In April 2020, the Rights Writers were asked what perspectives have been left out of the major debates on their topic, and how would including them increase understanding or contribute to progress on this issue.

What is missing in conversations on climate change is how central human rights are in building sustainable solutions to our climate crisis. We hear so much about how climate change is an existential threat, but we don’t often get the connection to how that will impact populations globally, particularly how it will affect our geopolitical climate. In this blog post, I will explore why climate change is fundamentally a human rights crisis and why globally centering human rights is the most relevant framework to making real progress.

"Fighter Jets", by Dennis Elzinga.
“Fighter Jets”, by Dennis Elzinga. Source: Wikimedia Commons

There are two main ways that climate change is intrinsically linked to geopolitical relations. One, militarization in itself is a huge contributor to global emissions, specifically in the production and deployment of military supplies. Second, as global temperatures change, the increased severity and likelihood of droughts cause food insecurity that may exacerbate existing tensions.

How does militarization impact the environment? The harm to our environment comes in two phases: the production of military weapons and the use of these weapons.

Looking at the U.S. shows just how much militaries are responsible for our climate crisis. If the U.S.’s Department of Defense was a country, it would rank 34th in average oil use.  The Pentagon is the single largest industrial consumer of fossil fuels by producing fighter jets, destroyers, tanks and other weapons systems that exude highly toxic, carbon-intensive emissions. The detonation of bombs releases greenhouse gases (GHG) that also contributes to dangerous emission levels.

According to a report from Oil Change International, the U.S.military emitted 100 million metric tonnes of CO2 in fueling its war in Iraq over five years.  To put this in perspective, this is larger than the total quantity used by all Allied forces in the four years of World War 1. What is even worse is how the U.S. military has received an exception for international climate agreements. The Pentagon has received a “blanket-exception” in all global climate agreements, including the Kyoto Agreement.

Despite many countries’ pledges to combat climate change, they continue to militarize. From 2001 to 2011, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that the global military saw a 92% increase. Even in the last decade as climate change has entered the forefront of the global agenda, countries are not demilitarizing, and many are continuing to mass produce military weapons.

It is also important to understand how climate change is impacting our geopolitical climate. For example, the Syrian crisis was sparked by a long period of drought which halted crop production and destroyed the economy, leaving millions of people water-scarce and food insecure. Water conflicts like those in Syria have impacted the Middle East and Northern and Sub Saharan Africa. Carbon emission has been tied to an increase in global temperatures which in turn results in drier and less resourced areas, creating the atmosphere for war and conflict to brew. The link, however, between climate change and conflicts has not been a central focus. Despite the fact that in 2007, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described Sudan’s Darfur region as an example of a climate change conflict.

“End Nuclear War Today”
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Research focusing on the impact of climate change in Sub Saharan Africa has supported the notion of climate-fueled conflict. Quantitatively, a 1% temperature increase has been shown to lead to a 4.5% increase in civil war that year and even a 0.9% increase in the following year.  If this trend continues, according to almost 20 climate models, by 2030 there will be a 54% total increase in armed conflict in Sub Saharan Africa. Why? The researchers say that these temperature changes lead to economic instability, particularly in areas that are dependent on agricultural production. Research has long shown that “economic stability is the single factor most consistently associated with conflict incidence.”

There are many human rights implications here. One, climate change is pushing millions of people into extreme poverty. As agricultural production weakens with temperature changes, agricultural communities are losing their source of economic stability. Second, climate change is propelling violent conflict over natural resources. As more people become food and water insecure, conflict is exacerbated, leading to the onset of violent wars. This competition over natural resources is only going to get worse with further environmental degradation. What this means is more people will be dying from these wars and health-related illnesses due to nutritional deficiencies, starvation, and a lack of access to clean water.

