Event summary by Celine Barclay
“The least responsible are disproportionately affected by climate change”. It’s taken a while, but the phrase is finally taking a hold in our consciousness and our conversations. Fittingly, OCS’s flagship event tackled the issue of climate justice with two truly inspiring speakers; Mary Robinson and Dr Vandana Shiva. They illuminated the various forms of injustice that have made the climate crisis a legacy of colonial and patriarchal structures. Crucially, the two speakers highlighted the need for a paradigmatic shift in our conception of “development” in order to confront the climate crisis fairly and effectively.
The first speaker, Mary Robinson, served as the first female president of Ireland. She went on to become the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, before setting up her own foundation ‘Climate Justice’ and publishing a book of the same name.
Dr Vandana Shiva is a leading human rights activist who founded Navdanya International (an organisation helping farmers protect seeds from the genetic patents of large corporations) and is the leader of the International Forum on Globalisation. She has authored over 20 books in which she defends traditional practices, helping to shift our idea of development in favour of acknowledging the value of small-scale farmers.
Mary Robinson took a structured approach by identifying 5 layers of climate injustice:
1) Responsibility: the first layer related to the phrase at the beginning of this post, that climate change disproportionately affects those least responsible for creating the problem, such as indigenous people and the inhabitants of small island states;
2) Gender: women are particularly vulnerable to climate change because of their different social roles, and because they often don’t have access to land rights or insurance. As with all intersecting levels of inequality, women in poorer countries are doubly vulnerable where these factors are concerned;
3) Intergenerational injustice: the injustice that future generations will suffer the consequences of inaction by the generation currently in leadership positions;
4) Pathways to development: industrialised countries historically built their wealth on fossil fuels. Poorer nations are currently attempting to follow the same path of development while also under pressure to transition to renewable energy. Richer countries have failed to provide the financial support for such a transition, leaving industrialising countries caught between fighting poverty on a national scale and fighting climate change on a global scale;
5) Nature: As a firm advocate for the nature-based approach, Mary signalled the injustice against nature that climate change has wrought, threatening as it does the survival of millions of species. It is interesting to note that she personified nature as a female, not only emphasising that the earth is living, as Dr Vadana would do, but also identifying the injustice to the earth in association with the gender dimension she mentioned above. She stressed the need to conserve at least 30% of land and oceans under the Convention on Biodiversity.
Mary then gave her assessment of the current state of global action on climate change. She managed to find hope in response to the current Covid-19 crisis, which she credits with teaching us various lessons that can be carried forward in our future approach. Compliance with the lock-down has shown us the collective power of simultaneous changes in our behaviour. Just as we have stayed at home to protect the most vulnerable to the virus, we must shift our behaviour to protect those most vulnerable to climate change. It has also demonstrated the importance of good government, science and compassion.
Mary finished by expressing hope that we will take the opportunity to create a new beginning. Covid-19 has taught us to learn what we can do without and to make radical changes to our lifestyle, two lessons that are essential if we are to throw away our ‘throw away culture’ and embrace nature-based solutions.
Yes, this will require large scale investment, borrowing from future generations, but only in order to safeguard their future. So Mary is less worried now than she was at the beginning of the year: “Covid has broken the system that wasn’t working anyway”.
The unanimity between the two speakers was clear the moment Dr Vadana took her turn to speak. Chuckling warmly, she noted that she had also identified 5 layers of injustice:
1) Picking up where Mary left off, she raised the injustice against nature as part of a history of colonialism and exploitation. The glorification of conquest in colonial times is a model for our relationship with the earth as dead matter to be possessed and exploited. She passionately insisted that we must revoke this mentality and recognise not only that the earth is alive, but that it regulates its own systems.
Her speech was incredibly powerful, drawing an analogy between the fossil age and the fossilisation of our minds and hearts that has resulted from extracting fossil fuels. Dr Vadana sees a comparison between mechanisation and industrialisation and the development of a mechanical mind, closed off to human empathy and capable of wreaking such destruction on human communities. Yet we have erroneously believed developing the technologies for extraction demonstrated our intellectual superiority;
2) This led Dr Vandana to speak of the injustice against those who lead ecological ways of living. Vandana grew up in India and related how India was called barbaric in colonial times within a discourse of ‘development that propped up the colonial regime. In the 80s she observed that behind every ecological disaster there seemed to be a loan from the World Bank financing some project in the name of “development”’. When she investigated the loans, she found that ‘under-development’ meant not using plastic or pesticides, and adhering to the hydrological cycle. But it is the promotion of these rationalised “developed” techniques of agriculture which have caused the ecological destruction we see today;
3) This damaging approach to agriculture is itself linked to a third layer of injustice: that the most vulnerable are disproportionately affected. Vandana said drought “is the single biggest crisis” and a result of a false definition of development that, for instance, promotes the use of fertilisers and neglects to replenish organic matter in the soil;
4) Her fourth injustice was the injustice of false solutions. She denounced the ‘voluntary’ approach to emissions reduction commitments characteristic of the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement.
