24 Nov 2021 Local climate voices create a rising sea of noise
By Lorenzo Vargas
Unless the people leading the fight against the climate crisis on the ground, such as Indigenous people and other vulnerable communities, are able to have their stories heard and seen by the broader public, and unless they have the necessary communication tools and skills to organize, it will be very difficult to generate the political will at the national and international level that will result in swift action to tackle this crisis.
The right to freedom of expression, enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is the starting point for taking a rights-based approach to communication and information: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” (United Nations, 1948). This right “is regarded as a central pillar of democracy, protecting the right to call our rulers to account, vital to preventing censorship, an indispensable condition of effective and free media” (CRIS Campaign, p. 22).
However, in any given society communication the unequal distribution of power both enables and limits access to information and communication, which in some cases may undermine freedom of expression. This means that “a poor person seeking to highlight injustice in their lives and a powerful media mogul each have, before the law, precisely the same protection for their right to freely express their views. In practice, however, the former lacks the means to have her/his voice heard, while the latter can powerfully amplify her/his message and ensure it is widely heard.” (CRIS Campaign, p. 22).
As a result, the right to freedom of expression is best guaranteed when promoted alongside a number of other rights – communication rights. This is particularly important today as communication ecosystems are becoming increasingly complex due to rapid technological change, different levels of access to platforms, multi-layered and often transnational media governance processes, growing dependence on digital technology, and the emergence of digital media as key spaces with the potential to advance inclusion and social change (Couldry and Rodriguez, 2015).
Other rights that help “construct the environment in which freedom of expression may be fully consummated” include “a right to participate in one’s own culture and language, to enjoy the benefits of science, to information, to education, to participation in governance, to privacy, to peaceful assembly, to the protection of one’s reputation” (CRIS Campaign, p. 23) all of which are part of the International Bill of Rights (United Nations) . Further crucial elements include diversity of media content and ownership, press freedom, diverse and independent media, and democratic access to media (ibid. p. 24) More recently, documents such as the Charter of Digital Rights promoted by the civil society network European Digital Rights (EDRi) have put the spotlight on new important dimensions of this equation such as data protection, transparent governance, and freedom from surveillance (European Digital Rights, 2015).
Starting from the assumption that communication and information are “essential conditions for development and affect every aspect of life, and that, therefore, communication and information poverty, despite being only one dimension of poverty, affects all other dimensions” (Barja Daza et al., 2007), I argue that “communication poverty” needs to be addressed. It has several manifestations, including:
- lack of access to platforms meaningfully to raise concerns about issues that affect one’s life.
- under/misrepresentation in media content;
- low levels of media literacy;
- limited access to relevant information, including public information;
- exclusion from decision-making processes;
- restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly;
- absence of a free, independent, inclusive, and pluralistic media sector;
- prevalence of negative stereotypes about marginalized groups;
- social and cultural factors preventing genuine participation (e.g., discrimination because of gender, race, ethnicity, social class, etc.);
- media concentration in the hands of the powerful;
- inaccessibility of information and communication (e.g., linguistic barriers);
- breaches of privacy, especially in relation to digital communication; and
- limited opportunities to participate in decision-making processes related to the regulation and governance of communication ecosystems. (Lee and Vargas, 2020 p. 45).
Addressing these issues requires taking a rights-based approach that understands each of these manifestations of information and communication poverty not only as violations of people’s communication rights but also as issues that undermine people’s ability to exercise their broader human rights, as communication rights can be considered “gateway rights” that enable people to exercise other human rights (Lee and Vargas, 2020).
Climate change and its effects
The 1987 “Brundtland Report” produced by the UN’s World Commission on Environment and Development was among the first international reports to put the spotlight on major environmental and development issues that need to be addressed over the coming the decades, such as unfettered population growth, food security, biodiversity, energy policies, the need for less resource-intensive industrial production, and unstainable urban development (World Commission on Environment and Development, pp. 18-23).
The report highlights the links between poverty and environmental degradation by stating that “poverty itself pollutes the environment, creating environmental stress in a different way. Those who are poor and hungry will often destroy their immediate environment in order to survive: They will cut down forests; their livestock will overgraze grasslands; they will overuse marginal land; and in growing numbers they will crowd into congested cities” (ibid. p. 26).