The war against climate change begins with world peace, and peace begins with demilitarization. Militarization is one of the largest contributors to environmental degradation. Instead of spending this money leading to dangerous levels of carbon emissions, there needs to be a global investment in protecting vulnerable communities. In 2009 during the 15th Conference of the Parties, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate pledged to raise $100 billion annually by 2020 for the Green Climate Fund to finance the national adaptation plans for developing countries. This is less than 1% of global annual military expenditures. This is nowhere near enough. To fight climate change we must tackle global poverty and food and water insecurity. To wage war against climate change fundamentally requires us to fight for global human rights.


In March 2020, the Rights Writers were asked what role has the media played in covering the topic and what effects, positive and negative, has the media had on their topic, and what role ought the media to play.

In last month’s blog post, you read about the ways in which the climate change movement has evolved over the last 10 years. I explored how wealthy nations and giant corporations are central actors in environmental degradation and must be held accountable for profiting off of unsustainable practices with many human rights implications on the most vulnerable populations.

One central actor that I did not discuss was the media. This month I hope to show how the media has an influential role in shaping public opinion on climate change and environmental protections. While the media industry has done a lot of good towards covering climate related news, the media has failed to give climate change enough attention, hold politicians accountable, and push more nuanced conversations.

First, what role should the media play? The media is a wide reaching force that can communicate what is happening in the world to everyday people. One of the biggest setbacks for the climate movement is communicating science in an accessible and an inclusive way. This is where the media should come in. The media should help translate this information to the public. By giving scientists, activists, and policymakers a platform to speak directly to people, the media can powerfully translate the impacts of climate change in an understandable and a conceivable way. For instance, local news organizations can show the impact of climate change in its communities own context. In this way, localized media can give its inhabitants a chance to work grassroots and connect to citywide policymakers to see what they can do.

On the other hand, the media also must do the work of connecting people to news that may not directly impact the viewer. This means covering the climate crisis in a global way. The media has the ability to center human rights in this coverage. For instance if there is a natural disaster, the media should cover how this is harming people’s lives. How many people died or were injured? How have people’s access to clean and affordable water, air, food, and housing been impacted? The media has the ability to humanize the climate crisis.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Finally, the media must hold people in power accountable. This means, the media must fact-check and press public officials to answer what they are doing to combat the climate crisis. The media has to do the investigative work to question things like, is a policymaker taking money from the fossil fuel industry? How many bills have they worked on relating to the environment? This is much more than allowing politicians to say the right thing. They must hold into question their record and how they have supported these policy objectives.

The media has sharpened public understanding of climate change. But, after my research, I thik they can improve in the following ways:

  • Major networks need to dedicate more time to talking about climate change:

“The major broadcast networks – ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX – spent just 142 minutes on climate change last year.” This lack of coverage translates to Americans having a lack of access to climate-related information. According to research conducted at Yale and George Mason universities’ school of climate communications, approximately half of Americans hear about global warming in the media once a month or less. The climate crisis changes so often as groundbreaking research is being done and as potential projects that could negatively impact our planet are proposed. The public deserves information that is relevant and to date.  This means consistent and in depth coverage.

Print media has started making this important shift. According to the Media and Climate Change Observatory at the University of Colorado in Boulder. theWashington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times  have  roughly tripled their coverage of climate change since four years ago,”

  • Better translate the science and use more accessible language

The media needs to be very intentional with its language. Like I mentioned before, one of the biggest roles of the media is to make science understable to everyday people. This means using language that doesn’t dilute the media’s impact but instead makes it easy to understand. Susan Hassol, director of the organization Climate Communication makes this point through her research that showed that “heat-trapping pollution” is easier to understand than “greenhouse gas,”and “global warming” conveys more meaning than “climate change” Substitutions like these can have huge effects on the viewer’s ability to understand the message.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Climate change news should be globalized, but it must be localized as well

“most people are saying they rarely hear climate change news because most people pay attention to local news. Most climate news in America is not local news” This suggests trying to connect local catastrophes to the climate story and explain why the extreme weather is happening.

