Climate justice: What it is and how it’s playing a crucial role at COP26

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A protestor outside of the COP26 Blue Zone.

Katie Collins/CNET

“What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!”

So goes the chant that has echoed across the streets of Glasgow, Scotland, this week as the city plays host to COP26, the UN climate summit. While heads of state and world leaders meet in the summit’s heavily fortified “Blue Zone” this week, out on the streets and around Glasgow, the climate justice movement is thriving through meetings, assemblies and demonstrations.

Environmental groups from around the world have converged on Scotland as negotiators from hundreds of countries try to establish a path toward keeping the increase in global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the bar set in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Many of the groups represent a different aspect of the fight against the climate crisis — some are seeking funding for African farmers whose livelihoods are threatened by drought and volatile weather patterns, and others are Indigenous communities from small island states already at risk from rising sea levels.

But one thing binds all them together: support for the climate justice movement.

What is climate justice?

Climate justice takes into account all of the inequalities in the world, looking at the social problems and systems that cause them, and demanding changes to both for the planet and for all people living on it. It recognizes the climate crisis is bigger than just a scientific problem.

In the words of Lauren MacDonald, a 21-year-old climate activist from Glasgow, it’s about “tackling the biggest problem that humanity has ever faced in an equitable way that understands and takes into account the role of systemic oppression.”

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Lauren MacDonald, an activist for the Stop Cambo campaign.

Katie Collins/CNET

Speaking at a COP26 fringe event on Sunday, Mary Church, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland, said it’s a system that’s prioritizing profit over people. “The climate crisis is caused by the same root causes of multiple interlinked crises, of hunger, poverty, racism, sexism, classism, ableism, nature destruction and of course, the same things that caused the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Another point at the heart of climate justice is that people living in countries and areas of the world that did the least to cause climate change are those already being worst affected.

“It incorporates the fact that you have the north and the south differing in the consumption level, and that the majority of the developing countries did not contribute to the level of greenhouse gases in the air at the moment,” said Dorothy Guerrerro, head of policy at Global Justice Now. “And in the end, they are suffering the most.”

The climate justice movement often groups indigenous people, people from developing countries and small island states, and others who are impacted by the climate crisis together under the acronym MAPA, meaning “most affected people and regions.”

There’s not just a geographical gap. The movement also sees  a generational gap. Guerrerro said many young people are mobilizing and protesting because they’re fighting for their futures and for solutions to problems they didn’t create.

But in both cases the movement is asking for these people’s voices, and not just those of governments and business, to be centered in any climate crisis negotiations. Activists want systemic change, and they want those who are most affected to lead that change.

“Anything without us is not for us,” said Margaret Eberu Masudio, a farmer from Uganda speaking at a COP26 event at the UK pavilion on Tuesday. “So we want to be part of the discussion.”

Does the climate justice movement make a difference?

The pressure applied by activists and civil society groups has produced some results. Governments now recognize industrialized and developed countries need to pay more to meet climate targets and to ensure they’re financially supporting poorer countries.

The climate justice movement paved the way for the idea of making a “just transition” to a green economy to be included in the Paris Agreement. A just transition is one in which the needs of the labor force — oil rig workers or miners, for example — who could suffer financial setbacks by switching to greener energy are prioritized so that their livelihoods aren’t affected.

Speaking alongside Church on Sunday, Asad Rehman, climate activist and director of War on Want, pointed out that thanks to the work of activists, global leaders now have to acknowledge climate justice within their negotiations and strategies for tackling the crisis. It’s no longer just a niche concern — at COP26, world leaders and other speakers have mentioned it frequently as an important factor.

“There was a time right in these negotiations, when the very word ‘justice’ was only uttered by a very few of us,” he said. “Collectively, we have moved the dial from climate injustice to climate justice.”

What is the role of climate justice at COP26?

Given that world leaders have largely expressed support for the idea of climate justice and recognized it as integral to fighting the climate crisis, you might be wondering why these protests are necessary. But ask a climate justice activist and they’ll tell you that they’re used to hearing empty words and never seeing any real action taken.