It also points in the direction of climate justice by stating that “environmental stress has often been seen as the result of the growing demand on scarce resources and the pollution generated by the rising living standards of the relatively affluent” (ibid. p. 26) and states that “globally, wealthier nations are better placed financially and technologically to cope with the effects of possible climatic change” (ibid. p. 45).
And yet, most decision makers have done next to nothing to halt the rising carbon emissions that are leading the world to climate catastrophe, as pointed out by the latest UN projections (IPCC, 2021). As Wallace-Wells points out, “many perceive global warming as a sort of moral and economic debt, accumulated since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and now come due after several centuries. In fact, more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades. The majority of the burning has come since the premiere of Seinfeld. Since World War II, the figure is about 85 percent” (Wallace-Wells, p. 4).
This points to a criminal level of irresponsibility of the most powerful countries in the world, which, despite knowing about the consequences of climate change, especially for the world’s most vulnerable, decided not to act. According to Wallace-Wells, given the current trajectory of emissions and lack of meaningful action on the part of most countries, we are on our way to 4oC of warming by 2100, which would mean that whole regions of Africa, Australia, the United States, South America and Asia would be “rendered uninhabitable by direct heat, desertification, and flooding”. (Wallace-Wells, p. 6). Robinson echoes this position by stating that “there is universal agreement that global warming should be kept below 2o Celsius or as close as possible to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels…This has traditionally been considered the threshold beyond which the effects of climate change move from treacherous to catastrophic, but most experts believe we are already on track to exceed that” (Robinson, p. 6).
Wallace Wells points out that “the poorest countries will suffer more in our hot new world… that is not withstanding the fact that most of the global South has not, to this point, defiled the atmosphere of the planet all that much… This is what is often called the problem of environmental justice; a sharper, less gauzy phrase would be “climate caste system” (Wallace-Wells p. 24). For example, “the average Western citizen produces many times more emissions that almost anyone in Asia, just out of habit” (ibid. pp. 33-34).
Wallace Wells also introduces the concept of climate cascades, in which one event triggered by climate change contributes to other disasters, like the idea that “higher temperatures means more forest fires means fewer trees means less carbon absorption, means more carbon in the atmosphere, means a hotter climate planet still”, which really emphasizes the idea that human-cased climate change will unleash natural cycles we simply not be able to control, predict, or even fully comprehend.
This level of climate change is not only catastrophic from an environmental point of view, but also extremely risky from a social and political perspective. Inspired on the work of Mann and Wainwright, Wallace Wells also muses about whether an increasingly climate will result on the rise of authoritarianism, as citizens “trade liberties for security and stability and some insurance against climate deprivation” and about whether a new kind of supra-national power structure might emerge as planetary power would be “the only power that could plausibly answer a planetary threat” (Wallace-Wells, p. 192). He also points to the relationship between climate change and armed conflict, citing several recent or ongoing conflicts as having links to climate issues (ibid. p. 126).
This degree of warming would also have unthinkable economic consequences. Citing the work of Hsiang, Burke, and Miguel, Wallace Wells argues that “in a country that is relatively warm, every degree Celsius of warming reduced growth, on average, by about one percentage point… compared to the trajectory of economic growth with no climate change, their average projection is for a 23 percent loss in per capita earning globally by the end of the century… there is a 51 per cent chance that climate change will reduce global [economic] output by 20 percent by 2100 (Wallace-Wells, p. 117).
All in all, these views are in line with those of other authors, such as Schlosberg, who points out that “climate change can be seen as an element or instigator of corrosive disadvantage because it will make those already most vulnerable even more so… climate change will create unique patterns of vulnerability and disadvantage, as it will initially be felt in different ways in different places”. (Schlosberg, p. 458).
Climate change and human rights
Brian Tokar, one of the leading academic voices of the climate justice movement, argues that “climate change threatens various widely acknowledged human rights, including the right to life, health, housing, food, water, self-determination, freedom of movement, culture, and property” (Tokar, p. 15). Humphreys an international human rights expert, adds that “the worst effects of climate change will be felt by those individuals and groups whose rights are already precarious – the most dramatic impacts of climate change are expected to occur in the world’s poorest countries, where rights protections are often too weak for a variety of reasons” (Humphreys, p. 1). He also points to the fact that it’s not only climate change itself that has human rights implications- mitigation efforts also have human rights dimensions as they might affect access to public services as well as food, water, health, security, cultures, and livelihoods of particular persons in particular places (ibid. p. 2).