  • Spend more times discussing solutions

Yes, it is undoubtedly that climate change is an existential threat to both our planet and to humankind. However, framing it as something that can’t be solved or as something that is too late to combat is paralyzing. It does not propel more action. Instead, it ends dialogues and hinders our ability to come up with real solutions beyond our own fear and doubt. “Repetition of a narrow narrative that focuses exclusively on the impacts of climate change leaves the public with an overall sense of powerlessness.” The media has so much positive and informative news that it can cover. For instance, indigineous people have long practiced sustainable living. It is possible for humans to interact positively with our planet. It is possible to not exploit labor and land. It is possible for us to change the world.

The media has a lot of control over how we think of problems. If people walk away without adequate and nuanced climate coverage, not understanding the science, failing to see how it impacts their local communities, and thinking climate change is beyond repairable, we will all be paralyzed. The media has already advanced us so far, but we can’t make the final steps towards a real, sustainable, and humane world, if the media does not continue to step up in these ways.


In February, 2020 the Rights Writers were asked to discuss how a topic has evolved throughout the past decade (2010-now) and look at the issues that have changed significantly during this time period and how these recent changes have affected current approaches to this topic from governmental and non-governmental actors.

In last month’s blog post, you heard about how progressive climate and environmental legislation have a longstanding legacy with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal to today’s Green New Deal. It seems as if contemporary climate resolutions are finally recognizing that human rights are at the center of these conversations on environmental justice. We are seeing politicians proposing change that advocate for both sustainability and social, political, and economic justice.

The Green New Deal, however, was first proposed more than 10 years ago. Why is it that after 10 years of bringing environmental justice to the forefront of the public agenda there is little material progress? This month I would like to explore the challenges of the climate movement, the progress that we have made, and the central actors.

How has our environment changed in the last 10 years?

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Climate change is not just a vague and abstract idea anymore. Over the past 10 years, environmental disasters have grown in ways that have made it impossible to not talk about what is happening to our planet. The past decade was the hottest decade on record for both our atmosphere and our ocean, fueling more frequent, devastating, and unpredictable disasters. Communities were shaken by Hurricane Sandy, Maria, and Harvey; wildfires devastated California, Australia, the Amazon, Indonesia, and many more.

At this point, it is hard to still even label these storms as natural disasters any more. There is nothing natural about the current state of our environment. People are witnessing with their own eyes the impacts of climate change. The increased severity and frequency of natural disasters show that something is terribly wrong. For instance, scientists showed that during Hurricane Harvey climate change added an extra 20 percent rainfall than what was to be expected. More than 80% of wildfires are started by humans due largely to poor land management and agricultural practices as well as the impacts of greenhouse gases making climates drier and more susceptible to fire. These disasters are induced from human activities, and our imprint is becoming increasingly more noticeable.

Environmental justice begins with human rights

These worse environmental conditions are placing already vulnerable communities even more vulnerable to economic insecurity, homelessness, displacement, and hunger. With the increased severity of storms, the people bearing the most consequences of climate change are poor people, those from the Global South, and minority populations. Human rights are included in environmental conversations now because people’s rights to food, shelter, and happiness are increasingly threatened with climate change.

How have environmental conversations changed?

1) From individual responsibility to corporation accountability

The transition from talking about individual choices to industrial and corporation level polluters has shifted the entire political discourse. 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. There has been a huge push away from centering the climate change movement solely on promoting individual responsibility towards holding corporations accountable for their destruction of the planet while amassing unthinkable profits. It is severely unethical for fossil fuel, food, and other industries to profit from creating a global disaster. Corporations have long cashed in from their unchecked greenhouse gas emissions.

As many of these corporations find home in the United States, it has been inspiring to see increased calls for corporate accountability during the 2020 primaries. Corporate accountability is being pushed by current frontrunner Democratic nominee Bernie Sanders as well as the remaining presidential hopefuls. Under their pledges support for the Green New Deal, these presidential hopefuls are running on proposals for stricter regulations, taxations, and supervision on these corporations and finally ending federal subsidies to these industries that continue to pollute.

