Campaigning to Yes

Last night I attended an event on how democracies can address climate change, co-hosted by UBC’s Center for Democratic Institutions and the David Suzuki Foundation. It was a tale of two panels – which is bad news for the Yes side of the MetroVancouver Transit Referendum.

The first panel spoke of the politics of the possible – what California and Ontario have achieved by setting climate targets and phasing out coal, respectively. Both experiences shared a similar approach to getting the word out, and securing public support – grassroots campaigning. In California, there were people making signs and rallying for more renewable energy. In Ontario, there were public demonstrations and other signs of popular support for phasing out coal and moving toward green energy.

In both cases, reducing fossil fuels use was a human issue – it was about helping asthmatic kids and creating jobs in the renewable energy sector. In Vancouver, it is precisely this human element that is missing from the transit referendum Yes side, because the Mayors are campaigning like Mayors and not like activists.

The Mayors are using math, statistics and sound policy advice to make their point. Debating policy is what Mayors do. It could get them re-elected, but will not win a referendum. It’s easier to say no, to use knee-jerk reactions and to support the status quo. The Yes side needs to inspire people. Math isolates people – visions and narratives inspire.

The referendum will not be won on the content of the policy – it will be won on the ability to connect the content of the plan to the everyday lives of people. What is needed is a growth of grassroots advocacy where a 1000 flowers bloom, rather than a network of organizations. The Better Transit and Transportation Coalition need to reach out and start seeding advocacy at household levels. It’s great that 100+ groups support the Coalition (a link which should be upfront and center on the webpage). These members may have their own connections, but they cannot do it alone.

It’s easier to campaign for a No vote. It’s easier to use knee-jerk reactions rather than reasoned debates. By making the campaign personal and public – telling the stories of people and doing so in the media and on the streets – the Yes side can prevail.

When asked what the Coalition wants everyone in the audience to do, a representative of the Better Transit and Transportation Coalition replied “pledge your vote.” That is an insufficient. It does not encourage people to act – a pledge is not registering to receive a ballot and it makes any action a private affair. We need support for the plan to be very, very public.

Here is what the representative should reply in the future:

  • Register to vote, and send the registration link to your friends
  • Work with your friends to start a Twitterstorm using #40moreaday – the transit plan will save commuters at least 40 minutes more per day – what would you do with that time?
  • Talk to neighbours, friends about why you will vote yes
  • Organize a registration center at your local church or community center
  • Write to the newspapers, call into radio shows
  • Get everyday people to talk about how their lives, health and community will be better served by better transit
  • Get offline and knock on doors.

Where are the rallies? Where are the media events with everyday people? Where are people’s personal stories (such as the Director for the Centre for Democratic Institutions reasons why he is happy to vote Yes in the referendum).

The public may trust municipal politicians more than provincial or federal ones, but they trust their neighbours even more.

Does Google Help Climate Deniers and Anti-Vaxers?

In a recent CBC interview, an anti-vaccination supporter declared that “I’ve done my research, and come to my conclusions.” The interview revealed that this “research” was incorrect, fraught with in accuracies, and ignorant of basic sources of information, such as publicly-accessible databases and inventories of information on vaccinations. In our age of ever more accessible information, how could such information be missed? Modern algorithms trick our old-fashioned brains into thinking there is more support for a minority argument than what really exists.

Google launched its personalized search system in 2004, and made is part of all Google searches in 2005. All searches on Google are associated with a browser cookie record, which informs the results you see on future searches. When you type in your search words, the list of results is not only based on up the words entered, but the previous browsing history. Someone else could enter the same key words and see different results, given their different browsing history.

When a climate denier or an anti-vaxer enters the terms “climate change” or “vaccinations” they will see information posted by skeptics of the science of climate change or vaccinations. This leads to the assumption that this information is more popular and the views more widely held than they actually are.