Despite the obvious human rights implications of climate change, there is a very clear disconnect between climate change discourse and policy and human rights. There are several reasons for this, including the notion that human rights are often difficult to enforce, that establishing direct responsibility for climate change-related human rights violations is difficult, complications on the ground to establish local accountability, the fact that some rights might conflict with each other in the context of climate change, and that rights are difficult to apply in emergency situations.
There is also the issue of the “right to development”, which has non-binding international legal status but is still considered an important right, as it has often been used by emerging economies to justify the continuation of emissions and turned into a “right to emit greenhouse gases”, thus avoiding taking greater responsibility in the fight for climate change and passing on the blame to industrialized countries (ibid. p. 14).
Furthermore, the concept of equity, which underpins climate change/climate justice policy, is hard to reconcile with the concept of equality on which human rights are based, especially as human rights theory relies on the notion states that are in equal, at least in theory (ibid. p. 50). Lastly, in a context in which private sector actors such as transnational oil companies play a central role in the climate crisis, the application of human rights, which are primarily based on the relationship between the state and individuals, becomes even more challenging (ibid. p. 11).
Human rights frameworks are essential to dealing with the climate crisis. In particular, promoting human rights such the right to freedom of expression and the right to access to information – which are also communication rights – is critical to advancing policy and practical solutions to meet the communication and information needs of some of the people and communities most affected by the effects of climate change. This is because the human rights framework is already established within existing legal and policy frameworks, as well as within the political imaginary in most modern societies.
While the human rights framework can be challenging to apply to climate change-related issues for the reasons listed above, human rights theorists and advocates have to find ways to apply the framework in these situations, otherwise “it risks becoming less relevant in much of the world, especially in those places where the effects of climate change will be increasingly suffered” (Humphreys, p. 45).
The disproportionate effect of climate change on vulnerable populations, the human rights implications of such effects, and the moral imperative of addressing climate change have contributed to the emergence of the concept of climate justice. In the climate justice literature, climate change as a phenomenon is defined as having largely been caused by historically wealthy industrialized nations but largely affecting mostly marginalized communities, both in developed and developing countries.
Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, argues that while industrial nations continued to build their economies on the back of fossil fuels, the most disadvantaged across the world are suffering the effects of climate change. Though these communities have been the least responsible for the emissions causing climate change, they have been, are being, and will be disproportionately affected because of their already vulnerable geographic locations and their lack of climate resilience” (Robinson, p. 4).
Furthermore, “climate change can be seen as an element or instigator of corrosive disadvantage because it will make those already most vulnerable even more so… climate change will create unique patterns of vulnerability and disadvantage, as it will initially be felt in different ways in different places”. (Schlosberg, p. 458).
Schlosberg identifies three dominant approaches to climate justice. The first is a historical justice approach that argues that “there are specific states, acting within particular practices of industrial development, that have brought us to our current climate change crisis, and that those parties should now pay the current costs of their past transgressions… Approaches based on this idea adopt a basic polluter pays principle that puts the burden squarely on long-industrialized nations” (ibid. p. 448).
The concept of “climate debt”, which entails “defining and counting the debt that industrialized and high-emissions society owe to non-industrialized societies for using too much greenhouse emissions space and for contributing to climate destruction”, as well as mechanisms to “ensure victims of climate change are compensated and that appropriate mitigation strategies and technology transfer efforts can be financed” (Bond, p. 112), is a good example of this approach.
The second one is per capita equity approach. “Proposals based on the equity principle would require scientific agreement on the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions to be allowed; that amount would be divided by the total world population, and the result would be an equal emissions allowance for each person on the planet”. Under this system, “countries with higher emissions could buy allowances from those with lower emissions, resulting in both lower emissions overall and compensation to nations that use less than their per capita share.” (Schlosberg, p. 448).
A third one is a rights-based approach. This approach sees climate change as “a new threat to these already established rights” and rearticulates human rights, the right to development, and environmental framework in a way that emphasizes a right to have the basic environment in which human flourishing is possible, including a stable climate system (Schlosberg, p. 449).