2) Holding wealthy countries accountable for global emissions

Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is impossible to talk about international climate conversations without talking about global power dynamics. Just 15 countries are responsible for three quarters of global carbon emission. This is not a coincidence. Wealthy countries are leaving unimaginable carbon footprints. Worldwide, the top 10 wealthiest percent of people produce half of the planet’s individual fossil fuel emissions. On the other hand, the poorest 50 percent emit only 10 percent. To put this in perspective, this wealthy global elite pollute more than 60 times the poorest 10 percent of people in the world. Yet those same 3.5 billion people who constitute the bottom 50 percent of wealth are “living overwhelmingly in the countries most vulnerable to climate change.” These geographically and economically vulnerable regions are the most susceptible to sea-level rise, higher temperatures, unpredictable rainfall, and other extreme weather events.

Addressing this global power imbalance has entered international environmental conversations, such as the Paris climate talks and global debates led by the United Nations. The central question here is the duty of high polluters and income countries to be held accountable and make climate burdens just and equitable. As the biggest polluters, these wealthier countries must bear at the biggest burden of climate solutions. Under the Paris Climate Agreement, wealthy nations pledged in 2015 to be accountable for their emissions. This agreement was signed by almost every nation in the world. Rich countries would have to cut their emissions the most and assist in building infrastructure and protective measures in the developing world.

Under President Donald Trump, the United States has withdrawn its support for the Paris Climate Agreement. This was met by resistance throughout the U.S. With states, cities, and local governments acting quickly, legislation has led to continued research and sustainable development across the United States.

3) Young Voice fighting for the next generation

As the impacts of climate change are getting even more severe, younger generations are having their future stolen from them. As the long term impacts of climate change have been revealed, youth activism has exploded. This younger perspective on the climate change crisis is very influential. We have seen in over 200 countries world-wide large demonstrations led by youth activists. This is an important inclusive because all meaningful movements have had young people at the center of advocacy, from women’s suffrage to antiwar protests and the Civil Rights Movement.

The Sunrise Movement is an energizing force in youth climate activism. Sunrise describes themselves as an an army of young people to make climate change an urgent priority across America, end the corrupting influence of fossil fuel executives on our politics, and elect leaders who stand up for the health and wellbeing of all people.” 

So, what has changed? Both nothing and everything at the same time. Human rights are muddled in the difficult conversation of accountability: accountability of corporations, nations, and accountability of our generation to the next. As climate change continues to devastate our planet, we have to understand these actors both fighting for changing and clinging on to the status-quo.

What’s the Deal: FDR to The Green New Deal (January)

In January, 2020 the Rights Writers were asked to discuss an issue in the context of US political discourse (including public opinion, if desired) – is any relevant legislation being debated? How are different branches of US government engaged with your topic? Consider particularly the 2020 presidential race.

In the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt almost immediately after being elected in 1932 began a project that forever changed America: the New Deal. With the New Deal, Roosevelt and his administration oversaw the passage of banking reform laws, emergency relief programs, work relief programs, and agricultural programs. This legislation evolved into what was known as the Second New Deal, growing to include union protection programs, the Social Security Act, and aid for tenant farmers and migrant workers. However, FDR and his administration had some unintended consequences for minority groups, particularly the Black working class.  Despite its deeply complicated impact, the New Deal has deeply shaped our contemporary political discourse and pushed our government to a far more expansive role.

It seems that such large-scale legislation such as the New Deal is reserved for moments of crisis. FDR acted to save a crumbled global and domestic economy and a world still recovering from World War I. FDR knew that the problems plaguing America needed much more than a mere bandage; the issues constituted a need for fundamental changes in the government.

Collage of photos depicting the New Deal
Source: Wikimedia Commons

We are now witnessing a crisis that has been building for generations: climate change. We face not only financial instability and great inequality but also the deterioration and warming of our planet.  This time, we face the fate of our planet. In 2018, the UN reported that we have 12 years left to stop irreversible damage to our planet. Similar to FDR, many policymakers are responding to this generation’s crisis but with an even bolder vision: the Green New Deal. To solve issues of poverty and health care, there is a fight to put sustainability and environmental protection alongside conversations of human rights.

