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Human Rights

Q&A: Linking climate change and human rights

Greenpeace's executive director Kumi Naidoo argues that human rights and climate change can not be separated.

Last updated: 18 Dec 2013 23:05
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In the struggle against environmental destruction and climate change, Greenpeace stands out for challenging powerful forces it sees as a threat. Last September, as it prepared to protest the first ever Arctic drilling for oil at the Prirazlomnaya platform, Greenpeace’s icebreaker MV Arctic Sunrise was boarded by armed Russian security forces where it was forcibly towed to the Russian port of Murmansk.

There, the crew of 30 activists and journalists were detained and accused of piracy (later changed to “hooliganism”). The “Arctic 30” have since been released on bail but remain unable to leave Russia.

It was hardly the first time Greenpeace stood up for the rights of people fighting climate change and environmental degradation in the Arctic. In 2012, Greenpeace took an active role in calling for the reinstatement of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) after Russia’s Ministry of Justice ordered it cease operations during a period of crackdowns on NGOs.

From the Arctic to the Amazon across the African continent and beyond, Greenpeace has proven itself one of the worlds most vocal and active organizations calling for human rights and climate justice. Greenpeace International’s Executive Director Dr. Kumi Naidoo recently spoke with Al Jazeera English contributor Jon Letman by telephone from the Hague about the connection between climate change and human rights.

Dr. Naidoo’s comments were edited for space and clarity.

Jon Letman for Al Jazeera English: What does climate change mean for human rights?

Kumi Naidoo:  When I first started at Greenpeace I had to do a range of media interviews. I was quite taken aback when the first question was, “You’ve been actively involved in anti-poverty, gender equality and human rights work all your life, are you abandoning the causes for the climate struggle and the environment?” My response was: the struggle to avert catastrophic climate change and the struggles for human rights, poverty and gender equity are and should be seen as two sides of the same coin.

To put it in the words of Sharon Burrow(General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation) who speaks most eloquently on climate change, she told (UN Secretary-General) Ban Ki-moon, "You might be wondering why me, as a trade unionist, I’m speaking so passionately on climate change when my primary responsibility is defending and creating jobs.” She said, “because I realize there are no jobs on a dead planet.”

As somebody who grew up in the human rights struggle against apartheid, I saw, as my years of activism went by, that the climate realities were threatening certain fundamental assumptions we take about life on this planet. Good development initiatives around agriculture, rural development, food security and so on, were essentially being wiped out as a result of climate impacts.

Take sea level rise in Bangladesh where seawater has already contaminated the water table and is making it difficult to grow food in coastal regions. Or take the genocide in Darfur, that was driven by a mixture of water scarcity and land scarcity, which combine to give you the toxic mix of food scarcity that created the basis for identity manipulation by opportunistic political forces on both sides of the conflict. You end up with what the world mainly sees as just a quasi-religious-ethnic conflict when in fact, I am pretty certain that the Darfur conflict will be eventually understood as the first massive resource war that has been brought about as a result of climate impacts.

AJE:  Which regions of the world are most impacted or most threatened by climate change?

Kumi Naidoo: There are some areas that are paying the first and most brutal price for climate impacts, no question about it. Sadly, it is parts of the world that carry the least responsibility for climate impacts and carbon emissions.

The regions that stand out for me are Southeast Asia because of typhoons and hurricanes which have reached velocities and ferocities - I mean, the recent typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) is one out of several, right? It is not as if that was an isolated case. We not only see an increase in the strength in hurricanes, we are also seeing the increase in frequency.

Then in Africa, the Sahel. Also we are seeing coastal regions taking a battering. We are seeing quite a lot of agriculture is being severely strained because people just can’t predict when, you know, the level of certainty that farmers need for growing food is heavily impacted by climatic changes right now.

AJE:  Could you talk about how climate change impacts indigenous peoples differently from those in industrialised societies?

Kumi Naidoo: Indigenous peoples, ironically, are the ones who have lived with the greatest respect for nature so it’s terribly sad that indigenous peoples yet again pay a very high price for climate impacts in places like the Arctic or in the Amazon and so on.

The Arctic has four million indigenous people that live from Alaska to Canada to Greenland, the Nordic countries and Russia. Already the burning of fossil fuels has impacted on the ice levels. Last year we had the lowest ever recorded minimum ice level in the Arctic and we are seeing that the melting of the Arctic sea ice brought about by the burning of fossil fuels itself is now being used as an excuse to go and further look for fossil fuels in the place where the ice is melting.

Actually, Gazprom spills annually as much oil in its Arctic onshore projects at the moment than what it would get out of the rig in that Arctic ocean that we have been demonstrating. So if they could get their act together, fix their pipes, get serious about reducing spills, they would not even have to have this project in the Arctic Ocean because the amount of oil they are already spilling and losing is more than what would be pulled out of the Prirazlomnaya rig.

AJE: Do you expect more cases like the Arctic 30 in the coming months and years or is this an isolated case?

Kumi Naidoo:  A lot depends on whether our political leaders are willing to wake up and recognize that we are desperately running out of time and that the longer they drag their feet, the more costly it’s going to be in terms of people, lives lost, infrastructure, economies destabilized and actual money.