This is where our old-fashioned brain comes in. We use heuristics all the time. Heuristics are shortcuts. They can be helpful in many situations – instead of rationally thinking through every situation, we can make quick decisions based on past experiences and impressions (which is useful when crossing the street and a bus is barreling toward you). Think of the hundreds of decisions you make in a day, large and small, heuristics keep us moving forward.

A well-studied heuristic is the availability heuristic. We use readily available information to make a decision. For example, if you see several news reports of airplane crashes, you may question if air travel is unsafe. In reality, the news reports may be highlighting the very few cases of airline crashes because they are dramatic, and, frankly make for good TV. The availability heuristic can fool as much as help.

When someone searches for climate change or vaccinations who has a past browser history of climate denial or anti-vaccination sites, their results will fool rather than help. They easy availability of information – ranked highly by Google, no less! – will trick their brains into concluding that this information is correct, because it is so available.

When, in reality, climate denier claims are thoroughly debunked (even by former climate skeptic scientists) and the only study linking vaccinations to disease was retracted after the results could not be replicated. The results these people receive are the result of their past searching history, not the facts of the issues at hand, or the considerable weight of the scientific evidence.

In part because of such personalized searches, those who are already skeptical become more entrenched in their positions. Societal debate and dialogue is reduced to the vast majority trying to convince the minority to accept reality. It’s a base, and black and white debate that no one can win.

There are of course other factors, such as the heavily-resourced mobilization campaigns to create biased views, and a growing culture of skepticism. Yet, they are based on similar ideas – that there is a community out there with readily available information that can prove that something is dangerous. The problem is that the fact checking is now also biased, leading individuals to dangerous conclusions.

The Curse of Round-Numbered Years

This year will be a very busy one for global environmental politics, perhaps even promising momentous milestones, or more momentous failures. Several disparate processes all have significant decisions to make this year, as mandated by decisions made years ago.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be finalized this year, to replace the Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015. This will reset the global development agenda – where efforts and funds are directed.

Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are to agree to a new legally-binding instrument or “outcome with legal force” by the end of this year.

The UN Forum on Forests is to review its Global Goals on Forests and the Forest Instrument as part of its review of the intergovernmental arrangement on forests. Beneath this jargon lies a substantial decision on how – and perhaps whether – to continue the Forum and forest governance under the UN Economic and Social Council.

Years ago, delegates in completely different arenas chose a number out of the air to renew, revamp or reset their governance arrangements. Now, they are all struggling to complete this work, and figure out how these various moving parts fit together. This careful dance is the curse of a round numbered year.

The work on forests is related to the SDGs – there are SDG targets and activities explicitly on improving forest cover and livelihoods. The SDGs are related to climate change because low-carbon sustainable development is a key part of mitigating future greenhouse gas emissions and adapting the climate change impacts. Forests which are both a source of and sink for greenhouse gases, creating multiple links between forests and climate change.

The UNFF is deciding the future of (its part) of forest governance in May; the SDGs are expected in September; and the climate agreement is due in December. Likely, the steps will be reshuffled. The UNFF is the least powerful or effective (or resourced) of the three, meaning it will want to strengthen its links and work with the SDGs and climate change. Member states may do the minimum now, and wait for the other pieces to shake out.

If the other pieces fall into place, that is. The SDGs have underwent considerable consultation and hopefully seem on fairly solid footing. There is a looming debate on if there are too many SDGs, which may radically alter the number of targets and activities. So, while there is a draft out there for states and civil society to peruse and consult on, there is no guarantee that this will be the final list.

The likelihood that there will be a climate agreement is even more slim. As I’ve written before, the Paris agreement is at best going to be the beginning, not the end of the climate negotiations. There are five negotiation sessions planned, including the two weeks in Paris in December. Given the rift that remains among key states on fundamental issues, including whether the agreement should be legally binding and if all states will undertake commitments, it seems unlikely that there will be a lengthy, document outlining targets for all. Instead, the negotiations are already “bottom-up,” meaning that each state is able to determine their own actions and contributions toward controlling climate change.