She identified 3 unjust false solutions: geo-engineering, genetic engineering, and the “disease” of offsetting. Geo-engineering falls short because it fails to take into account how the earth functions as a system. Genetic engineering fails to recognise that resilient traits are in the plants and not in the gene that is extracted.
Vandana then railed against offsetting which she compared to the Roman Catholic sales of indulgences. Like unrepentant sinners who bribe the church to keep on sinning, rich countries can continue emitting by “offsetting”, a solution that in no way tackles the root of the problem. In fact, after the Kyoto protocol, emissions increased by 15% and the economic inequality between countries increased.
Vandana concluded by emphasising that the injustices framing the climate crisis can only be resolved by removing the colonisation paradigm and the concomitant definitions of “productivity” “efficiency” and “development”. Her research shows that when we work with nature and biodiversity, we can produce more food by healing broken carbon and nitrogen cycles. Doing so will end the injustice of labelling ecological ways of living as primitive and be part of a shift from an economy that measures GDP to one that measures happiness. Returning to the repeated theme of earth and life cycles, Vandana identified this as a “shift from the circulation of money to circulation of life.”
This was truly a highlight of the term card; it was inspiring to hear from such passionate and experienced speakers. Their long history of collaboration was testament to the central theme of the discussion: the intersectionality of the injustices within the climate crisis which must be addressed.
By Olivia Oldham
Climate change and environmental degradation are not just environmental issues. Yes, we are pumping ever-more poisonous gasses into our atmosphere, fouling our rivers with deluges of chemicals, and dumping so much plastic into our oceans that soon, there will be more plastic than fish. And yes, the future of our climate at more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures looks more than a little dicey, but the fact is that we are not all equally at risk. Climate change is a social justice issue, and it requires climate justice.
Spatial distribution of impacts
The spatial distribution of the negative effects of climate change--such as droughts, floods and extreme temperatures--will be uneven. In general, parts of the world which are already more vulnerable to shocks, due to factors such as poverty and relative disadvantage, are likely to be most severely affected. According to the IPCC, it is highly likely that the Arctic, global drylands, small island developing states and ‘Least Developed Countries’ in general will be at highest risk as the planet continues to heat.
Impacts in place
Beyond the regional variations and associated injustices related to the spatial distribution of the impacts of climate change, there is also variation and injustice in the way these changes and resulting weather events impact different people living in the same place. For example, Hurricane Katrina--the type of event which will become more frequent and more extreme as our planet heats up (regardless of whether the 2005 disaster itself was made more likely by climate change)--resulted in dramatically uneven and unjust outcomes for residents of New Orleans and the surrounding area.
The hurricane affected everyone--of course; storms ‘don’t discriminate’. But people do. Centuries of racially-motivated discriminatory land policies across the affected region have resulted in severely geographically segregated communities. In New Orleans itself, at the time of the disaster, African American communities disproportionately occupied low-lying land in areas prone to swamp-related flooding. This meant that communities of colour were more heavily impacted by the direct effects of the levee breaches.
After the storm, African American communities were left stranded in the ruined city for longer than other communities; majority-black neighbourhoods had poor access to transportation, due to decades of discriminatory city planning. Four days after the storm, 200 mainly African-American residents tried to walk out of the city along the highway, they were met by police and were driven back with guns and a police helicopter. Regardless of the immediate motivation for this act, it is clear that the natural disaster that was Katrina affected certain people far more severely than others. Not only that, but this disproportionate and unfair distribution of effects was systematic and calculable, based on intertwined questions of race and class. In many ways, then, it can be argued that the disastrous element of the hurricane was not at all natural, but rather socially constructed in that the negative impacts were largely the result of social policies and discrimination.
The litany of discriminatory impacts of Hurricane Katrina are too lengthy to be fully listed here, and the list of environmental disasters which have disproportionately affected people of colour and the socioeconomically vulnerable could fill an entire library. If you’re interested in learning more, check out this free online course on environmental justice.
It’s not just climate change itself
Beyond the uneven impacts of climate-related disasters, the industries and activities which are causing climate change are also causing significant racial and class-based injustice. For example, you might have heard about the ‘No DAPL’ movement that took place in North Dakota in 2016 and 2017, protesting a section of an oil pipeline leading from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois. The point where the pipeline was to cross the river was moved from its original location, after it was decided by planners and engineers that a spill could have negative impacts on drinking water in the Missouri capital, Jefferson City. So, the crossing was moved to land stolen from the Standing Rock Sioux in 1958, within a kilometre from the present-day boundary of the Standing Rock Reservation. In this new location, the impacts of a spill would be the same as in the previous one--only here, they would only affect Indigenous people, rather than the majority white Jefferson City.
The peaceful protests of the water protectors--both local Standing Rock inhabitants and supporters from across the country and indeed around the world--were met with violent repression using counter-terrorism tactics. The pipeline eventually went ahead, leaking oil even before it became fully operational.
Again, this is not the only example of injustice perpetuated by those seeking to profit from the degradation of the environment and the continued emission of fossil fuels into the atmosphere. For example, back in April, Celine Barclay wrote a piece for the OCS blog on environmental ‘martyrs’--environmental activists, usually from and in the global South, frequently Indigenous, who have been murdered for resisting activities such as illegal logging, or the violation of land rights.