All in all, Schlosberg is critical of these approaches because they tend to focus on abstract or ideal notions of justice as opposed to the real “environmental and developmental conditions that individuals, communities, and states [the ground] need to survive, develop, and function” (ibid. p.,449) and because they tend to focus primarily on prevention and mitigation of climate change, as opposed to adaptation.
According to him, we need an approach that sheds light on “how justice can be applied to the ways we actually adapt to the very real and growing effects of climate change on the ground” (ibid. p. 447). He is also critical of these approaches as “climate justice theory is articulated almost exclusively within a liberal individualist conception of justice” (ibid. p. 454), paying little attention to collective rights and community-level climate impacts.
In response, Schlosberg proposes an alternative approach he calls the “recognition and capabilities” approach that would help communities and policy makers to “to identify and physically map vulnerabilities caused by climate change… to more clearly understand how and where very specific changes to the physical environment will affect the ability of those environments to sustain specific human capabilities.”
For him the first element of this approach is what he calls “recognition”. He argues that, historically, there are people and communities who have been systematically ignored, misrecognized, and unrecognized by more powerful groups, and that this injustice has led to political, cultural, and economic exclusion, subordination, and vulnerability. Inevitably, the invisibilization of these communities and their concerns has translated, and continues to translate, into environmental policies that disproportionately affects them.
Examples of such communities include Indigenous people or communities of colour. Given that these people and communities are the ones most likely to be affected by the effects of climate change, this situation needs to be remedied in order to develop policy responses that address their needs. This can only be achieved by creating mechanisms for the meaningful and genuine political participation of these communities (Schlosberg, pp. 449-452).
The second element is the idea of capabilities, inspired by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, argues that “justice should not focus solely on distributive ideals, but instead on the range of capacities necessary for people to develop free and productive lives they design for themselves.” (quoted in Schlosberg, p. 453).
This approach, which also includes key elements such as social recognition, public and political participation, is useful when applied to climate adaptation policy because it allows communities and policy makers to develop policies in response to tangible local conditions and vulnerabilities. “It can help us understand and catalog the very specific ways that climate change creates injustice”, both on individuals and on communities (Schlosberg, p. 456). Examples of climate capabilities could include people and communities’ ability to, for example, exercise control over their livelihoods, to access to basic services in order to be in good health, or exercise mobility rights.
The climate justice movement
Over the years, the ideas underpinning the concept of climate justice have translated into an active yet complex social movement. “The concept of climate justice has come to prominence as a research agenda, an ethical and legal framework, and most significantly as the basis for an engaged grassroots response to the unfolding global climate crisis… Advocates for climate justice have emerged as a unique critical voice in climate diplomacy, raised a comprehensive challenge to various technological and market-oriented approaches to the climate crisis that are viewed as ‘false solutions’ and challenged political interests linked to the fossil fuel industry” (Tokar, p. 13).
In the West, the movement has its origins in the environmental justice movement, which emerged primarily as a response to environmental racism (Sze, p. 10) and can be understood as having set the foundations for the modern climate justice movement by focusing on the intersectionality between environmental and social justice issues (ibid. p. 10). That being said, the climate justice movement has also benefited from the theory and work of other movements, such as the Indigenous rights movement.
Tokar argues that the climate justice movement is worthy of attention because it has succeeded in articulating an alternative climate agenda that highlights the disproportionate impact of the effects of climate change on already vulnerable communities, sheds light on the link between economic policies responsible for climate change and those perpetuating poverty and inequality and puts an emphasis on intersectionality between environmental and social justice issues.
For example, it has succeeded in advancing ideas such as the notion that “to solve the worsening climate crisis requires that we must accept both that the vast majority of fossil fuels now be left underground, and that through democratic planning, we must collectively reboot our energy, transport, agricultural, production, consumption, and disposal systems” (Bond, p. xvii) – an idea that up until recently was considered almost sacrilegious in mainstream climate policy. In this regard, the movement has mounted a major challenged to “elite policy-making, where corporate interests often shape political agendas behind the scenes” (Tokar, p. 21).