Such uncertainty leave the other multilateral fora in a quandary – do they take action, knowing that the largest environmental negotiation currently underway may supercede or undercut their efforts? There are strong calls to have a special place for forests in the 2015 climate agreement. With no such strong agreement in the works, how long should others hold their breath?

It is possible that the SDGs could, by virtue of having an agreement, surpass the climate change negotiations in terms of political support, participation by key states, resources, and – most crucially – implementation of actions that have a real-world impact. As the number of climate-related activities outside the UNFCCC grows, the ability of the UNFCCC to deliver may decrease.

In part, this is the curse of the round-numbered year: others are also looking ahead, identifying strategic areas where they could engage, and, seeing weakness, others could take over your work.

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.

Snowballing Green Policy

In the last week, Australia’s Senate voted to axe the carbon tax –er, price. It is another example of a frustratingly unique aspect of environmental politics – just how easily reversible environmental policies can be.

The decimation of Canadian environmental regulations at the federal level is another recent example. Conservatives even scrapped fisheries and water protection rules created by previous Conservative governments.

A study by Australian National University found that the carbon tax curbed carbon emissions by 1-2% from the electricity sector in the few years it existed. The deputy leader of the Greens lamented repealing the tax is Australia’s “asbestos moment, our tobacco moment.” The IPCC finds that carbon pricing is a powerful tool: it makes cleaner energy sources more attractive and promotes innovation in low-carbon sectors.

Environmentally, a carbon price is the right thing to do. Politically, like other environmental policies, it fails to create its own longevity.

If you invest in your pension for 30 years, you will fight any government that wants to repeal pensions. You’ll fight for better pensions. You, and millions of your fellow seniors and soon-to-be retirees. Key voters no politician can ignore.

Pensions create their own biggest supporters – voters who are monetarily invested in the system and rely on it for their future well-being. The policy becomes self-perpetuating by its very nature.

Environmental policies do not create groups of people invested in a policy’s future. Parks have eco-tourist companies that benefit, yet they are too few and too small to defeat recent changes to BC Parks Act allowing for feasibility studies of roads and pipelines. Asthmatics benefit from air pollution rules. They may not realize how, and how much, they benefit – certainly it’s not like getting a cheque in the mail.

Highways and infrastructure also keep snowballing along because they require a big, initial investment. After that pot of money is dedicated, and the road or train line is built, it’s very costly and difficult to change. Other policies, like health care, can be the same way. After you invest in setting up one system, it’s nearly impossible to reverse course and start anew.

Environmental policies ask industries to put some technologies in place, such as filters to scrub the sulfur from the emissions coming from the stack pipe.

Here’s a modest suggestion: the profits from carbon taxes should go to two places. Individuals who pay the tax when the fill up their cars and heat their houses should get that money back when they file their income tax. For individuals, a carbon tax should be revenue neutral.

The second pot of money earned from big corporations slow to reduce their emissions should go into health care. For corporations, the carbon tax would help support Canadian society, particularly our health system.

Canada’s health care system could use the boost. People would care about the carbon tax, they would have a vested interest in seeing the tax continuing. Given the links between health and climate change, this is not a stretch

Any politician wanting to repeal the tax, and take money from our precious health care system, would have a tough time explaining this to Canadians who love, and need, our health and environmental systems.

Why Paris is the beginning, not the end of climate negotiations

The meeting in Paris, in 2015 is the deadline for states to agree to a new climate change agreement. Even if states make that deadline, 2015 will likely mark the beginning of a lengthy, and technical, negotiation process.

Just 18 months before the 2015 deadline, countries did make some progress. They started to discuss what the new agreement would look like in concrete terms, rather than the vague conversations dragging on the last two years. In particular, how and what countries would put forward in their “intended nationally-determined contributions” became more clear, and many expect an outcome on this in Lima at the end of 2014.

The contributions are a pledge, or a statement, of what every country will do to combat climate change. If they will be legally-binding is unclear. As the conversation is shaping up, it looks like they will state, in terms common to all countries, the mitigation policies that countries will take. They will also include an estimate of the amount of greenhouse gases these policies will reduce.

