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

2019 Coppieters Academy keynote speaker, Dr. Isabel Vilaseca, shares her views on climate action

News / 13.8.19

Dr Isabel Vilaseca gave the opening keynote address at the July 2019 Coppieters Academy on Climate Action, a three-day program for young activists, researchers and campaigners who 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 about the roots of the environmental crisis are being left aside or not given enough attention.

Assuming that we are currently immersed in a silent catastrophe that spreads fast, slowly making us reach planetary limits and climate collapse, several questions should be put at the core of our concerns: how did we reach this point, after almost thirty years spent by the international community discussing and signing commitments aimed at curbing climate change? What powers and institutional structures are blocking the implementation of all these commitments? Is it still possible for us to avoid what seems to be an inevitable future, by just slightly domesticating our social metabolism’s addiction to growth? What role will social hierarchies play, in a very likely future scenario of scarcity and devastating meteorological phenomena? How will social inequalities evolve in this scenario? How are the benefits and burdens of the solutions to climate change shared within the population?

In recent years, renowned scientists have started arguing that old recipes are no longer valid to address the current and forecasted gravity of the environmental crisis.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 is 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 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, the United Nations’ (UN) special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, released a report on climate change and poverty in which he stated that “we risk a ‘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 is also very critical of the steps taken by the UN, States, non-governmental organisations and businesses so far, stressing that their proposed solutions are “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 the essential ideals of the European humanist tradition, such as justice and democracy, and rethinking them not only as values in themselves but also in an instrumental sense, that is to say, as valuable tools for articulating the processes of survival.

“Old recipes are no longer valid to address the current and forecasted gravity of the environmental crisis”

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 populations, should be valued and enhanced. Accordingly, innovative programs of payment for environmental services, such as the Yasuní-ITT Initiative undertaken by Ecuador a few years ago, which failed mainly because of a lack of support from the international community, should be prioritised.

Furthermore, whereas those who are currently excluded from the benefits of the 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 penalised and stifled.

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

Besides, a deep overhaul of property rights, modes of production and management models of green energies, technologies and infrastructures should also be at the core of the climate justice approach. In this sense, the convergence between processes of production and consumption schemes, both in a territorial sense and in terms of the agents who control them, should be 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 roles to play in the fight against climate change. Equally significant are the contributions from grassroots movements resisting all kinds of neoliberal processes of privatisation and the commodification of nature and essential goods and services. This is without mentioning those other movements, sometimes backed by public institutions, leading the creation of alternative means for the satisfaction of 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

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The conference was financially supported by the European Parliament. The European Parliament is not liable for the content of the conference or the opinions of the speakers.

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