Tokar also argues that the climate justice movement is remarkable in the sense that it has managed to bring together various and vary diverse constituencies from across the world that are facing similar climate-related threats. These include Indigenous peoples, land rights movements, rainforest dwellers, communities opposing extraction and dams, and island communities affected by sea level rise, among others. It has also integrated large environmental organizations in the North that have traditionally more focused on conservation efforts instead of social justice issues. In this sense, the movement can be understood as a continuation or a new iteration of the anti-globalization movement of the late 90s and early 2000s that opposed the free trade agenda (ibid. ppr.17-18).
For Sze, the current moment in which the climate and environmental justice movement is operating is marked by a series of interwoven crises. In the United States and other western democracies, these crises include growing anti-immigrant sentiments, the rise of national populism, extremely high levels of economic inequality, eroding trust in modern institutions such as the media and science, and the climate crisis. To her, “unjust environments are rooted in racism, capitalism, militarism, colonialism, land theft from Native peoples, and gender violence… it is not aberration, but part and parcel of a political and economic system based on the racialized extraction of land and labour”. (Sze, pp. 3-7). In this sense, she argues that these crises are inter-connected, and addressing them requires a comprehensive approach, and real change cannot be expected within existing liberal and capitalist institutions, and they cannot rely on market based on technology-dependent solutions (ibid. p. 8).
For Sze, environmental justice struggles are struggles for freedom. Not only freedom from harmful environments and oppressive social structures, but also freedom to break hegemonic discourses in order to “create and reimagine worlds different from those that are ‘common sense’” (ibid. p. 9). “The vision for environmental justice is for making work, care, food, energy, and lives matter, not rendering them cheap, disposable, and dead (ibid. p. 23). It also entails highlighting “agency, voice, and recognition of history as core precepts for a more just future (ibid. p. 31). The core concepts of the movement are “we speak for ourselves” and “the environment is where we live, work, play, and pray” (ibid. p. 38).
Despite its relative lack of success in changing or significantly influencing climate policy at a global level, the climate justice movement has played an important role on the ground and in local communities, especially in relation to direct action efforts seeking to halt extractive and fossil fuel projects that would have had negative environmental and climate consequences, as well as in building alliances with labour movements advocating for a fair transition for fossil fuel workers (Tokar, p. 20).
One of the settings in which the climate justice has gained visibility are the international climate negotiations such as the Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings, the preeminent climate negotiation platform. The movement began to take form as a result of the perception that these have been spaces where wealthy countries would routinely work against the interests of developing ones by undermining their negotiating positions, avoiding binding commitments, and underfunding climate finance mechanisms, and in which market-based solutions with limited chances of success, such as carbon trading, were seen as the main solution to the climate crisis (Bond, pp. 1-28). To Bond, this reflects the dominant “mainstream ideological orientation to solving every market-related problem with a market- solution”, which is nothing but an attempt by ruling elites to keep the capitalist system afloat by shifting environmental issues to the South, stalling progress towards real solutions to the climate crisis, and continue the cycle dispossession of resources from the South by promoting the continued commodification and privatization of land and labour (Bond, pp. 52-65).
In this context, Bond concludes that the mainstream climate negotiations, such as the UNFCCC, are failing because their leaders, most of whom are from elite backgrounds in the North and South, are far too loyal to “systemic power and are unable to conceptualize or locate political alliances that break out of the box in which they are confined, and are working in a paradigm defined by “national self-interest and the power of the fossil fuel lobby” (ibid. pp. 76-77).
In this context, marked by the global elite’s inability or unwillingness to tackle the climate crisis, the climate justice movement, led from the grassroots, has emerged as an alternative space to advance solutions to the crisis. According to Bond, the movement has evolved from a group of people with overly ambitious goals that would “politely ask UNFCCC delegates to save the planet” to several networks of activists around the world engaging in direct action to halt extractivist activities such as new oil and gas installations, with varying levels of success (ibid. pp. 185-197).
Klein echoes these ideas and highlights direct action movements as one the sources of hope in our joint struggle against the climate crisis. For Klein, real hope for a transformative environmental movement lies in what she calls “blockadia” – citizen movements all over the world like Standing Rock that emerge in opposition to new extractive projects such as open pit mines, fracking exploration, or oil drilling. These are movements that are defending essential water and land resources and are “turning the tables, insisting that it is up to industry to its methods are safe” rather going along with the empty promises of environmentally sustainable extraction (Klein, pp. 303, 335).
