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Climate Transitions Won’t Happen Without Social Justice and Greater Democracy

youth strike for climate

(Image: Students take to the streets of Vancouver, Canada, calling for more urgent action on climate change and just climate transitions.) 

By Mathilde Bouyé and Jesse Worker 

The September U.N. summits on climate action and sustainable development offered a stark contrast between the half-empty, access-restricted meetings inside, and the streets from thousands of cities worldwide filled with protesters, demanding climate justice from the political leaders that have thus far failed them. Inside, the most inspiring and ambitious statements came from youth, indigenous leaders, small island states and other countries that have contributed the least to the problem.

While action from the world’s largest emitting countries fell short of expectations, public mobilization broke records: Over 4 million people across 185 countries joined climate strikes on September 20 and more than 7 million on September 27.

This mass public mobilization underlines the intertwined nature of the climate crisis with crises in justice and democracy. Governments would do well to listen to their constituents’ demands for urgent, just, people-powered and inclusive climate action.

Civil initiatives are becoming increasingly confrontational

Unlike more traditional climate activism, which was often led by non-governmental organizations, the latest wave of civil initiatives is multigenerational, comes from the bottom up and has wide public support.

This year has seen unprecedented momentum of civil disobedience confronting political inaction. School strikes for climate were organized in over 125 countries, and record protests blocked coal mines from Germany to the Philippines. Extinction Rebellion, a rapidly growing global civil disobedience movement, has made headlines from Melbourne to London and Rio de Janeiro with direct actions asking for drastic changes to face the climate emergency.

Climate litigation has also become a global trend. NGOs, youth and elderly people—including a group of grandmothers—are taking  governments and fossil fuel companies to court for failing to fulfill their obligations. Courtroom victories in the Netherlands, Colombia and Pakistan provided a template for a global legal movement to compel governments to step up. In France, 2.1 million people last year signed a petition to support such a lawsuit filed against the French government. A growing number of complaints maintain that government inaction is a violation of human rights. This includes the U.N. complaint filed by Greta Thunberg and 15 other young people against five big emitters, citing the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.

This global movement demands climate ambition and justice

Public mobilization movements around the world are demanding urgent climate action based on human rights and intergenerational and social justice, going beyond the so-called “eco-warrior” narrative. This builds on increasing awareness that the climate crisis threatens fundamental rights to water, food, safety and housing, and exacerbates inequality. The United Nations rapporteur on poverty and human rights acknowledged as much this year by warning against a climate apartheid “where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”

These movements also demand equal access to the benefits from the climate transition. Climate taxes, green technologies and adaptive solutions, such as population displacements, can put greater burdens on low-income and disadvantaged groups.

Climate measures perceived as unfair are increasingly sparking pushback. French Yellow Vest activists and Filipino jeepney drivers had similar reasons for rejecting higher prices for fossil fuel and a shift toward electric vehicles: They fear revenue and job losses. The yellow vests were not anti-climate action, they were pro-justice, and they put forward proposals to strengthen climate action while ensuring that big businesses contribute their fair share and that there is equal access to electric vehicles.

There is ample evidence that governments can leverage climate action to reduce inequality. Major transformations in energy, land-use, housing, economic and transport systems can be designed in ways that offset existing inequalities in access to jobs, resources, services and opportunities. Small-scale renewable energy can help achieve universal electricity access, for example, just as energy efficiency can dramatically reduce energy poverty and improve people’s lives. Green public transport and ride-sharing systems can disproportionately benefit underserved communities in suburban and rural areas.

There are some promising signs. Nearly 50 countries committed to develop Just Transition Plans to protect workers and promote decent jobs in transforming their economies, and the U.N. launched a new Climate Action for Jobs initiative. While these are welcome efforts, too few commitments address the other social dimensions of the climate transition, such as the Pact of Impact promoting social and environmental investments and the Equity pledge signed by 37 world cities to reduce urban inequality through climate action.

Across the globe, people seek democratic climate transitions

Failure to act on climate change fuels greater distrust toward political elites and shows the limits of representative democracy. The growing civil movement underscores that climate transformations require nationwide conversation, public participation and direct involvement of local communities.

These claims need to be considered in a context of erosion of democracy and shrinking civil space across the globe. The 2019 Freedom in the World report records the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, with civil rights and freedoms of speech under attack and environmental defenders at increasing risk in many parts of the world. A few—too few—initiatives promoted at the U.N. Climate Summit supported greater democracy for sustainable development, including the Escazu Convention on information, public participation and justice and a new Global Hub for Governance.

One of Extinction Rebellion’s main goals is the creation of a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice to push for bold political decisions. Such assemblies or conventions have been set up in several countries, including Ireland, the U.K. and France, to unlock progress on actions that might otherwise be blocked.

Experiences of direct democracy to drive social and ecological transitions are also growing around the world. There is some evidence that local, community-led solutions support climate transitions. Some local initiatives, in places as disparate as India and France, indicate that people can effectively advance sustainable options when they are making decisions for their own communities.

Climate transitions offer great opportunities for such initiatives that reinvigorate local democracy. Distributed energy systems, short and circular supply chains, and nature-based solutions can give back economic power to local communities and offer opportunities for new collaborative and inclusive forms of management.

This potential is also seized by an increasing number of local, people-owned cooperatives managing shared resources (water, energy, parks), also called “commons," or sustainable economy projects (locally-sourced supermarket; repair shops). These social innovations can contribute to making climate transitions more democratic, inclusive and affordable.

These multiple forms of public mobilization have a strong role to play to pressure governments to step up climate action by 2020, hold them accountable for climate justice and take initiatives to scale up impact.

People-driven and -centered social and democratic innovations have proven environmental and social benefits and could also help restore trust in politics. This movement may be our greatest source of hope to tackle the climate emergency.

This story was previously published by the World Resources Institute 

Mathilde Bouyé is an Associate in the World Resources Institute's SDG Delivery Team and the Sustainable Finance Center. She conducts research and activities on policy coherence for sustainable development, with a focus on ensuring a joint and consistent implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to global climate action. Follow her on Twitter.

Jesse Worker is an Associate II with the Environmental Democracy Practice (EDP) where he developed and manages the Environmental Democracy Index—the first tool to measure how well national laws in 70 countries protect access to information, public participation, and access to justice for the environment. He is also the climate governance strategic lead for EDP, working closely the World Resources Institute’s Climate program and Climate Resilience Practice. Follow him on Twitter.

Image credits: Flickr/Roaming-the-Planet and Unsplash/Marcus Spiske