From Environmentalism To Climate Justice: Uniting Movements Against Climate Apartheid

Recently, a United Nations watchdog on poverty and human rights spoke of the looming threat of ‘climate apartheid’. In a report that was presented to the Human Rights Council, human rights expert Philip Alston said that the impacts of global warming are not only likely to undermine basic rights to life, food, water and housing for hundreds of millions of people, but also threaten democracy and rule of law. Alston spoke of the increasing levels of inequality, deprivation and discontent that come as a result of climate change having the ability to fuel nationalist, xenophobic and racist sentiments, adding that upholding balanced approaches to civil and political rights becomes complex in conflict situations such as these. Recognizing the disproportionate effect climate change has on developing countries, we run the risk of a ‘climate apartheid’ situation “where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer”.

However, Alston and many other environmental experts argue that the steps to tackle climate change undertaken by the UN, countries, NGOs and businesses are vastly inadequate when recognising the urgency and magnitude of the climate emergency: human rights may not survive. Our systems of governance focus on profits and economic growth, with many of our politicians influenced by lobbies of powerful corporations and the media too hampered by vested interests. As a result, whilst simplifying a vast and complicated issue, we see this inaction on climate change which acts greatly against the interests of our populations – of humanity. An illustrative example in the UK of these economically vested interests is parliament’s approval of a third runway at Heathrow Airport. In a time where all environmental scientists have told us to vastly reduce our carbon emissions or face ‘direct existential threat’, the UK government has approved an expansion to Heathrow airport that would produce as much carbon as the whole of Portugal.

But if we accept these vested interests, what can be done do try and avert this ecological catastrophe and resulting dire consequences for humanity? It seems currently social movements and activism can provide an effective way to bring about change, from the school strikes across the world, Indigenous Peoples or Extinction Rebellion. A high demand for political action is vital if we are to overcome the barriers we face in effectively tackling climate change. In order to secure this, I argue that we need to move away from classic ‘eco-warrior’ environmentalist activism, which is perhaps already occurring, instead stressing the importance of creating a climate justice movement that permeates all different kinds of social movements and struggles; one that motivates and unites more people to act. Rather than fighting to ‘save the polar bears’, the fight against climate change should be understood and adopted as a  fight for human rights, equality, housing, health..this list goes on. It must go from an environmental issue, to one that effects us all if we are to achieve a mass mobilization of people and movements. Centrally, we cannot achieve global human wellbeing of any understanding if our planet increasingly fails to become a safe one to live on – this must be realised and stressed.

The key ways in which to diversify and expand the climate movement seem at first to be establishing the meaning of the movement and what it fights for exactly. Re-defining the environmental movement to become a climate justice movement seems an effective way in which to do this. Climate justice is a wide term that can have varying understandings, but it’s essential meaning, as told by Schlosberg and Collins, is an idea that marries together ethics and politics. Climate justice calls for an adoption of the principles of social justice, ecological sustainability and democratic participation and accountability. It politicizes climate change whilst working to humanize it, linking climate change issues in with the issues of people, communities, governments and human rights. Viewing the fight for climate justice as central in the fight against climate change, the issue moves away from a purely physical or environmental one and becomes about fighting for justice – for people.

We can see this new approach being taken on in the announcement of the first ever People’s Summit on Climate, Rights and Human Survival which will be hosted by leading civil society groups and the UN Human Rights Office. This event is aiming to motivate the human rights community to urgently scale up its efforts on climate justice, trying to bring together the diverse movement needed to tackle this crisis.

The summit was announced in an open letter, with various comments expressing the desire for a new kind of unified climate activism: “To meet the challenge we, the people, must be more connected with each other and more committed to our planet than ever before. This is a matter of survival”…“All of our organizations work on climate change already, some more explicitly than others. But now is the moment for us to connect the dots between our causes and join forces. A climate emergency is upon us, and we must act now”…“In this new era of climate activism, the human rights community cannot remain on the sidelines. It is more urgent than ever that we step up by working together to protect the communities and individuals on the front lines of the climate struggle.”

Bringing together 150 non-governmental leaders and activists, the announcement of the summit clearly speaks of uniting movements to fight against the climate change recognising the serious and wide reaching human impact  it brings and what we have to lose. These arguments bring climate justice into the centre of discussion, which in turn serves to further expand and diversify the climate activist movement. This event represents and builds this new ‘era of climate activism’, and hopefully the discussions and discourse emerging throughout this summit will strengthen and continue – with relationships between different groups and organisations forming. The ethos and actions of this event is one that must be seen at increasing levels during the years to come in order to build a strong and effective climate activist movement.

And so, the oncoming climate emergency is daunting, it has the ability to effect everything we do, to effect every society at every level. With the news coming from the UN, climate change has the ability to endanger the lives and wellbeing of millions, and even billions of people throwing human rights into question. It is exactly these serious dangers that motivate us to build a strong and diverse climate activist movement, and also these dangers that make this possible; the climate activist movement must represent the wide range of people it effects. Human rights, housing or health organizations to name but a few actors all have a central part to play as these issues will all be exacerbated by climate change.

When expanding the climate movement and evolving into one that fights for climate justice, we both recognise the real dangers of climate breakdown whilst growing and re-defining the movement focusing on people, communities and our human rights rather than existing only environmentalists concerned about our physical environment. Through this evolution of climate activism, it can become more effective gaining larger forms of support from various communities and organisations, yet it can also ensure it remains socially aware and just – by focusing on the varying human experience and impact of climate change.

Deep ecological and social transformation is needed if we are to avert climate catastrophe, a catastrophe that will bring with it incomprehensible suffering to much of the earth’s population. Realizing various governments and businesses vested interests, and the amount of effort and money needed to effectively tackle the climate crisis: as many NGO’s, people, communities and governments as possible must stand together in the demand for climate justice if we are to succeed.

Rosie Latchford