Climate myth #6: Climate change is (only) an environmental issue

28 November 2015

In the run up to the COP21 UN climate talks in Paris this December (more here on how to join us and take action), we're busting some commonly-heard climate myths, from big business being part of the solution to putting our faith in techno-fixes. Catch up with last week's mythbuster - "We can solve climate change ourselves by changing our lifestyles". Comments or questions about this article? Come and find us on Facebook and Twitter.

The Myth

There is no doubt that climate change is the greatest threat that the planet is facing today. From rising temperatures and sea levels, mass extinction of species, to raging storms, shifting seasons, floods, droughts - the environmental impacts of the changing climate are indisputable. Two weeks ago, global warming surpassed 1 degree above pre-industrial levels, putting us half way through the (imperfect) target of +2°C.

Check videos of mapped international metropolitan areas under water as we lock ourselves in global warming way beyond what the 9 planetary boundaries (we have already surpassed 3 and are in the zone of high risk and uncertainty in 2 out of the 9). National Geographic has also simulated what our Earth would look like if all the ice melted.

These are just a few of the scary, but very real, consequences and scenarios of climate change. We could go on and on about all the disastrous environmental impacts our biosphere is already experiencing.

But this narrative puts us at risk of echoing the mainstream rhetoric that “we are all on the same boat”, that “urgent action is needed by everyone” pushed by the Global North in global governance spaces (namely, the UNFCCC) where it dominates discussions.

The idea that climate change is solely an environmental issue, the mainstream media’s narrative, is a very simplified perspective. This is why we chose to debunk this myth, to show how climate change unequally affects people around the world.


Climate change is a justice issue

Across environmental movements as well as within negotiating spaces we often hear “to change everything, we need everyone.” What is often overlooked - and we cannot stress this enough - is that not everyone has contributed to the climate crisis in the same capacity, and not everyone has been, or will be impacted the same way.

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 Industrialised nations (i.e. Global North) have historically emitted about 80% of greenhouse gases globally, contributing the most to climate change, while developing nations from the Global South are facing the worst impacts. As we demonstrated in our second climate myth buster, this means the Global North has a responsibility to lead the way in fighting climate change, and to compensate the countries of the Global South - which is not the path we have been seeing in the UNFCCC for the last two decades.

We have not yet seen justice for people who already have been impacted by climate change, and especially when it comes to climate debt i.e. reparations that the Global North owes to the Global South; neither for mitigation and adaptation, nor for technology transfer.


Climate change is a human rights issue

This article in the Guardian puts it simply - climate change is violence. Its dire consequences - from droughts and floods to typhoons - impact people disproportionately and in different ways. It affects individuals’ living and dignity, and their basic human rights. The topic of human rights violations is especially complicated when it comes to climate change. Although the UN has recognised the term of environmental and climate refugees, they are not protected by international law and asylum systems.


 27 million people are displaced by climate - and weather - related disasters each year, and although many of these migrations are internal and/ or temporary (e.g. people rebuild their homes), they undergo huge social and economic consequences. UNHCR predicts that up to 250 million people will be displaced by 2050 as a result of extreme weather conditions, dwindling water reserves and a degradation of agricultural land, but also conflicts over resources. We cannot omit sea-level rise that threatens low-lying island nations in the Pacific like the Maldives - who already have an evacuation programme planned - but also countries like Alaska.

To say that migration has nothing to do with climate change is to avoid seeing the global picture. Migration is not one-dimensional, and people often have more than one reason to leave their homes, ranging from economic and political to development and environmental dimensions. What’s important to understand is that climate change is essentially a ‘threat multiplier’. Places with ethnic, religious, political and other divides coincide with the regions that will be first and worst affected by climate change. It’s often perceived as controversial to make connections between violence, conflicts and climate change, but the connections are there. European countries continue to exploit nations from the Global South for resources like oil, and sell arms to countries in the Middle East, thus fueling wars - some of which are rooted in conflicts over natural resources.

This article in The Nation goes even further, and explains what failure to tackle climate change could mean for our future - not only in terms of disastrous weather events, but also national instabilities and armed conflicts.

So why are we making all these links? What does all of this have to do with human rights? It’s simple. The communities that have already experienced injustice on some level, be it exploitation of resources or wars, are now also dealing with climate change impacts. Many are already being displaced, and millions are being forced to flee their homes as a consequence. The question is, will their rights be respected and how will they be treated, especially as there are no international mechanisms that specifically concern climate refugees. Seeing how the European Union is currently closing borders to refugees and even deciding who deserves help and who doesn’t by refusing to let migrants in from so-called “safe countries”, an answer to this question can be assumed. What we need to demand at the UN climate conference in Paris, is that governments address the issue of climate refugees and human rights, in both an effective and just way.



Climate change is a food and water security issue

The inability to grow healthy, nutritious food and have access to clean water is fueled by climate change and affects the everyday life and well-being of people already living with its consequences. We already mentioned migration, but we need to emphasise that droughts, floods, degradation of agricultural land and polluted water reserves - are also some of the reasons behind displacements.

Corporations - as we already exposed in our first mythbuster - further contribute to the problem as they induce environmental disasters, by grabbing community land to sell commodity crops overseas, depriving fertile lands from local populations. Land grabbing is facilitated by government officials as they lease or sell this land to foreign investors, namely, big corporations and oil companies. A report by FoEI and NAPE Uganda shows the direct links  between land grabbing and communities’ displacement because of loss of access to natural resources as land for farming, firewood and water supplies.

