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.

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