It is also possible that these contributions will go beyond mitigation, to include adaptation, finance, technology transfer and capacity building measures. Each country would state what they are willing to do on these issues as well. This a new idea and much needs to be worked out, but such concrete thinking it is a far cry from the long-winded, abstract statements of years past.

Yet, with just 18 months to go, it is not concrete enough to lead to a complete, comprehensive climate agreement in Paris.

At best, countries will be able to agree to a relatively short, quite political agreement that builds on existing institutions, while creating new, nationally-determined contributions and contain agreement on other aspects not included in those contributions. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, that set legally-binding targets for each country, countries will set their own targets. (more later on the insufficiency of this approach)

Like Kyoto, the agreement will probably set the political goals and leave the questions of how to achieve those goals to future rounds of negotiations. There simply isn’t time, in the slow machinery of international negotiations, to come up with much more than political goal setting that everyone can agree to.

This may not be a bad thing. It is difficult to get 195 countries pulling in the same direction. The technical details, or the rulebook, of the Kyoto Protocol was the Marrakesh Accords. These were difficult negotiations. The text grew to several hundred pages before countries narrowed the agreement, which spanned a wide range of issues, to under 200 pages. These negotiations effectively operationalized the Protocol.

Similarly, the rules of how to (possibly) review contributions, (hopefully) ratchet up their ambition, and (likely) have future commitment periods will need to be worked out with a degree of technical detail. Issues of monitoring, reporting and verifying countries’ efforts are always thorny and best left to technically-minded delegates (i.e. not ministers or heads of state).

The priority now is getting everyone on the same board, and resolving looming political issues, especially the legal form the new agreement will take and “differentiation” (how to determine who does what based on their capacities, and perhaps not based on older, developed/developing country divisions).

So settle in. There will be years of negotiations following the 2015 climate instrument. Let’s just hope they are completed by 2020 when the agreement enters into force. It’s governing for the long term, and taking a long time.

Should the 2015 Climate Instrument have an Opt-Out Clause?

As delegates debate the key elements of a new, post-Kyoto agreement, they look to other international environmental agreements for ideas. It is clear to most that the Kyoto Protocol failed to bring key actors on board (the US), and create flexibility for other actors to assume commitments (or contributions) as their economies grew (notably, China and India). Other failings of the top-down Protocol are evident: poor implementation of commitments, and little support for developing countries to pursue low-emissions growth strategies. The list goes on.

A new model is necessary, prompting the search for new ideas. At COP-19 in Warsaw, parties held a workshop to consider the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), the Montreal Protocol on CFCs, and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). For each, the presentations hit the high notes, considering each convention in general terms.

Some ideas are worth considering in detail. An opt-out clause is one such possibility, allowing parties to formally withdraw from some aspects of the agreement. This would occur as a written statement from the government, deposited with the Secretariat and made public.

An opt out clause would free the leaders, identify the laggards, and protect sectors vulnerable to the negative effects of market mechanisms.

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) has an opt out clause. Parties regularly add new POPs to the Convention after a scientific review by the POPs Review Committee determines that a chemical is likely, as a result of long-range environmental transport, to lead to significant human and/or environmental effects. The opt out clause allows countries to withdraw from the elimination or management of a new chemical.

Allowing countries to opt out creates a “are you with us or not?” dynamic. Leaders are free to move ahead of the pack, creating competitive advantages for new, cleaner industries. They are identified as leaders to industry, civil society and other states. These leaders are not confined to the lowest-common denominator tendency of modern environmental agreement reached by consensus.

Those who opt out are subject to soft tools of persuasion and moral suasion. These tools may be called soft, but are likely effective. To date, few states have opted out of commitments from newly -listed chemicals under the Stockholm Convention. While the provision exists, states seem unwilling to use it. Instead, as seen with the debate over HBCD in the Stockholm Convention, parties want to negotiate rather than simply opt out.