So, what exactly is the Green New Deal? Though it seems like this is new legislation just now being proposed by a much more progressive freshman Congress, it was in fact first proposed in 2006 by the European Greens, an incredibly progressive European party, during the global market crash. The European Greens fought to address climate change and embraced an economic bill of rights. Moving from European politics to American politics, the Green New Deal became central to the Green Party with Jill Stein 2012 run for President. Now, the Green New Deal has more than the Green Party’s support. It has now been introduced by the Democratic Party members Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts. Spearheaded by the progressive wing, the Democratic Party’s version of the Green New Deal that is defined by the following goals over a ten year period of mobilization:

With the current 2020 Democratic primaries underway, every candidate has proposed a plan to combat climate change. The majority of candidates even support the Green New Deal, including frontrunners Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg, Even those who do not pledge their full support for the Green New Deal have embraced certain calls to action. For example, all major candidates have made it a priority to reach net-zero emission.      

So what is the Republican strategy for combating climate change? After all, scientists and the American people largely see it as a crisis. Consider that 97% of climate scientists confirm that human-caused climate change is happening and immediate action should be taken, According to Pew Research, “about two-thirds of U.S. adults (67%) say the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change.” Well, the answer is that there is not really a unified agenda from the Republican Party, with some members outright denying the problem even exists. One suggestion, coined as the Republican Climate Resolution comes from the House but has not really gained much traction in the party. The proposal makes broad suggestions to commit House resources to explore solutions, but the lack of concrete suggestions leave it as mostly a statement with little impact and tangible influence.

Alexandria Ocasio Cortez
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The current administration has not only been stagnant in addressing the climate crisis but has regressed in many ways. In 2017, President Trump decommitted the United States from the Paris Climate Accord. Climate change needs not just national action from our federal government but larger global and international support. By pulling from this international effort, the Trump administration has further hindered the immediate need to address rising global temperatures.

It is 2020, a new year and a new decade, and the country is more divided than ever. The Green New Deal was first brought up over a decade ago, and how have things changed since then? As it has resurfaced, it has grown into a mass movement with ordinary Americans joining in, from climate walkouts and fervent youth activism. Now, the Green New Deal is in the center of major party discussions. This energy is being pushed into perhaps the most influential presidential election in decades. While it is interesting to speculate, legislation surrounding climate change seems unpredictable at the moment. What will happen if a Democrat wins the presidency without Congressional support? Is it possible to advance a meaningful climate change agenda in a nation extremely divided by party lines? What if Trump remains in office but Democrats take control of the Senate? These are questions and scenarios that those invested in climate rights are thinking deeply about.

Climate change has been a question at each of the Democratic debates, and Presidential candidates with any hope of winning the election need real and meaningful plans of action. Despite questions of its feasibility, the Green New Deal has pushed human rights in the center of this conversation, including provisions on health care and affordable housing. Even as a framework alone, this is incredible progress of itself.

For more information on the specifics details of the Green New Deal, click here.

Climate Fights and Human Rights (December)

In December 2019, the Rights Writers introduced themselves and their general topic – who are the key actors, what are their goals/incentives, and what are the main debates? (How does the topic relate to human rights specifically?)

Field in Kauai
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Green_Fields_of_Kauai,_Hawaii_(4990659640).jpg

“Kauai is still flooding,” said my boss during my time doing Duke Engage on the island of Kauai, Hawaii.  More than a year had passed since the Northshore of Kauai was devastated by a historic flood. I spent 8 weeks on the island, and if I learned anything it was that the disaster was far from over. Local farmers saw entire harvests destroyed, and some fled with their families to one of Hawaii’s other islands or to the continental United States. Roads were still closed, homes were still being rebuilt, and some people remained missing.