“We are just so tired of hearing the rhetoric by these politicians and leaders,” said Bryce Goodall, a spokesman for the COP26 Coalition, an alliance of civil society groups from across the UK. “How can we trust them to deliver?”

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An Extinction Rebellion protest on the streets of Glasgow.

Katie Collins/CNET

The most marginalized voices rarely get a seat at the table in major talks like the ones happening in Glasgow this week. There’s some crossover by those who are representing climate justice outside of the summit and inside, but not as much as campaigners would have hoped for — especially given how much the summit has talked about listening to leaders from civil society and indigenous communities.

Those from the climate justice movement who have been able to get passes to the Blue Zone of the summit have, for the most part, managed to gain only observer status. “We can only observe these negotiations, we can’t actively participate within those negotiations, which, to me, just screams of undemocratic diktats,” Goodall said.

Where it can, the climate justice movement is lending support to smaller and developing countries such as the Pacific Island states within COP26, backing their calls for proper funding and calling the UN and UK presidency out for not doing more to make the summit inclusive and representative of voices who should be heard.

Young people and people of color brought into the Blue Zone to speak to leaders have commented on feeling isolated and alienated when they look around the room and don’t see others like them.

Outside of the summit is still where the majority of climate justice work is happening. “We will be working together strongly, street by street, block by block,” Goodall said. “We’ll be working with communities and organizations, and we will be delivering on climate justice.”

What would success for the climate justice movement look like at COP26?

The stated aim of the UK presidency organizing COP26 is to come out with agreements on the four C’s — coal, cars, cash and canopies (trees). But instead, Rehman said, the climate justice movement is asking for the four T’s. “We need targets, we need trillions, we need transformation, and we need it today,” he said.

A big win for the movement at COP26 would look like a commitment to achieving true zero emissions by 2030 rather than net zero emissions by 2050, Guerrerro said. True zero means running on renewable energy around the clock, compared with net zero, which means striking a balance between emissions produced and emissions removed from the atmosphere.

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Climate justice is an intersectional movement.

Katie Collins/CNET

“What we want out of this climate negotiation is an outcome that says this era of injustice is over,” Rehman said Sunday.

Among its list of demands, the COP26 Coalition wants countries to uphold their commitment to keep global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius and is asking for no new investments in fossil fuels or fossil fuel-related infrastructure. It also wants to reject investment in risky and unproven carbon-capture technologies — we already have the technology and scientific knowledge we need to solve the crisis, it says.

In addition, climate justice makes hefty financial demands. It asks for developed countries to cancel debts the global south owes them, grant-based finance to support a just green transition and reparations for the loss and damage already happening in those countries suffering the effects of climate change.

“Even if this money had materialised, it would have been a miserly token,” said author and environmentalist George Monbiot in a Guardian op-ed on Friday. “By comparison, since 2015, the G20 nations have spent $3.3TN on subsidising their fossil fuel industries. Needless to say, they have failed to keep their wretched promise.”

World leaders have agreed that this funding is necessary but have already failed to meet their commitment to give $100 billion a year to developing countries by 2020. This deadline has now been pushed back to 2023. For countries in the global south, a term used to identify developing countries, this comes “too little and too late when we talk about the cost of climate change,” Guerrerro said.

How can you support the fight for climate justice at COP26?

Protests are happening all over Glasgow throughout COP26, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take part if you live elsewhere in the world if you believe in the importance of climate justice. On Saturday, the COP26 Coalition is organizing a Global Day of Action for Climate Justice.

Events will be taking place across the world, from Australia to Africa to the US. A map on the COP26 Coalition website offers details on all the events happening globally so you can find one close to you (or arrange your own).

If you want to learn more about climate justice and hear from some of the people directly impacted by the climate injustice, the COP26 Coalition-organized People’s Summit kicks off in Glasgow next week, with the majority of the events streamed for free online.

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