From climate emergency to climate injustice: How are decisions made?

Floods, droughts, heatwaves... The effects of climate change on our planet are so great, as are the challenges they pose. Just a few days before the UN Climate Summit, COP26, we spoke to three ”la Caixa” fellows: Ana Rodríguez, Laura García-Portela and Kayin Venner, about some successful actions and the urgent need to implement many more in global coordination.

28 October 2021

Floods and droughts, heatwaves and fires, epidemics in agriculture and threat to health from other epidemics, new human migration patterns caused by famine and poverty, etc. The list goes on and on since the effects of climate change on our planet are so great, as are the challenges they pose. 

They affect all of us and are taking up ever more space in the news across the planet because they're now more than just a possibility: climate change is now a truly pressing issue. “If COVID seemed unbearable, the consequences of climate change will be even worse,” said Howard Catton, the CEO of the International Council of Nurses (ICN), a few days ago regarding the report published by the WHO, The Health Argument for Climate Action.

Just a few days before the UN Climate Summit, COP26, held in Glasgow this year, we spoke to three ”la Caixa” fellows: Ana Rodríguez, Laura García-Portela and Kayin Venner, who told us about some successful actions and the urgent need to implement many more in global coordination. 

The most vulnerable, the most affected

Ana Rodríguez completed an MSc in Rural Planning and Development at the University of Guelph in Canada with the support of a fellowship from the ”la Caixa” Foundation. Since then, her work on matters related to environmental management and climate change has led her to collaborate with various NGOs in Ghana, Peru and Honduras. “The climate challenge goes beyond borders and requires a global solution. The changes are already under way and we need a firm international commitment to take measures to stabilise the temperature,” she said.

Ana Rodríguez manages climate change adaptation projects. Her work has led her to collaborate with NGOs in Ghana, Peru and Honduras.

Ana referred to a recent intervention by the most senior figure in the United Nations on the matter of climate change, Patricia Espinosa, to call attention to the matter and address the richer nations. “Even though less developed countries barely contribute to global emissions, they are the most affected and will be so in the future.” Its impact on food security will continue to feed into the downward spiral of poverty.

Furthermore, if the advances being made to mitigate the effects of climate change were already insufficient, the needs and emergencies brought about by COVID-19 have shifted focus from the climate agenda. That’s why, according to Ana, we need to ensure that we have the resources to implement adaptation plans in every country. “The upcoming COP26 needs to include agreements for financial support between countries that have historically been the main greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters and more vulnerable countries,” said Ana. 

Environmental personhood

She shares this attitude towards climate injustice with Kayin Venner from the Netherlands, who is currently doing his PhD at the Basque Centre for Climate Change (BC3). “The more privileged among us can escape from the effects of climate change, while the poor will suffer disproportionately,” he said.

Kayin Venner investigates the interests, economic tensions and politics involved in combating climate change.

He is concerned about the fact that some policies aimed at helping communities adapt to climate change are actually increasing inequality and even creating new forms of it. According to him, the solution lies in observing the underlying financial dynamics such as the booming market for climate bonds, public-private associations and instruments for land value capture. “We need to analyse these dynamics in practice and see to what extent they are meeting the needs of those who are most vulnerable to climate change.” This is what his research is focussed on.

“I want to understand to what extent the money raised for adaptation is allocated fairly, to explore what interest, economic tensions and policies play a role in how this financing is accessed and allotted.” Climate adaptation has costs and benefits, and the burning question is: which communities benefit and under which conditions? The end goal is to improve decision-making so that climate injustice can be prevented or minimised. 

Kayin, who is also a member of the Barcelona Lab for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability, did give us some good news. For example, this month, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution for the first time recognising access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a universal right. “Even though it's not binding, I do think that it’s a big step forward which will shape out many standards and will bolster climate litigation around the world,” he said. 

There are still more steps to be taken. "Firstly, to recognise "ecocide" as an international crime in the International Criminal Court (ICC)". This, he argues, would allow those responsible, including politicians and those who run companies, to be brought to trial for environmental destruction and thus strengthen international agreements. "And two, to go for a more ecocentric law that gives a legal personality to nature.

One example he uses is the case of the Mar Menor, in Southern Spain, where marine life is currently under severe threat. The initiative to grant the saltwater lagoon environmental personhood and all the rights that go with it has already collected over 600,000 signatures. “It might seem idealistic, but nature has already been granted rights in more than 25 countries." Finally, he points out that fair climate policies will not happen on their own, "especially given the economic and political interests in maintaining the status quo". Indeed, in the Netherlands, the government had to be taken to court to change climate policy. “The lawyer Roger Cox, representing the Urgenda Foundation and 900 citizens, took the Dutch Government to the Supreme Court for breaching human rights since it failed to adequately reduce CO₂ emission, forcing it to take action.” As such, he added, “everyone needs to get committed: scientists, journalists, activists, artists, teachers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, etc.” 

The change is also a matter for philosophy

“A philosophical understanding of the notion of harm, responsibility and causal contribution is necessary for understanding the kind of moral duties we have towards climate change. We need to think our harmful actions in collective contexts,” said Laura García-Portela, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland.

Laura García-Portela studies how philosophy can help to understand the moral dimensions of climate change.

However, Laura warned, the goal of philosophy is not to achieve effective actions, but rather guide actions from a regulatory standpoint. “This means we need to reduce emissions as far as possible, especially in developed countries. From a purely individual perspective, this means reducing one’s own emissions: not eating meat, cutting back on flights and car journeys and making up for emissions that are hard to cut back,” she said.  Laura added that we shouldn’t see this as a limitation or restriction. “For example, one can learn to enjoy other flavours or to travel at a more relaxed pace.” 

It can seem complicated to turn to philosophy and ethics when we need to make urgent political decisions. In fact, decision-making is generally characterised by more pragmatic, short-term approaches. Although she is not a political scientist, Laura trusts in the responsibility that leaders have to their voters to raise awareness of the importance of certain issues. “One example of this is the Declaration of the Climate and Environment Emergency raised by the Ministry of Ecological Transition. I think it’s a good step, (even if it is only symbolic), to raise awareness that this is a real problem.” 

Laura specialised in climate justice and the politics of harm and loss during her PhD at the University of Graz, Austria, with the support of a fellowship from the ”la Caixa” Foundation. Her fight against climate change has been recently acknowledged in the SWIP-Analytic Essay Prize for her article ‘Responsabilidad moral por pérdidas y daños por cambio climático: una respuesta a la objeción de ignorancia excusable’ [Moral Responsibility for Climate Change Loss and Damage: A Response to the Excusable Ignorance Objection].

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