Bring social justice in from the cold as we get closer to a global climate change deal

Bangladesh: threatened by climate change. EPA

The UN Climate Summit in New York brought together politics, business and civil society to build up momentum for major climate change talks in Paris next year. After the disappointments of the acrimonious Copenhagen meeting in 2009, there is now a chance for a global agreement on action against climate change. Low carbon development pledges and substantial financing of the Green Climate Fund are one side of the coin.

But climate justice is also about social justice, and leaders must address the demands and respect the needs of people most vulnerable and already suffering from the impacts of climate change. The world’s poorest people are the worst affected by climate change and these groups were certainly represented in New York, but will they be listened to?

If it is to have a lasting impact, the Paris meeting must successfully integrate a “top-down” global agreement to restrict global warming to 2°C, together with a “bottom-up” strategy whereby countries set their own contributions to reduced emissions. However this latter strategy must go beyond emissions and do more to ensure that action on climate change listens to the grassroots and prioritises the world’s poorest and most vulnerable groups.

Grassroots concern

The summit looked promising for proponents of an inclusive, “bottom-up” strategy. Its key themes included forests, agriculture and resilience to climate change, all of which have a sizable body of evidence to show that placing people directly affected at centre stage is a critical opportunity for success. There was also a thematic session on Voices from the Climate Front Lines which gave a platform to children, women and indigenous people suffering the effects of climate change.

However the outcomes don’t match the hype. There were specific examples of progress: the president of Peru outlined a strategy for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation that he said would put the country on a path to sustainability by reaching out to indigenous groups and securing a vast area of land under indigenous rights.

He won public support from both Germany and Norway, and France also pledged funds to help the poor cope with climate change, but the global commitment to social justice called for by the Rights and Resources Initiative and the World Resources Institute was largely missing.

The anticipated, voluntary New York declaration on forests was marred by Brazil’s refusal to sign up, and the seven action statements released following the summit directly address local people’s rights and roles just twice (and one of these requires action from indigenous civil society groups rather than national or international governments).

Similarly, the Global Agricultural Alliance aims to secure “climate smart” agriculture for 500m farmers by 2030. However it was left to civil society organisations to release a joint statement prioritising making food systems socially just and protecting the poorest and most vulnerable in these efforts.

The recently published New Climate Economy report outlines a vision for “better growth, better climate”, a win-win scenario that ties investment and innovation to poverty and hunger reduction. But while investment and innovation may be able to secure the 70% more calories they estimate humans will collectively require by 2050, it is unclear how it will address the political aspects of access to those calories, and whether such strategies can support the livelihoods and resilience of the poorest farmers.

Climate justice, social justice

Without putting social justice at the core of our thinking on climate action, we risk harming the most vulnerable groups of people. For example environmental concerns have been used by big corporations and national governments to justify claiming land for themselves, a process known as green grabbing that threatens the well-being of groups dependent on natural resources. Perhaps we can eventually find a way to put people on an equal footing with the green economy but, judging from developments in New York, we don’t seem to be there yet.

Paris must be about much more than the pledges on emissions and the green economy that have dominated the headlines since the UN summit. It appears New York was yet another example of a big international climate forum recognising the importance of social justice (itself a big achievement) without actually clarifying how it will be built into objectives or commitments. People will remain on the agenda, but not quite centre stage.