Climate Justice and Climate Change

What is climate change?

The term ‘climate change’ has been with us since the early part of the 19th century when scientists sought to define natural changes in the earth’s atmosphere and the discovery of the greenhouse effect. In the later part of the century the link between human actions and climate change began to be debated, but it wasn’t until the 1960-90s that the debate intensified and scientists agreed there was a direct link between human greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. Today there is general consensus that although the earth’s temperatures have changed naturally over the years, the rate of change today is different.

The internationally respected scientists that make up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that: “most of the observed increases in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century are ‘very likely’ to be due to greenhouse gas emissions from human sources.” This is evidenced through “observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level” (80:20 Development in an Unequal World, 6th Ed. p52). The IPCC claim that with the onset of mass industrialisation in the western world, average global temperatures increased by 0.6°C. This is reportedly as a result of green house gas emissions such as carbon dioxide. As the world ‘develops’ the reliance on fossil fuel to power our lives – our cars, buses, TVs, ‘i’ gadgets, computers, heating, light, etc. It has been predicted that by 2100, global temperatures could increase by between 1.4°C and 5.8°C. The impact of this is already being felt throughout the world. None more so than in those countries who contribute the least to that impact on these changes. It is the most developed countries that are causing the most devastating environmental ripples in the developing world.

Climate disaster for the developing world?

In the scramble for development through our insatiable desire for more, our actions (or lack of) have directly impacted on the lives of those living in less developed countries. Many of these countries continue to make use of subsistence farming methods, heavily dependent on natural weather patterns. They are not equipped to adapt to any changes in climate such as drought or heavy rainfall and any changes ultimately negatively impact on their livelihoods. Once again, the poorest of the poor suffer the most.

The IPCC finds that climate change in African countries for example will most likely affect crop production and harvesting, spread of diseases, availability of clean water, loss of natural resources such as forests and grasslands and the potential extinction of animal species. Rising temperatures impact on individuals by affecting their health – heat related illnesses, respiratory illness, infectious diseases; increasing financial burdens; higher energy and food costs; effects of extreme natural disasters, and the effects of all these on social and cultural cohesion. Living in generally poorer countries also means that the leaders in these countries are in a weak position to make demands of those primarily responsible for much of the climate crisis.

Climate Justice

“Climate justice is a vision to dissolve and alleviate the unequal burdens created by climate change. As a form of environmental justice, climate justice is the fair treatment of all people and freedom from discrimination with the creation of policies and projects that address climate change and the systems that create climate change and perpetuate discrimination.”

Mary Robinson rightly categorises climate change as being about human rights and environmental justice, supporting the rights of the poor through Climate Justice. With limited progress since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the climate justice advocates call for the“human face on climate change” and the deep ‘injustices’ on individuals and families in those countries most adversely affected. Sea level rises, higher water temperatures, increased incidences of cyclones patterns among those making their living along coastal waters, or melting glaciers and changes in seasonal precipitation of those living in mountainous areas means that for those living there the “impacts are so serious that they threaten the very ability of families – who produce virtually no greenhouse gases – to continue to live there.

It is with a sense of urgency that the Climate Justice movement are calling for a ‘new narrative’ to compel people at all levels – in particular, political leaders – to act. This ‘narrative’ has at its core “upholding human rights, safeguarding the most vulnerable, and shaping equitable responses to climate change.” It exposes that basic human rights are being undermined through climate change – rights to food, water, health and development, and that it is one of the greatest threats to human development worldwide.

The “Climate Justice Dialogue” aims to highlight the issues of equity and justice by exposing the voices of the poor and ‘bring a human face to supplement the scientific reality,’ with the aim of developing a new climate change agreement in 2015.

Some quick facts

  • Industrialised countries account for 72% of global carbon dioxide emissions for the period 1850-2008 and benefited just 25% of the world’s population. Since carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for many decades, it is important to track historic greenhouse gas emissions
  • Climate models predict that within a 2 degree temperature rise, richer countries in more temperate zones will benefit from higher crop yields, whereas crops in tropical regions are already nearly at their limit of temperature sensitivity. For example, the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture report that with a temperature rise of just 2 degrees in West Africa means that it may be impossible to grow cocoa, which is the main commodity for that region (Source:
  • A 2 degree rise in temperature is the average figure for global temperature rises. In regions such as inland Africa, this temperature would be significantly higher. The reality of this is dramatic when we consider that on the Tibetan plateau, temperatures have been rising at double the global average over the last 30 years which has seen a catastrophic decline in 90% of Himalayan glaciers
  • On the human development side, ActionAid estimate that climate change could impact on hunger to the extent that by 2050 there would be an additional 500 million people on the ‘chronic hungry’ list…/scorecard_without_embargoe.pdf

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