COP26, Environmental Justice, and Human Rights

Posted by Kaitlin Smith on December 19, 2021

The Earth as seen by the Apollo 17 crew traveling toward the moon.The 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) that took place in Glasgow, Scotland from October to November 2021 was, in many ways, a historic event. It was the first COP convening to formally acknowledge the role of fossil fuels in climate change—a significant step in a global climate discourse filled with conflicting narratives and agendas surrounding fossil fuel use. In addition, 200 countries adopted an unprecedented agreement to “phase down” their use of coal as an energy source. Despite the historic nature of these developments, these outcomes have faced strong criticism from a wide array of stakeholder groups, and one area of dissension centers around the issue of environmental justice. While situations such as the Flint water crisis and Standing Rock have raised concern about environmental justice within the U.S., conversations emerging from COP26 pose questions of environmental justice at an international scale. While COP remains a crucial space for international cooperation in the fight against climate disaster, there is notable consternation over the unique burdens that various policies may place on poorer nations and those most vulnerable to adverse climate events. The nature of the debate that has unfolded brings the complicated relationship between human rights, environmental justice, and environmental stewardship into focus, and reveals that the path forward is riddled with complexity. 

Though there was hope that COP26 would culminate in a multilateral agreement that heeds the most recent analysis and recommendations of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the penultimate agreement fell short of those recommendations by a wide margin. Many commentators have indicated that it was a last-minute objection voiced by India and China that is to blame for the adoption of a less aggressive plan. Their urging resulted in the multilateral agreement being changed from language that calls for nations to “phase out” use of coal to language that instead calls for them to “phase down” use of coal. Approaching his role in overseeing this process primarily as a consensus-builder rather than a figure with veto power, COP President Alok Sharma has since called upon India and China to “explain themselves” to the international community, particularly to nations vulnerable to more severe climate catastrophe. 

Meanwhile, India and China’s leaders have asserted that use of coal is central to the strategy by which they are lifting their populations out of poverty—to provide what, in more industrialized parts of the world, would be considered a basic standard of living. Consider, for example, the words of itinerant Indian laborer Jamuna Munda interviewed by the BBC who, lacking electricity in her home, relies on heat from coal to cook meals for her family: "If we do not have coal, we can't cook. At night, we burn it and keep it in the house so we also have some light… If it's harmful, what we can do about it? We have no other option." With four million Indians directly employed in the coal industry and large regions of the country economically dependent on coal production, it is clear why—for Indian leaders—the prospect of swiftly “phasing out” coal might be untenable.

In light of these factors, some commentators have questioned the legitimacy of Sharma’s attribution of blame to India and China, suggesting that there may be a more complex picture. For example, one critic suggests that these events can only be grasped in the context of colonialism and the divergent histories of industrial development that have resulted. The author writes:

“There is a lot to unpack in these interactions, from the evident bullying to the more subtle but equally insidious patronizing and paternalistic attitudes of wealthier countries who believe they have the authority to reprimand the same countries they have historically exploited and [in] whose energy trajectory they have been entirely [co]mplicit… We must then acknowledge the historical power imbalances which have resulted in the timeline of coal's decline in the West, whilst the Global South has been left dependent on nonrenewable energy sources...”

Brandon Wu, Director of Policy & Campaigns at ActionAidUSA and head of international climate justice work, echoed this sentiment on Twitter writing “[t]he problem is not India; the problem is the US & rich countries refusing to couch fossil fuel phaseout in the context of global equity.” These critical questions are reflected in the call for the creation of a new “loss and damage” fund into which wealthier nations deposit money for use by poorer nations harder hit by climate change. Though activists from the Global South have argued that wealthier nations that play disproportionate roles in driving greenhouse gas emissions ought to take these actions to distribute the burden more equitably, this dimension of the agreement was also ultimately dropped.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issued a statement that echoes these concerns, however. She wrote: 

“The people who are most at risk from the adverse effects of climate change – including poor and marginalised communities – should be the first recipients of those resources. And those directly affected should have a seat at the table – their meaningful participation is key to effective and equitable action… This is a human rights obligation and a matter of survival. Without a healthy planet to live on, there will be no human rights – and if we continue on our current path -- there may be no humans.”

This statement clearly captures that the lack of aid to poorer nations in the context of the global fight against climate change is a human rights issue, but also that if we fail to halt this warming process through aggressive policy measures, human rights—and humans as a species—will cease to exist. This commentary on these events then captures some of the paradox that we face as we attempt to attend to lopsided scales of injustice on a global level without losing the unifying urgency of the climate crisis. 

Despite the steps forward that COP26 achieved, COP President Alok Sharma noted that the gains achieved during the summit are inadequate to neutralize the threat that now faces humanity as it is described in the latest climate science. He has invited global leaders to convene again next year at COP27 in Cairo, Egypt where nations’ degree of fidelity to this year’s agreement will be appraised and further action plans will be considered. 

In the meantime, these events leave us with a host of challenging questions. How do issues of environmental justice within our own home communities, states, and nations relate to matters of environmental justice playing out on a global scale? What tools can we use to puzzle through this complexity—both the complexity of our own experiences in these times and the experiences of others who may be situated elsewhere on the globe? 

The scale at which this crisis asks us to think and act is unprecedented; it can also feel emotionally and intellectually overwhelming and is leaving many people grief stricken. However, there are embodied and reflective practices we can employ to connect more deeply with the state of the natural world where we are, the political questions raised by ecological developments, and the lived experiences of others who find themselves on the other side of the neighborhood or even the other side of the globe.

Facing History invites educators to use our Teaching Idea, Reflecting on Climate Change and Ecological Grief in the classroom in which we explore some of these embodied and reflective strategies.

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Pictured above: The Earth as seen by the Apollo 17 crew traveling toward the moon.

Topics: Human Rights, environmental justice, climate change

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