They are also movements that are fighting for “a culture, an identity, a beloved place that people are determined to pass on to their grandchildren, and that their ancestors may have paid for with great sacrifice” – in other words, things that extractive industries cannot replace (ibid. p. 342). A critical element here is Indigenous rights, as many of these movements against extraction have been led by Indigenous people who have used legislation to protect their rights, such as legislation meant to protect the Right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent, to halt new extractive activities. In this sense, identity and culture become essential in the emergence of cohesive and successful anti-extractive social movements (ibid. p. 370).
In this sense, Klein argues that the main task for activists is to help create the “social and political contexts in which these shifts stand a chance of displacing the all too profitable status quo” (ibid. p. 24). She argues that because “culture is fluid”, the climate movement needs to be able to create a cultural shift that emphasizes the interconnectedness of humans and nature and that highlights the connections between multiple social struggles, from economic poverty to racial injustice to migration, in order to build multi-issue coalitions that are able to craft and advance a progressive narrative that challenges neoliberalism and allows for the collective transformation of society in favour of greater social and climate justice.
This new narrative needs to take into account that “our growth-based economic logic is now in fundamental conflict with atmospheric limits (ibid. p. 87) and that we should be opting for “selective de-growth” by moving away from wasteful consumption and investing in low-carbon sector of the economy (ibid. p. 93).
Sze echoes Klein when she argues that one of the key achievements and challenges of the environmental justice movement is linked to the idea of stories, cultures, and narratives. She proposes that in order to succeed, a movement needs to be able to generate new narratives that bring people together and generate a culture of solidarity. In this sense, “stories and how they are told matter. Storytelling is a deeply political act that brings a radical democratic vision to an issue often seen as largely scientific” (Sze, p. 68). For example, “rebellion and resistance stories are part and parcel of restorative environmental justice in the sense that they promote a sense of abundance, life, and affirmation that counter fear, deprivation, and chaos” (ibid. p. 80).
Of course, creating new narratives to advance climate justice and to challenge the current economic model is not easy, in part because of the philosophical underpinnings of the modern world. “Post- Enlightenment western culture does not offer a road map for how to live that is not based on an extractivist, non-reciprocal relationship with nature” (Klein, p. 178). This was most evident in the first two decades of the 21st century, when even the most progressive governments of Latin America’s “pink tide” ended up financing their anti-poverty measures with the revenues of the same extractive industries that have crippled true and meaningful development in region over the past five centuries (ibid. p. 180).
However, the movement is somewhat fragmented, with some factions calling for the emergence of an eco-socialist philosophy, others still attached to the idea of extraction and development in favour of developing countries, and others more willing to integrate with elite-oriented institutions (Bond, pp. 185-197). In this light, Mendez argues that these fragmentations can be overcome by focusing on tangible issues affecting local communities in order to ground these discussions and prevent them from becoming “carbon reductionist” approaches that, by taking an approach that is too global and high level, might end up “obscuring environmental inequities in communities of color” and ignoring change happening at the street level (Mendez, p. 25). Indeed, Mendez’s experiences in Oakland’s climate movement showed that the movement became successful because it was able to tie climate issues to people’s everyday concerns, such as their health and well-being, as well as because it legitimized vulnerable people’s expertise (ibid. pp. 91-114).
Despite these contradictions, the climate justice movement has moved in new directions in recent years that will ultimately strengthen its ability to effect change. One is its growing alliance with the labour movement, which has helped to articulate the vision of today’s Green New Deal in the United States, which emphasizes the enormous opportunity that exists in transition towards clean energy in terms of new jobs for the working class (Bond, pp. 206-207).
Climate justice and racial justice
Climate change is having and is expected to have a major impact on people and communities already facing marginalization. Many of those are racialized communities, which means that climate change has the potential to greatly exacerbate some of the issues that contribute to their marginalization. For example, to Sze the phrase “I can’t breathe”, which gained notoriety in relation to police violence against Black people in the US in recent years can easily be applied to the ways in which communities of colour have been denied “breath and healthy breathing spaces” as a result of environmental racism (Sze, p. 16).
