Climate change exacerbates existing inequalities and vulnerabilities. Persons who face intersecting inequalities due to discrimination based on gender, gender identity, disability, race, ethnicity, economic status, age, among others, are among those populations least likely to be able to withstand the inevitable effects of climate change. Addressing inequality and climate change must go hand in hand.
Science continues to show that as the impacts of climate change accelerate, extreme weather events are taking a major toll in developing countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, home to some of the world’s largest youth populations. Global warming of 2˚C would put over half of Africa’s population at risk of undernourishment, as as of today, we have already reached about 1°C above pre-industrial levels (1850–1900). Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate.
“Climate change is happening now and to all of us. No country or community is immune,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “And, as is always the case, the poor and vulnerable are the first to suffer and the worst hit.”
Climate is about more than just the environment — although that is an existential threat to all humanity. It’s about everyone and everything. Our planet is changing faster than anyone could have predicted. Freshwater supplies are shrinking, agricultural yields are dropping, our forests are burning; and rising oceans are growing more acidic—all due to a warming climate. As our natural world changes around us, so does our way of life, and no one is more effected than the poor and indigenous.
Many of climate change’s lasting consequences will be social, economic and humanitarian. In the United States, though the impacts of climate change will be felt by all, it will not affect all equally. Those with less access to resources face greater challenges in the struggle to mitigate damages and adapt to climate changes. Although this cuts across age, race, socio-economic class and gender, women in particular, in the U.S. and around the world, will be affected more than men. These impacts will include the loss of homes and personal property, rising healthcare costs, increases in violent conflicts, and lost income resulting from climate change-induced disasters and instability.
The impacts of climate change will not be borne equally or fairly, between rich and poor, women and men, and older and younger generations. Consequently, there has been a growing focus on climate justice, which looks at the climate crisis through a human rights lens and on the belief that by working together we can create a better future for present and future generations.
During the UN General Assembly’s High-level Meeting on the Protection of the Global Climate for Present and Future Generations in March 2019, we spoke to Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland and the current Chair of the Elders, and Deon Shekuza, a young climate activist from Namibia, about climate justice.
Climate justice “insists on a shift from a discourse on greenhouse gases and melting ice caps into a civil rights movement with the people and communities most vulnerable to climate impacts at its heart,” said Mary Robinson who is no stranger in the world of politics and human rights.
“Now, thanks to the recent marches, strikes and protests by hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, we have begun to understand the intergenerational injustice of climate change,” she said, stressing the importance of intergenerational partnerships where young people are seen as “means of implementation” and “creators of opportunities” and not just beneficiaries.
She is having a frank conversation with Deon Shekuza, who co-founded the Namibian Youth on Renewable Energy, a NGO committed to mainstreaming young people in the energy sector and increase youth inclusion in decision-making.
Namibia, often referred to as the driest country south of the Sahara desert, is home to a large majority of people who depend on agriculture, fishing, forestry and conservation. Shekuza added that access to electricity is still largely available to only urban dwellers, but more than half of the country’s population lives in rural and informal settlements, many of them young people.
Young Africans like him are committed to breaking down climate science into a national conversation and connecting it to domestic social and economic values to build relevance.
“I think that is one of the challenges for the African youth in mobilizing themselves is that you are so disconnected and often when organizations are formed they have a hierarchical structure. I don’t think that climate change should be approached like that,” he said adding that policymakers need to make a commitment to ensure that youth voice, agency, and leadership are at the centre of policy discussions and decision-making.
Taking action on climate change “is a noble cause.” he said. “You should have an open system for anybody who has the same motive as you to join.”
“The whole idea of the school climate strikes is also an issue of common but differentiated responsibility and respect of capabilities,” said Mary Robinson as she explains how we cannot expect a young person in a developing country “to go out of school to strike when the school system protects them from early child marriages, female genital mutilation, and so forth.
“There are more benefits for the young to stay in school.”
Tens of thousands of young people, mostly in the West, have taken to the streets in recent months with a clear and urgent message to world leaders – act now to save our planet and our future from the climate emergency. In response to their collective demands, the UN Secretary-General has urged world leaders to listen to the concerns of youth and present plans for the Climate Action Summit in September for concrete and ambitious solutions.
“My generation has failed to respond properly to the dramatic challenge of climate change. This is deeply felt by young people. No wonder they are angry,” added Guterres in a recent op-ed in The Guardian.
“Youth are the majority. Youth have to have their voice, their perspective and their urgency included,” said Robinson stressing the need to intensify the inter-generational dialogue on climate action.
“I think we should try to really ensure that the Climate Summit next September of the Secretary-General has a strong intergenerational link for urgency, for ambition, for ideas for innovation. That’s what young people are going to bring.”
The UN Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit will include a Youth Climate Summit which will serve as a platform for young people who are driving climate action. It will be held on 21 September and bring together some 500 young activist, entrepreneurs, innovators and change-makers from across the globe.