I decided to study Public Policy because I believe that our political decisions have large impacts on people’s lives, beyond even our national borders. After taking the introduction to Environmental Science class and Race and Public Policy, my interests in environmental policy with a justice framework were piqued. We discussed the environmental justice issues as close as Eastern North Carolina and the health impacts of the hog farming industry, and then in the summer, I joined my professor’s Duke Engage team in a project in Kauai, Hawaii where I learned the importance of building a culturally competent framework to thinking about sustainability. Climate change brings up human rights issues regarding the right to clean air and water, health care, and migration rights. In my eyes, climate change exemplifies the necessity of building a global foundation for human rights work. Climate change does not recognize politically drawn borders for these lines are artificial and hold no ecological weight.

In today’s age, it seems almost natural to be in a state of disaster. Devastating natural disasters are striking all throughout the world. The same year as the flood in Kauai, there was an earthquake in Papua New Guinea, a heatwave in Pakistan, dangerous floods in North Korea, Nigeria, Japan, and India, and both a tsunami and an earthquake in Indonesia. We are witnessing an unprecedented age of natural disasters in both their frequency and their strength.

Why? The answer is at the forefront of today’s political discussions: climate change.

Climate change has been observed since the 20th century. This change in the Earth’s local, regional, and global climates is driven by human activities, particularly fossil fuels, that increase greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. Profit-oriented industries with loose or nonexistent environmental regulations have been able to run free even at the expense of our planet. Although it is framed primarily as an environmental crisis, I would like to address the ways in which climate change must also be seen as a humanitarian crisis, one that has disproportionate impacts on marginalized peoples and a larger burden on the Global South. The Global South broadly describes Africa, Asia, and Latin America and asserts an understanding of geopolitical politics conscious of the impact of enslavement, colonization, and exploitation on today’s ecopolitical power dynamics. To do this, I hope to use the environmental justice framework, which requires a meaningful analysis of how environmental work has to consider these aforementioned inequities in the world to make meaningful and impactful change. The environmental justice framework is also key to understanding a nation’s own internal inequalities, where environmental impacts are disproportionately carried by people of color and socioeconomically vulnerable communities. Without this tool, we are not able to zoom in and understand how these human rights issues are especially pervasive in the lives of disadvantaged communities. The framework has been applied by some of the top scholars of climate justice, and I hope to use it in my understanding of global warming.

Who gets access to clean air and water? This is one human rights concerns. As temperatures rise, access to clean air and water is threatened even further. Already, 11% of the world or more than 790 million people do not have access to quality water. Meanwhile, the Earth’s air is so polluted that more than 90 percent of the world is breathing substandard air, and these impacts are most concentrated in Africa and Asia. Climate change will also drive migration and bring a new era of refugee crisis. While we are witnessing unprecedented environmental catastrophes, there is simultaneously a closed-door mentality sweeping global politics, where unaffected countries are passing restrictive immigration laws. In the United States, racist housing and city planning has produced some strong health and environmental inequities. The practice of redlining, banks discriminately denying loans to Black and Latino people, has made it so there are concerning water and air quality differences in poor and minority communities.

Can we stop climate change? Is there any hope for our planet? In 2018, the UN reported that we have 12 years left to stop irreversible damage to our planet. A year later, it is difficult to hold onto optimism. Yet, it seems that the answer to mitigating climate change lies in first changing how we fundamentally view the world. Extractive and exploitative practices from major industries and corporations produce most of the carbon emission. At the center of campaigns across the world, we are hearing grassroots movements take the stage in addressing this very reality. While climate change is a very real threat to humankind, I hope to share the many ways that people are doing the world to fight for humanity. While corporations and political institutions are central actors in the forming of our climate crisis, organizers have urged local governments and even nations to take bolder steps. For instance, as I spent my summer in the Northshore of Kauai, local nonprofits and community members were working to build a Community Disaster and Resilience Plan to improve infrastructure and build emergency response kits before disaster. This plan helped inspire similar action in some of Hawaii’s other islands. Central to my blog posts is this theory that local, the municipal change led by communities is what will inspire greater, international intervention. As I zoom in, I hope to explore the global fight for human rights and recognize the efforts of people and their communities across the world to save our planet.