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.