YPFP at EurActiv

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old climate activist from Sweden, has arguably changed the conversation on climate justice and brought the youth perspective on climate change into mainstream dialogue and policy debates. But despite Thunberg’s persuasive messaging and indelible call to world leaders to act on the growing climate crisis, she is not the only voice speaking out against inaction on climate change. Given the disproportionate impacts of climate change on communities of color and indigenous communities, it is time to push the conversation on climate change further and hold politicians and governments accountable to incorporating the needs of these communities into future climate action.

By Oxfam East Africa – A mass grave for children in Dadaab during the 2011 East Africa drought, CC by 2.0, common.wikimedia.org





Take, for example, that all of the 10 countries that are at the greatest risk from climate change in 2019 are all majority non-white. All are in Africa or the Caribbean. While some youth activists recently submitted a legal complaint to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child against several G20 countries for their knowledge of and inaction on climate change, in general, voices from these countries are often missing from mainstream media coverage and policy conversations. What this means is that environmental policy addressing climate change is not as sensitive to the needs of these communities, and that countries such as Brazil – a country whose current President flouts environmental protection norms – can continue to contribute to climate change and the desecration of forests and indigenous lands.


Combating climate change is a human rights issue, according to advocates like Kumi Naidoo, the Secretary General of Amnesty International: “While we largely understand climate change through the impacts it will have on our natural world, it is the devastation that it is causing and will continue to cause for humanity that makes it an urgent human rights issue. It will compound and magnify existing inequalities. And its effects will continue to grow and worsen over time, creating ruin for current and future generations.”


If we see climate justice as a human rights issue that disproportionately affects communities of color, and recognize that climate change is linked to conflict, it will be harder for international actors to ignore the severity of the problem and to continue to sideline the most marginalized and affected in decision-making processes that affect these stakeholders.. One innovative strategy could be for the UN Security Council to sanction countries like Brazil whose inaction – and sometimes outright flouting of environmentally-sensitive practice – continues to have an outsize impact on communities of color and indigenous communities. While under Chapter VII, Article 41 of the UN Charter, the Security Council has a broad mandate to enforce sanctions and other measures against rogue regimes, sanctions have not yet been enforced in cases where a government’s role or inaction over climate and land issues has either contributed to or caused conflict (like Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s inaction on the Amazon forest fires).


In addition to UN action on the above, there are also smaller, more immediate steps that can be taken to address inequities in the climate justice conversation. For example, politicians and media outlets who care about climate change can broaden the conversation beyond Ms. Thunberg to include more diverse and impacted voices from across the globe, such as current youth climate activists who are non-white and in some cases, non-Western. Helena Gualinga, a 17-year-old from Sarayaku, Ecuador, is one such youth activist who is leading the fight for indigenous Amazonian climate rights. The elevation of these perspectives – some of which may be in direct conflict with government narratives and policies – in the media and at public events, could also be helpful in changing public perception regarding climate change action, which is still mixed among members of G20 countries.


Despite this mixed public opinion polling, the facts on climate change are well-established. In order to make media coverage of and policy on climate change and its impacts more inclusive, both the media and international players must work to uplift the most marginalized communities who arguably have the biggest stake in the fight for climate justice. As Greta Thunberg’s profile grows in the media and on the international policy stage, the media and policymakers invested in combating climate change can build upon her success by centering the voices of those most impacted by climate change – non-Western people of color. In doing so, these actors can help change both the narrative around climate activism, and policy outcomes for communities of color as they fight for their lives, their land, and our collective future.

Claire Downing is the YPFP Human Rights Fellow and is a current PhD student at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Claire currently serves as Program Associate at the RISE Together Fund, a Proteus Fund initiative, where she helps support a diverse field of organizations working to address profiling, discrimination, hate crimes, anti-Muslim bigotry and xenophobia through capacity building measures in Muslim, Arab, and South Asian (MASA) communities in the U.S. Prior to this role, Claire worked in international development/legal empowerment and finance, banking, and government contracting, and interned at a watchdog NGO and on the Hill for Senator Patty Murray (D-WA). Claire has a bachelor of arts in Global Affairs (summa cum laude) from George Mason University, and a master of arts in International Affairs, concentration in Conflict and Conflict Resolution from the George Washington University.





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