Jane Fonda & Parachute Activism

Jane Fonda is the latest celebrity to visit Canada’s crown jewel of greenhouse gas emissions. James Cameron, Neil Young, Leonardo DiCaprio, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Neve Campbell, Robert Redford, Darryl Hannah, and Bill Nye (among others) made similar journeys. Several viewed the facilities from the air and landed to visit First Nations peoples in Fort Chipewyan.

Celebrities touring the oil sands if the most visible form of what I call “parachute activism” – an activist from outside the community, even the country, arrives to protest a specific problem, or a symbol of a larger trend. Parachute activists lack local knowledge and context. As outsiders, they are largely ignorant of the nuances of political governance and certainly do not understand local narratives, cultures, and social institutions surrounding the target of their activism.

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Sidelining Health in Climate Talks?

This is part of an ongoing yet sporadic series of posts on the social aspects of climate change. Previous posts considered gender and human rights.

The links between climate change and health are increasingly evident, and yet health is a marginal issue in the climate change negotiations. The relative neglect of health issues in the climate change negotiations and broader discussion is surprising. Health issues are tangible and strike a chord with the public – both characteristics that are useful for politicians and activists seeking progress.

Highlighting the health implications of climate change could be a game changer that will get people on board. A recent study confirmed the potential of framing climate change as a health issue to engage people who are otherwise disinterested in climate change. Yet, so far, few climate actors have capitalized on this opportunity.

The relative dearth of messaging does not mean that health and climate are separate issues. The Word Health Organization (WHO) estimates climate caused for over 140 000 deaths annually by the year 2004. Heatwaves influence mortality and morbidity for sensitive populations and for those sensitive to ground level ozone and asthma. More extreme weather events and natural disasters not only causes death and injury, but also stresses or destroys water and sanitation systems crucial to preventing disease.

There are a host of indirect links because climate change with exacerbate several environmental factors that bear on our health. Agricultural is a highly vulnerable sector, which may heighten malnutrition as food becomes more scarce or expensive. Various diseases, sensitive to climactic changes may spread as water and air temperatures and rainfall patterns shift. As the WHO stated in 2008, when the organization made climate change the focus of World Health Day, the health needs to be protected from climate change. These are snapshots of the potential health impacts, the IPCC devoted a chapter to health in the last two Assessment Reports (for a more digestable version: see the summary here).

These multiple connections between climate change and health led the Lancet Commission in 2009 to declare that climate change could be the biggest health effect of the 21st century.

Unsurprisingly, the focus thus far has been on helping create adaptation plans that will both adapt to climate change’s impacts and help protect health. As early as 2002, Health Canada considered the health-related vulnerabilities created by climate change in Canada’s north. The WHO has partnered with the UN Development Project to pilot various adaptation measures that will protect health in developing countries representing a range of vulnerabilities, from low-lying island states to water-stressed areas.

Yet, there may be instances where taking action on health can help protect the climate. Targeted actions can have co-benefits for health and climate change. For example, creating walkable and bike-friendly urban environments creates benefits for health and reduces GHG emissions. The connections between mitigation and health seem fewer and more tangential to the debate.

There may be fewer logical, and relatively direct, links between health and mitigation and this could be one reason why there the climate negotiations tend to neglect health. Mitigation is the traditional topic of the UN climate talks. Mitigation was the focus of the Kyoto Protocol and adaption only emerged as a key area in the negotiations in 2007, with the Bali Action Plan. Yet, adaptation still receives less funding and less attention in the talks – its tends to be the neglected, somewhat poorer cousin.

Among civil society, those we’d expect to carry the health banner, many health NGOs were rather late to the game, while several environmental NGOs seem reticent to take up health messaging. There were earlier whispers. In 2007, a group of NGOs working on environmental and development issues held a side event on climate change and health, highlighting effects on peri-urban and urban malaria, rabies, malaria, typhoid, and hyptertension in various developing countries. Health NGOs started attending in greater numbers since Copenhagen in 2009. They seem to be making up for lost time, organization to form the Global Climate and Health Alliance – a network of the various NGOs attempting to raise health issues in climate change negotiations.

They have considerable work to do to keep health messaging in the ears and eyes of the public at national and international levels. Doctors may not see discussing climate change as part of their jobs, and may worry about touching an issue that can be polarizing and controversial in some countries. Frontline workers focus on immediate priorities, and yet climate change impacts can often manifest as a long, slow burn.

While the health community may be the best messengers for climate change, they need allies. The US EPA has to keep health front and center in its climate change regulatory ambitions. In part, the EPA can regulate greenhouse gas emissions as pollutants because of the health effect associated with GHGs. The WHO is hosting a conference on climate change and health this month (for coverage, see IISD RS), which could build bridges to established climate actors.

It will take powerful voices willing to speak out on the health impacts of climate change to bring this issue in from the margins. Given the unique potential of health to activate and mobilize people for climate change action, those powerful allies need to arrive soon to build political will for a 2015 agreement.

Climate and Human Rights

Is climate change a social issue? This is the second post in a series to look at the possible links between a social issue and climate change.

The climate justice movement seems to be gaining momentum, but its efficacy and future remain uncertain. At the end of 2007, a growing movement of NGOs and other activists connected human rights issues to climate change. Started by a small band of NGOs committed to environmental and development (and other) issues, the climate justice movement gained steam in 2011 in Durban, South Africa. Now, Scotland seems poised to make climate justice the basis of its negotiation stance at the UN Framework of Climate Change (should Scotland become an independent country, and require an independent foreign policy on the issue, that is). Venezuela will host the preparatory meetings to COP20, and already dubbed the meetings the “social pre-COP.”