The fact is, climate change and other environmental damage do not affect us all equally: some people are disproportionately affected, usually based on their race and their class. We can trace these inequalities back to the era of colonisation and slavery, and the continuing practices of discrimination which exist to this day across the globe, as well as the exploitative nature of modern capitalism. Together, these legacies continue to enable the erasure of the suffering of the many so that a few might profit as the world crumbles.
We need to recognise that the climate crisis is also a crisis of justice, so that when we fight to change the world, the world we end up with is better for everyone, not just those of us privileged enough to sit at home writing about it on our laptops.
By Emily Passmore
At the beginning of the year, it was easy to believe that 2020 would only see the zero-waste movement get stronger. After all, in the UK, 2019 saw commitments from ever more high street retailers, including major supermarkets such as Tesco and Morrisons, to cut down on their plastic usage. Furthermore, polling suggested half of Brits would be happy to pay more for a product if its packaging was eco-friendly. A similar pattern emerged globally, with Canada aiming to ban single-use plastics by 2021, and Peru banning single-use plastic at heritage sites.
Progress may have been slow, perhaps even dangerously slow, but progress was being made. In the time of coronavirus, that is no longer necessarily true.
The zero-waste movement strives towards a circular economy, where (almost) everything is reused rather than disposed. This means refillable packaging, repaired clothing and--for dedicated proponents of the lifestyle--a year’s worth of rubbish fitting into a single mason jar. But coronavirus can be spread through tiny droplets released from coughs and sneezes, and if a surface is contaminated by these droplets, anyone touching that surface is at risk. Reusable goods and containers might be handled by members of different households, and so are a clear example of potentially infected surfaces which could help spread the virus further.
Is it justifiable to continue promoting reusable goods during this pandemic? For the high street, the answer appears to be no. Schemes allowing customers to bring their own cups at stores such as Pret A Manger and Starbucks have been suspended since the early stages of the pandemic. This week, the US state of New Hampshire even banned the use of reusable shopping bags, a reversal of the usual trend towards banning single use plastic bags.
However, it is not clear just how necessary these steps are, given that an alcohol-based disinfectant will inactivate coronavirus within a minute, eliminating the risk posed by reusable goods. On the other hand, this process is itself likely to create waste, considering the environmental harm that can be caused by chemical production, as well as the fact that disinfectant tends to be packaged in disposable plastic containers. Moreover, this process requires a level of personal responsibility--it’s far from guaranteed that everyone would remember to disinfect, or more importantly, that everyone has access to the correct equipment to disinfect with. Single use plastic does not pose the same challenge.
It also does not guarantee sterility though. Plastic is handled throughout the production process, by an undetermined number of unknown people. Thus, it would be best practise to disinfect single use bags as well--especially as recent studies suggest Covid-19 can remain stable on plastic for up to three days. No similar research has been conducted on reusable bags, so it is impossible to truly know if the bans are warranted.
Nevertheless, single use plastic projects the illusion of sterility – and in a crisis where so much is uncertain, this should not be dismissed out of hand. Although regulations banning reusables may not be fully supported by scientific evidence, decisive regulation could help to quell public panic.
But is this a fair trade-off? The pandemic will end, and when it does, decisions such as the bans on reusable bags could have a lasting impact, stalling progress towards a circular economy. Some right-wing think tanks certainly seem to have this possibility in mind. Bans in the US were preceded by a lobbying campaign by organisations including the Manhattan Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Both groups accept money from fossil fuel companies, and both groups misrepresented the scientific research in their lobbying efforts. It doesn’t seem outlandish to suggest they may be more concerned with turning the tide on environmental policy than with public health.
This highlights the main issue the pandemic raises for the zero-waste movement: environmental concerns must take a back seat to urgent public health issues to some degree, but it is unclear exactly how much they should be discounted. Take clinical waste. Hospitals in Wuhan, the site of the first outbreak, generated six times as much waste at the peak of the virus compared to normal operations. The daily output was about 240 metric tons, about the weight of a blue whale, and a whole new waste plant had to be built to process it. But reusing medical equipment is impossible, and saving lives is clearly far more important in the short term than reducing waste production.
Single use bags do not carry the same importance--but should we not accept some uncomfortable policy decisions in the face of this public health emergency? To some degree, yes. But there is evidence that opponents of the environmental movement are using this moment to further their aims. A complete abandonment of the principles of the zero-waste movement seems an overreaction, and tactically unwise. Containing coronavirus must be the principal concern at the moment, but eventually, a vaccine will be developed and it will cease to be a concern at all. There seems to be no reason to renounce a zero-waste, circular economy as a goal to be strived towards, and no scientific backing to the suggestion that reusables are categorically less sterile than single use items. Thus, while coronavirus is undoubtedly a challenge to the zero-waste movement, as long as proponents take a compassionate but evidence-based standpoint throughout the crisis, it need not be the end of it.
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.