communities in the south. 

Climate apartheid is a word that comes across sometimes when we as Latin American advocates rush from one meeting to another and try to voice our perspective on loss and damage at the UNFCCC. It is apartheid when we know that after 3 decades the UNFCCC has systematically inhibited help to come to those disproportionally affected. Not only there is no mechanism to address loss and damage, but all discussions are limited by what developed countries are willing to pledge as if the responsibility for the harm did not reside in their hands. To talk about liability and compensation due to environmental harm as a state obligation, as 50 years ago did the Stockholm Declaration, is taboo under the UNFCCCC. Furthermore, responses from the international climate regime based on Principle 13 of the Rio Declaration regarding liability and compensation have been forcibly muted by developed countries through paragraph 51 of Decision 1/COP21. Then, we as an affected public from Latin America are left to participate in a process that denies us justice and that systematically turns harm inflicted on us by a third party, into an inherent condition of our identity. A condition that we should be grateful to receive aid from the global north. Just as colonialism and imperialism have eroded our society’s capacity to claim justice and obtain prosperity, now we are induced to accept climate impacts as a new status quo for our people. To silence our claim for justice is to deny our right to a healthy environment. It would degrade our human dignity and our rights as persons, a capitis deminutio clima. 

Participation of our affected publics within the UNFCCC can be low for many reasons. However, it does seem clear that the agency of the powerful and the mechanisms of participation in place regarding loss and damage are not based on a human rights approach but on the coerced relinquishing of access to justice. Maybe this is what it really means that the UNFCCC is a party-driven process that is not open to the public. 

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