At the heart of climate justice, like the links between gender and climate, is the recognition that climate change exacerbates inequalities. Those least responsible for climate change stand on the front lines and face its impacts. The global poor are unable to buy their way to a safer climate or purchase the means of adaptation. These marginalized groups are also more likely to encounter loss and damage associated with sudden and slow onset climate change. To some climate advocates, these realities inherently tie climate change to the notion of justice.

They point out that climate impacts will infringe other, established human rights. We are currently in the Water for Life Decade, a period devoted to raising awareness of the human right to water and sanitation, which the UN General Assembly officially recognized in 2010. Climate change could impede the realization of other rights key to poverty alleviation, such as the right to development. A report for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN OHCHR) also pointed to the vulnerability of the rights to food, health and adequate housing to climate change.

The UN OHCHR has adopted several resolutions stating that climate change poses a threat to the “effective enjoyment of human rights.” In 2008, María Francisca Ize-Charrin, Director, Research and Right to Development Division, UN OHCHR stated that “climate change violates the universal right of all peoples to live in a safe and sustainable environment.”

Legal human rights exist as consensus statements about the dignity of the human experience and respect for life. If states agree that there is a legal and moral imperative to address human rights, then, by extension, some argue there is a legal and moral imperative to address climate change.

Yet, it seems few argue a step further – that there is a human right to a safe and stable climate. Perhaps it is too politically sensitive. Recognition by states of a human right to a stable climate is a daunting and exhausting goal to achieve. If states approved this human right, then their inaction in the UNFCCC is even less defensible. Many could be reticent to open a new multilateral channel to reach agreement on climate change, even at a principled level. A human right to a safe climate could be politically infeasible at present.

A more moderate approach – as taken by NGOs and international organizations thus far – is to chalk the wheels on human rights that states have already recognized, and highlight the links between climate change and water, food, housing, and development.

What remains to be seen is if the justice lens can help break the impasse at the negotiations. States in the UNFCCC thus far have seemed rather unreceptive to moralistic language, and often prefer to work with those versed in the scientific and technical language of complex environmental issues. Arguing for climate justice could create a productive pressure on states to act and for societies to mobilize; it could also prove counterproductive if the bickering turns to moral issues rather than emission reductions.

Gendering Climate Change

Is climate change a social issue? This is the first post in a series to look at the possible links between a social issue and climate change (more on labour, human rights, health and others to come).

States are slowly recognizing that the impacts of climate change are not gender neutral. The solutions to climate change, even, could benefit from the experiences and resiliencies women have developed as the climate shifts us toward a warmer, more volatile world. While a group of NGOs continues to document the gendered disparities on the ground, the COP has taken a more traditional, and some argue, insufficient approach to addressing gender.

The effects of climate change are unequivocal, according to the latest scientific consensus in the IPCC, and gendered. Women often are in vulnerable positions in society, relying on largely informal and unpaid work to support their families. The vulnerabilities introduced by a changing climate, such as droughts, floods, displacement, and natural disasters multiply the risks faced by women.

In small-scale agriculture, women’s work tends to be unpaid, yet is primarily responsible for ensuring healthy and sufficient meals for their family. Agriculture’s heavy dependence on a water resources and predictable climate patterns means climate change threatens crop yields and, in turn, food security. Women relying on agriculture for their daily livelihoods face a multiplying, and daunting, challenge that is out of their ability to control.

During natural disasters, women’s place on the margins of society becomes more precarious as law, order, and food supplies break down. Women are 14 times more likely to die in natural disasters than men, because it seems “natural” that women stay with the home, even when a cyclone draws near, and because of a lack of healthcare. In displacement camps, there is an escalation of violence against women and girls. As natural disasters become more intense because of climate change, women potentially face prospects of a more precarious existence.

As some states start to slowly rise to the challenge of mitigating emissions, gendered differences are also discernable among genders. Here, the evidence is slower to emerge. Mitigation financing in the developing world tends to support large-scale infrastructure and industrial energy efficiency projects. Thus far, there is a lack of information on how these types of projects impact men and women or consider gender in their design. There are some lessons to be learned from projects in Colombia, Mali, and Nepal that considered ways to bring women into climate change mitigation efforts.

Other responses to increase the voice of women in mitigation are starting to emerge. These include the Women’s Carbon Standard (now called the W+ Standard), the Environment and Gender Index, and a REDD+ checklist to help mainstream gender into social and environmental standards. These tools seek to include women as agents of change in the global effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the effect already apparent and expected in the future.

At the highest level, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), gender disparities are also evident. Female delegates are a minority and a woman on an executive body is an even rarer sight. The approach thus far adopted by the parties in decision 23/CP.18 in Doha in 2012 is to count the number of women involved. We tend to like things quantified. The numbers give us a sense of accomplishment, both in their production and if they slowly start to signal improvement.The hope seems to be that by adding women and stirring them in to the decision making process, gender inequalities evident in climate mitigation efforts will somehow disappear. Many question this assumption, pointing to the deep-rooted nature of patriarchal structures that the mere presence of women cannot vanquish. At the in-session workshop on gender and climate change, there were several calls for a more nuanced approach, yet the draft conclusions indicate little concrete uptake or further action in this direction.

Gender and climate change seem linked. Yet, they are causally distinct. Reducing our greenhouse gas emissions will not solve gender inequalities and, likewise, reducing gendered stereotypes and discrimination will not solve the climate crisis. This seems to be a downstream effect of two powerful, but different, trends – climate change and gender inequality – meeting and amplifying the effects of one another.