Parties that opt out are clearly marked as laggards and unable to mask their non-compliance with complicated rules or loopholes. It is public information that a given state deliberately withdrew from an international agreement (or part of). They become targets for civil society activism and other states’ diplomatic efforts. The US effectively opted out when George W. Bush refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. The infamy of this event points to the norm of states generally seeking to play by the agreed rules and the reluctance of states to brazenly opt out. When a state opts out, everyone knows who to blame.

Further, their industries lose out when other, cleaner industries become more competitive in a global market. As the leaders innovate and encourage new industries to grow, older industries lose market share. These states then face an uphill battle to catch up with the world moved on without them.

There may be positive effects from opting out, including protecting vulnerable sectors from the negative effects of climate market mechanisms. Developing countries are reluctant (for good reason) to keep agriculture out of mitigation mechanisms, yet some developed countries would like to include agriculture. One third of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the agricultural sector. If these were reduced, without market mechanisms, that would represent a global benefit. New Zealand would be free to reduce its emissions, while developing countries could protect their agricultural sectors from land grabs, and other negative effects potentially associated with mitigation from the agricultural sector.

A similar logic could apply to other land-based activities, such as reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (plus conservation, sustainable management and enhancement of forest carbon stocks) (REDD+). Brazil could reduce emissions from the forest sector, to count towards its national accounting of reductions, while other countries will unclear land tenure could opt out, and protect local communities.

The Paris 2015 Agreement, if there is one, looks so far to be a bottom-up compilation of national contributions toward global reductions. Stronger action may require bolder ideas.

The limits, and potential, of Earth Hour

Every year, I turn off my lights for an hour in support of Earth Hour. A few years back, I hosted a candlelit housewarming party. I understand my efforts contribute an infinitesimally small amount to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, every year I support the effort.

I participate, despite mixed feelings about the event, and a sense that, in very fundamental ways, Earth Hour sends the wrong message at the worst possible time.

It’s a chance reflect and start a conversation about living green in whatever city I happen to be in (I’ve celebrated Earth Hour in Paris, Vancouver and Edmonton in recent years). It’s a chance to, literally, unplug and unwind, to enjoy conversation without distraction.
Each location brings a new view of the challenges and opportunities for lightening my ecological footprint. In Edmonton, public transit was slow and difficult to navigate, while the city is one of the least dense in Canada. Paris has much better transit and far less efficient waste management and recycling. Vancouver stands out as a contender for Greenest City in Canada, and to some, in the world, and yet despite my bus riding, bicycling, energy saving practice, etc, my ecological footprint is still too high.

This is what is fundamentally misplaced about Earth hour – it says that the individual is responsible for both the problem and committing to the solution. Our homes, cars, and overconsumption of course matter. Without systemic change to how we design and develop cities or generate and transmit energy, there are strict limits on the ability of individuals to deal with environmental issues such as waste and climate change. If someone in Alberta chooses an electric car, they are increasing demand for electricity based on coal. That is not that person’s choice, but the result of government support for dirty industries and perverse subsidies privileging fossil fuels.

This is not meant to pick on Alberta – reliance on fossil fuels mean no individual, or large group of individuals, can possibly do enough to solve the problems we face. No amount of recycling and bicycling can overcome the lack of renewable energy in the mix, or institutional investment (e.g., universities and banks) in industries that damage the environment and our health.

Earth hour accomplishes what Michael Maniates calls the “individualization of responsibility.” By telling people that they as individuals need to do better and do more glosses over the need for rethinking the design of our economies and societies. Maybe our cities need to be smaller, and our energy systems decentralized. Maybe our values, as a society need to change: buying the latest gadget to replace a perfectly-good gadget should be shunned, not praised.

We have much work to do on our systems and on collective ourselves. To reconsider how we organize ourselves in a way that protects the ability of future generations to live happy, healthy lives is a communal undertaking. Together, it’s time to redefine what prosperity means and how we seek to achieve it. Such conversations can be had by candlelight, but also need to be taken to the halls of power – to demand our leader do more and do better.

Earth hour can be the start of a conversation, but it cannot achieve transformation.


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.