Disasters like the peat fires raging across Kalimantan and Sumatra in Indonesia are being presented as the worst manmade environmental disaster since the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, affecting the environment, lives and health of millions of people in the region. Big corporations are profiting from the catastrophe as they stock the market shelves for Western consumers with palm oil and pulp products, produced in the cinders of the disaster.

These human induced disasters as well as extreme weather events affect global crop yields negatively. Science shows that wheat and maize production is falling as a result of climate change. Also, fisheries are shrinking causing adverse effects on food security in tropical regions - already the most vulnerable and least responsible for these catastrophes. Big droughts as well as horrendous floods increase water scarcity in countries and regions such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, California, and many more.

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Climate change is a social and economic justice issue

Climate change disproportionately affects the Global South, but in every country, North and South, we observe that marginalised communities bear the brunt of its impacts. Climate change replicates and reinforces power relations within society at nearly every level.

Poor people suffer most due to climate change because of decreasing food and water security (as we mentioned above) and air pollution also affects more people in low-income communities. In the UK, for example, we can seen an increase in fuel poverty with more than a million households, with one person working, being unable to heat their homes sufficiently. Climate change also exacerbates poverty. More than one hundred million people could slide into extreme poverty due to rising temperatures. Floods, droughts and tropical storms erase years of global anti-poverty efforts putting millions at risk.

On the other hand, the super rich will shortly own more than the rest of the world. A recent study has shown the richest 782 people could power half the world with 100% renewable energy.

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 Furthermore, while we are facing a climate crisis, there is also an economic crisis due to austerity and huge unemployment rates. But alternatives are there. An example of how to tackle both the environmental and economic crisis could be the “one million climate jobs campaign” - introducing decent green jobs as a way to tackle job insecurity and reduced income levels.

A system, where only a small number of people have resources to create sustainable future and avoid suffering of millions, is not only unfair in many aspects, but also unsustainable, as we saw during economic crisis in 2008. Huge gaps between rich and poor produce wealth and safety on one side, and poverty and vulnerability on the other. These inequalities fuel social tension.Environmental justice is inherently interlinked with economic and social justice.


It’s a racial justice issue

Climate change is an issue of racial justice. Studies have shown that communities of colour, in the Global North and Global South, are more affected by pollution and extractive industries than white people. In the US, 71 percent of Black people live in counties in violation of federal air pollution standards, compared to 58 percent of white people.

Dr. Bullard, one of the founders of the environmental justice movement in the United States, says “Though African-Americans have a smaller carbon footprint they are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. People of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by the effects of global warming socially, economically, geographically health-wise and through their capacity to fully recover.”

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Racial inequalities are also visible after disasters strike. Studies show that neighborhoods of communities of colour have more difficulty obtaining relief, aid, insurance compensation. The fines paid by big companies have even been shown to be lower when communities of colour are the victims of pollution. This was particularly striking before, during and after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005. Ten years after the catastrophe, white people were shown to be better off while black people fared worse, according to a study published by Louisiana State University. We see the same mechanisms at play in Canada, where indigenous people are affected by tar sands extraction in Alberta or in South Africa, where black communities in particular fight coal industry. These are only the few examples of process, where climate change meets racial injustice.

More readings on environmental racism:

Climate change is a feminist issue

Climate change isn't gender neutral. Women and girls are more exposed to climate change impacts (which explains why there is a Women and Gender constituency in the UNFCCC). As climate change affects almost every category of oppressed groups, women are on the forefront of climate change all around the world. Women make up most of the world's poor. Women also produce 70% of the world's food and are often responsible for collecting water - which makes them more vulnerable to extreme weather events affecting crops and water supplies.

During catastrophes, women are often the last to leave the affected area. UN research has shown that women are up to 14 times more likely to die during natural disasters, because of social factors, for example the fact that many women are not taught to swim, or spend more time in their homes. Moreover the effects of extraction affect women more. Women also make up 80% of climate refugees around the world.

Women are also on the forefront of struggles against extractive and polluting industries, in Algeria, though their role is often rendered invisible or minimised.

These inequalities transcend the North/South divide. In France, during the massive heatwave of 2003, older women were 40% over-represented in the victims, because widowed women are more socially isolated than men.

Last but not least, children are also more vulnerable to climate change. Every 90 seconds a child dies from a water-related disease and the numbers can only worsen with growing impacts of global warming.


To conclude

Because climate change deepens every social inequality, religions leaders have voiced its moral and social implications. Climate change has brought together different authorities as Pope Francis, Dalai Lama, muslim imams and buddhist leaders. It brings together people from all parts of the world.

Climate change cannot be stripped down to an environmental problem. It is a very complex issue, and it is an intersectional issue. It is anything but a single-issue struggle, because it generates and fuels inequalities, discriminations and systemic injustices on many levels. Climate justice means standing up against injustices, such as racism, sexism, islamophobia, xenophobia.

It is our moral obligation, as European youth, to keep actively exposing the impacts of Western corporations and policies on communities in the Global South, to actively hold our governments accountable for their (in)actions and to stand in solidarity and amplify the voices of grassroots struggles and communities in the Global South.