From Climate Science to Climate Justice: Climate Change a Symptom of Man's Inhumanity to Man

G-8 leaders agreed
yesterday to the "'aspirational' goal of preventing global temperatures
from rising more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit," according to the New York Times.

Which reinforces the fact that we persist in speaking about climate
change as if it were just a technical problem related to CO2 emissions
and temperature rises.

Not only is that dry, it's true only to a point.

The salient (and problematic) underlying political reality is that
climate change is the culmination of longstanding processes of
colonization and realpolitik.

Over a period of centuries, these often-cruel processes, which
involved systematic violations of human rights, absorbed all of the
world's economies into the Western economic model of globalization,
instilling and fueling a market-driven psychology of fear and greed
among investors and citizens in nearly every geographic region of the

Globalization, touted as a model of economic inclusiveness, has
paradoxically accelerated the loss of cultural identity and linguistic
diversity, sped the pace of environmental degradation, and increased
the gap between rich and poor.

Global inclusiveness through globalization? Not.

Global suffering and inequity through globalization? You betcha.

Unfortunately, with ecological and climate crises in full swing --
and the global economy on life support -- time is running out to
influence the momentum of powerful climatic, economic, environmental,
and social forces that are about to alter the face of human

Today, for example, the economic and climate crises are together
decreasing capital flows and reducing agricultural output in key parts
of the world. If these trends persist (and, barring miracles, they
will), competition for money, food, and water would compound already
difficult conditions, leading to civil unrest and prompting rights

A conference in
Seattle, Washington, explored whether a human-rights angle on the
climate crisis could influence policy makers to take dramatic action to
mitigate carbon emissions growth so as to avoid the worst rights
impacts of climate change, including universal rights to education,
food, health, and security.

The conference, "Three Degrees: The Law of Climate Change and Human
Rights," assembled climate scientists, policy makers, academics, human
rights lawyers, and law students.

Mary Robinson, president of the Republic of Ireland between 1990 and 1997, was a keynote speaker.

A pioneering human rights lawyer and distinguished professor of law,
Robinson followed seven years as Irish president with five years as
high commissioner of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCHR).

After leaving the UN in 2002, Robinson founded Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative,
which aims to "put human rights standards at the heart of global
governance and policy-making and to ensure that the needs of the
poorest and most vulnerable are addressed on the global stage."

In a brief interview, I spoke to Robinson about "climate justice," a term highlighting that climate change is a human rights issue for which the West is largely responsible.

Sea level rise and other disastrous effects of climate change are
going to affect impoverished nations in Africa, Asia, South and
Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, and more, unfairly and
disproportionately -- that is, much sooner, with greater force, and
with profound long-term human rights impacts.

(Here I might add, however, that the U.S. mainland, especially the
Southeast, could be among the earliest regions hit, so policymakers
stateside should not feel emboldened to use the disproportionate
impacts argument as a delaying tactic.)

Seven years have passed since Robinson left the UNHCHR. She observed, "We still don't have a shared vision for human rights."

Robinson referred to the scale of the climate challenge as new and
remarked "we are not showing the intelligent capability of leadership
to deal with it."

Given the predicted impacts of climate change, she said, "More justice is needed, not more wealth."

"The values of human rights and dignity are important to move
forward," she emphasized. "We need a broader view of human rights that
re-frames the issue with the notion of climate justice."

Robinson believes that the climate justice paradigm appeals to those
who "see the human costs and the unfairness" of disproportionate
climate impacts.

In Africa, for example, climate change is having early impacts
around the right to food. "Farmers in Rwanda don't know when to sow

On a policy level, Robinson noted, "Governments have a common but
differentiated responsibility to develop national action plans for
climate change."

Furthermore, she argues the West needs to help developing countries
because of a "justice and equity element," not simply out of charity,
an attitude that has been in evidence in the past.

She also advocates the rapid transfer of green technologies to
developing countries so that water distillation, solar-powered cooking,
electricity generation, and many other sustainable development needs
can be adequately and equitably addressed.

In terms of climate activism, Robinson said, "We need to simplify
the science into what can be understood and we need to do this without
overwhelming people with a sense of despair."

She points to as a popular campaign that provides a robust vehicle for addressing environmental and humanitarian aspects of climate change.

My conversation with Robinson has led me to conclude that the real
reason we may need to re-frame climate change as a human rights issue
is so that more people pay attention to the fact that the climate
crisis we are facing today reflects the sum total of man's inhumanity
to man.

In these uncertain times, Robinson's substantial vision, intellect,
and track record may or may not be a decisive factor in motivating
massive shifts in public action and policy-making on climate change.

Nonetheless, advocating a new vision for climate justice--and taking bold humanitarian
steps now to address the suffering climate change will cause--would, in
a vast understatement, appear to be the least we can do.

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