Right now we are in a window where we can turn the crisis of climate change into an opportunity by pushing for an energy revolution on the scale of the industrial revolution, which could create a serious jobs bonanza and can give us a double win for the economy, jobs and climate. If our leaders come to their senses we would love to work cooperatively and share our scientific knowledge to help make that transition…But if they continue to serve the short term interests of their bosses in the oil, coal and gas sectors, if they allow energy policy to continue to be written by those industry lobbyists and interests, then we have no moral or ethical choice but to intensify civil disobedience like the one that you have seen recently.

AJE: What kind of cooperation exists between Greenpeace and organizations like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International?

Kumi Naidoo: Greenpeace and Amnesty work very closely, like right now, obviously there’s a human rights issue. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch as well as other groups are also supporters. But on the issue of climate change, we have been working with Amnesty Amnesty has been part of the global campaign for climate action.

If you take [Sharan Burrow’s quote] “there are no decent jobs on a dead planet” and extrapolate it into human rights, then there are no human rights on a dead planet either because there are no humans. So in that sense, climate change is more and more on the radar of rights groups, particularly in the developing world don’t have a choice because climate change, even if you don’t want to engage it, it will engage you.

AJE: Do you think the connection between climate change and human rights is clear enough among people in Western or industrialized nations? Do you think people understand it or do you think they don’t see a connection?

Kumi Naidoo:  I think more and more people are beginning to see it but not nearly in sufficient numbers yet. I hope they will see it soon before it gets too late. I don’t blame personally the average citizen in the US or any other developed country because they are on the receiving end of the most well resourced lobby that has humongous amounts of money. For every member of Congress, the oil, coal and gas lobbies fund a minimum of three and a maximum of eight full time lobbyists so that no climate legislation goes through.

We have to bear in mind, and I think especially in the US people need to understand, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the biggest scientific initiative that we’ve had on this planet ever, right. Secondly, they need to understand it’s a conservative body. It’s made up of every government and their scientific representatives. So the assessment that the IPCC gives is, by its nature, always the more conservative assessment, not the scariest assessments. But even this conservative assessment just given now, says very clearly that we are running out of time, that we have to act with urgency and that between 60 to 80 percent of known fossil reservesneed to stay where they are if we are to stand a chance to avert catastrophic climate change.

But if you take that concept of economic rights, basic socio-economic rights that are denied to a lot of people in the world because of what you can call a ‘lottery of geography,’ you know, where you are born fundamentally it prescribes what your life chances are. People are starting from different starting points and when you bring climate into it, it kind of takes things to very different level.

What complicates matters is, in fact, also the growing levels of consumption in the developing world. The elites in the developing world have the same obscene levels of consumption like the super elites of the developed world, in fact in some cases it can be worse.

AJE: During COP19 climate talks in Warsaw Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin talked about using the train to get to Warsaw from the UK and how they hadn’t flown in eight years. Giving up flying is the kind of thing that a lot of people might not consider but they were saying it’s something that has to be done, saying we can’t have people flying and even taking showers daily and things like this. They were calling for some extreme measures.

Kumi Naidoo: Listen, the situation we are facing right now is extremely extreme. Let’s be blunt about it, right? What is today being labeled “extreme measures," if we don’t act now, even lots of things that we take for granted, like clean running water - but bear in mind almost 1.5 billion people in the world don’t have access to that. People like myself have been saying for more than a decade now sadly, if we don’t address the issues of conflict equity, climate change and poverty on the planet, the future wars will not be fought about oil but will be fought about water.

You have got to look everything that helps brings down carbon and brings down the harm and so yes, reducing air travel, reducing water consumption, food consumption that contributes to high emissions, thinking about how far your food travels to get to your plate, thinking about what you eat, limiting meat intake… So in that sense I don’t see any of these ideas as extreme. I see the situation that we find ourselves in is extremely scary. Go speak to the people in the Philippines.

I don’t think those ideas are outlandish or should be dismissed. I think those are ideas that will be part of an overall solution ultimately.

AJE: Last question. You and others have expressed extreme disappointment with the results of COP19 in Warsaw. When you talk to activists and people who care, especially young people who may throw their arms up in despair, what do you tell them?

Kumi Naidoo:  I tell them the struggle for justice has always been a marathon, not a sprint. People have to have perseverance. Also I tell them the struggle for justice has never been a popularity contest.

People will vilify us, call us alarmist, but bear in mind the movements and the leaders of those movements that we celebrate the most, whether its Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, were all called hooligans and worse and were all vilified when they were persecuting the struggle. If you are serious about making a difference, don’t be afraid of criticism.

I also quote Mahatma Gandhi who once said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win.” The reality is they’re not ignoring us, they’re not laughing at us, they are fighting us and let’s hope, if Gandhi’s right - if they’re fighting us - then we are just one step away from winning.

“If you say that human rights is a right to life, then climate change has to quintessentially be seen as a human rights issue,” Kumi Naidoo has said.

“Increasing conflict brought about by climate impacts is going to create high levels of insecurity for many, many people around the world.”

Read Jon Letman's article: "How climate change destroys human rights," here.

Jon Letman is an independent journalist in Hawaii, covering wildlife conservation and politics in the Pacific Rim.

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Al Jazeera
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