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A New Tool for Climate Justice? The UN General Assembly Declares Access to a Clean, Healthy, and Sustainable Environment a Universal Human Right

Climate justice is highly complex, and the need for intersectionality brings a myriad of issues to the foreground. Will the UN’s new declaration take climate justice to the next level?

On July 28th, 2022, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly overwhelmingly declared “a clean, healthy and sustainable environment” a universal human right. While the declaration doesn’t possess any legal power, the UN calls upon organizations, companies, and countries, to use it as a guideline to build fair societies in the face of our global climate crisis.

The draft outlines responsibilities regarding the management of natural resources and protecting ecosystems, but also addresses economic and social segregation and climate injustices, reaffirming that “international cooperation has an essential role in assisting developing countries, including highly indebted poor countries, the least developed countries, […]” and “recognizing that, while the human rights implications of environmental damage are felt by individuals and communities around the world, the consequences are felt most acutely by women and girls and those segments of the population that are already in vulnerable situations […]”

Could the declaration be an effective tool for nations to close the climate injustice gap?

Climate Justice: A Definition

Climate justice addresses the impact climate change has on different groups. While more vulnerable communities are likely to suffer the most extreme fallout from the climate crisis, they are not the main contributors.

According to data collected by the World Bank, countries like Niger, Chad, Somalia, and Malawi are among those that suffer the worst effects of climate change. And while countries with the largest carbon footprint, such as China and the United States, also face effects, poorer nations are less equipped to respond to disasters. Poverty and climate change form a destructive vicious cycle. Recent data shows that when left unchecked, the climate crisis could force up to an additional 130 million into poverty. This is especially because poor communities tend to rely more heavily on their land.

A Budding Civil Rights Movement

With more and more reports and data circulating the web and a diversity of voices sharing their experiences, climate justice has turned into a civil rights movement. At the 2019 UN General Assembly’s High-level Meeting on the Protection of the Global Climate for Present and Future Generations, the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, and Namibian climate activist, Deon Shekuza, shared thoughts on climate justice.

Robinsons explains that 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,” while applauding the actions' youth are taking worldwide to address the imminent threat of global disaster.

Shekuza explained that climate change in his home country of Namibia connects more directly to domestic economic and social values such as electricity only being available in urban centers, and the drought the country faces undermining the population’s dependency on agriculture and conservation. He added that young activists should feel more free to get organized on their own terms, expressing their personal and cultural distress.

Climate justice campaigns and protests led by activists from various backgrounds are becoming more common on an individual and systematic level. At COP26, for example, the inclusion of indigenous people in climate discourse was brought to light. Virginia Raffaeli at Clima Talk stated that “indigenous peoples are at the forefront of the climate crisis. Not only are Indigenous communities among those most impacted by climate change since, for instance, many of them live in low-lying coastal areas, but they also represent numerous victims among environmental human rights defenders.”

Individual activists are also finding the strength to speak out. This autumn, climate activists worldwide are planning a ‘climate strike 2.0’, explaining that “taking a lesson from student activists in the 1960s, the climate justice movement’s youth will shut down business as usual. Not because we don’t like learning, but because what we’ve learned already makes it clear that, without a dramatic break from this system, we cannot ensure a livable planet for our presents and futures.” And most recently, 10-year-old Indian climate activist Licypriya Kangujam protested to raise awareness for climate justice in the climate emergency with a creed that seemingly echoes the UN’s declaration saying “we want clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and a clean planet to live (on), so these all are basic rights for all of us.”

Climate Justice: A More Nuanced Definition

Even though a diversity of voices are increasingly heard, actual climate justice is still not close to being achieved. The complexity of the issue and the need for intersectionality bring gender equality, debt justice, trade justice, trans justice, and racial justice, to the foreground.

According to a recent paper published in Urban Climate, governments are trying to formulate ways to address climate change, but “the compounding and overlapping vulnerabilities of historically marginalized residents are commonly tackled in a fragmented manner by conventional adaptation approaches, even when justice is presented as an overarching goal of these plans.”

While this is still a field of study in its early stages, the paper suggests a five-step plan for developing a more intersectional climate justice plan, which includes:

  • Recognition of oppressive systems and structures regarding racial and gender inequalities
  • Importance of isolating drivers of differential vulnerabilities such as “climate impacts, social crises, neoliberal urban development models and, most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic health and social crisis, in the (re)production of social and environmental injustices”
  • The need for systems of care to be offered and distributed fairly
  • Gathering local expertise and designing analytical frames adapted to local communities
  • Promotion and empowerment of minorities in the activism space.

Universal Declarations Can Be a Tool for Social and Political Change

In the battle for climate justice, the UN’s new declaration could be a valuable tool going from past achievements. Especially since the various elements that are part of an equitable and intersectional approach, already have a history of success in the development of laws and policies.

In 1948, the newly established UN responded to the Holocaust by adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which included the right to religious expression, life, health, and freedom from slavery. This declaration wasn’t legally binding either but provided a solid framework for other rights that were to find firm footing, such as the conventions against racial discrimination (1965) and agreements on the rights of children (1989) and people with disabilities (2006).

Voluntary declarations have been instrumental in adding a political dimension to fights for human rights on various levels. For example, the right to water was declared in 2010 and has since been leveraged to pressure governments to bring forth systematic changes for marginalized communities such as those in Mexico, Costa Rica, and Bangladesh. Similarly, the UN’s 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognized the exploitation, marginalization, and violence against indigenous communities. Since then, indigenous populations in Kenya, Paraguay, and Canada have used the declaration to obtain legal rights.

Legally or not, the UN’s declarations have proven to be a powerful vehicle for activists and advocates to focus on their goals and get results. Let’s see if climate justice will undergo a similar revolution.

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