Climate Action: Protecting Life, Democracy and Justice in a Silence Catastrophe

Coppieters academy keynote speaker, Isabel vilaseca, shares her views on climate action.

News / 13.8.19

Isabel Vilaseca gave the opening keynote at the July 2019 Coppieters Academy on Climate Action, a 3 days program for young activists, researchers and campaigners that champion the fight against climate change.

Environmental bureaucracies tend to frame the discussions on climate action in very narrow terms. Their main goal is to reach technical and economic green solutions capable of domesticating economic growth in order to reduce greenhouse gases emissions, increase carbon sinks and improve adaptation to climate changes already occurring. However, in this process many questions confronting the roots of the environmental crisis are being left aside or are not given enough attention.

Assuming that we are currently immersed in a silence catastrophe that spreads fast to planetary limits and climate collapse, several questions should be put at the core of our concerns: how can we have reached this point after almost thirty years discussing and signing commitments in climate change international fora? What powers and institutional structures are blocking the implementation of all these commitments? Are we still in time to put the earth back on track by just slightly domesticating our social metabolism’s addiction to growth? What role social hierarchies will play in a very likely future scenario of scarcity and devastating meteorological phenomena? How social inequalities will evolve in this scenario? How are the benefits and burdens of the solutions to climate change allocated?

In recent years, renowned scientists are arguing that old recipes are no longer valid to address the current and forecasted gravity of the environmental crisis. Dennis Meadows for example suggests that it’s too late for sustainable development and that we urgently need to shift to a paradigm of long-term resilience in order to cope with “the permanent of loss of cheap energy or the permanent change in our climate” and “think about what we can do at the individual, the household, the community and the national level to ensure that—although we don’t know exactly what is going to happen—we will be able to pass through that period still taking care of our basic needs.”

Recently, Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, wrote a report on climate change and poverty where he stated that “we risk ‘climate apartheid scenario where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict  while the rest of the world is left to suffer”. “Human rights might not survive the coming upheaval”, he concluded, not only concerned about basic human rights (life, water, food or housing) but also about democracy and the rule of law. He was also very critical of the steps taken by UN, states, NGOs and businesses so far, accusing them of being “entirely disproportionate to the urgency and magnitude of the threat”.

As I see it, climate action is not only about domesticating the catastrophe but also about preserving human and non-human vulnerable lives in a context of scarcity and harsh climate conditions; as well as preserving essential ideals of the European humanist tradition, such as justice and democracy, and rethinking them not only as values in itself but also in an instrumental sense, that is to say, as valuable tools for articulating the processes of survival.

Two conclusions can be drawn from this standpoint. First, climate policies cannot be framed as an aseptic technological replacement blind to underlying power structures and potential power relationships that may emerge from the same technological transition.

From a climate justice perspective, essential environmental conservation practices, very often driven by oppressed or vulnerable groups, such as indigenous peoples or rural population, should be valorized and enhanced. Accordingly, innovative programs of payment for environmental services, such as the initiative of Yasuni-ITT undertaken by Ecuador few years ago, which mainly failed because of the lack of support from the international community, should be prioritized.

Furthermore, whereas part of the people, which are currently excluded from the benefits of global social metabolism, should be rewarded on the grounds of the role they play in nature conservation, those regions and social classes that are grabbing a disproportionate share of global reserves of mater and energy should be harshly penalized and stifled.

Climate justice also demands a deep scrutiny of the places where green infrastructures are placed, so that local, future and present, economic, social and environmental impacts as well as people’s will are taken into account.

Besides, a deep overhaul of property rights, modes of production and management models of green energies, technologies and infrastructures is also at the core of climate justice approach. In this sense, convergence between processes of production and consumption, both in a territorial sense and in terms of the agents who control the two processes, is a key goal.

The second conclusion is that climate action is much more than just a bunch of climate policies adopted by public institutions. Climate litigation launched by grassroots movements, scholars and local or regional governments in order to dismantle the obstacles interposed by big powers have crucial role in the fight against climate change. Equally significant are the contributions from grassroots movements resisting all kinds of neoliberal processes of privatization and commodification of nature and essential goods and services, without mentioning those others movements, sometimes backed by public institutions, leading the creation of alternative forms of satisfying human needs: a collective and scattered process of appropriation of the doing for the construction and management of the commons.

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Cover picture by  Markus Spiske on Unsplash