Past experience shows that in many countries, such as the United States, racialized communities have often been more negatively been affected by environmental degradation than white communities. In his work about the bio politics of waste, Zimring describes waste and dirt as “matter that is out of place and threatens the social order” and has contributed to the formation of cultural and social values (Zimring, p. 1). Notions of dirt and waste have historically been conflated with racial constructs in the United States, which has resulted in racialized communities being disproportionally affected by pollution because of policies that externalized the management of waste and hazardous materials to these communities.
In the United States, Washington argues that many of the chemicals found in industrial and waste pollution “are far more likely to their way into African American, Hispanic, and Native American communities- affecting their water, land, and even schools- than into white communities” (Washington, p. 10). This has major health consequences, including in terms of loss of intelligence and reduced cognitive ability for people living in those communities, which she quantifies as a loss of 23 million IQ points each year across the country. (ibid. p. 9) and which have major social economic consequences, often contributing to cycles of poverty.
This situation has been described by various movements and authors as “environmental racism”, which can be defined as “racial discrimination in environmental policy-making and the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of people of colour communities for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of colour from leadership in the environmental movement” (Chavis 1992, quoted in Zimring, p. 1). To Zimring, the racist attitudes in United States culture that shaped environmental policy are also evident in things like “the marketing of cleaning products, the organization of labour markets handling waste, the spatial organization of waste management, and residential segregation” (Zimring, 3).
This is an issue that affects both “people of colour” and Indigenous communities. Fortunately, such communities are beginning to build stronger bonds of solidarity, at least in the United States, perhaps best exemplified by Black Lives Matters’ statement that “there is no Black liberation without Indigenous solidarity” (Sze, p. 43) and by the emergence of new common identities of solidarity among activists at Standing Rock and other major struggles, most of which are expressed through art and storytelling (ibid. p. 44).
Climate justice and Indigenous rights
From changing flooding patterns, fluctuations in fish populations, more frequent tropical storms, and rising food insecurity, Indigenous people across the world are already suffering the effects of climate change. This is problematic because, “if developing countries have little responsibility for climate change, the Indigenous people have the least” (Muller and Walk, 2013 quoted in Jarandilla Nuñez, p. 422), and yet are “systematically excluded form decision making processes of climate processes at the national and international level and in the implementation of mitigation and adaptation strategies in their countries and territories” (ibid. p. 422) despite possessing unique knowledge as result of their relationship with different systems of life.
For Gilio-Whitaker, European colonization of the Americas, which transferred enormous amounts of wealth to Europe through centuries of displacement, genocide (the Indigenous population of North America went from roughly 18 million in 1492 to 188,000 in 1890) , plunder, and land theft, laid the groundwork of environmental racism as colonialism took the form of the physical and political erasure of Indigenous people in order to gain access to and assert control over new territory (Gilio-Whitaker, pp. 24, 49).
This not only disrupted the land-based systems of belonging and responsibility in which many Indigenous cultures are rooted, but also defined development policies that continuously displaced Indigenous peoples from their lands for years to come in order to establish new forms of dispossession. In Indigenous worldviews, Gilio-Whitaker adds, “there is no separation between people and land, between people and other life forms, or between people and their ancient ancestors whose bones are infused in the land they inhabit. All things in nature contain spirit, thus the world is seen and experienced in spiritual terms.”
Furthermore, Indigenous people “recognize themselves as having been placed on their land by spiritual forces to which they are responsible (Gilio-Whitaker, pp. 138, 139). These worldviews are in direct opposition to Western or European-based understandings of the relationships between human and nature, which emphasize the idea of separation us and nature, as well the idea of nature as a source of wealth (Jarandilla Nuñez, p. 423).
These issues raise to the need to take a climate justice approach that is more inclusive of Indigenous perspectives, or to “indigenize” climate justice. As Jarandilla Nuñez explains, the dominant paradigm in climate justice discourse tends to be Eurocentric in the sense that “it considers human beings to be at the centre of climate justice efforts and demands”. Gilio-Whitaker adds that the “underlying assumptions of the dominant environmental justice discourse are grounded in racial and economic terms and are defined by norms of distributive justice within a capitalist framework”.
Indigenous people in many parts of the world are already moving in this direction and have “deconstructed, resignified, and appropriated the concept [of climate justice] with new connotations to raise their voices and visions for climate change action” (Jarandilla Nuñez, p. 421). In essence, Indigenous visions of climate justice are centered around a “cosmocentric” – as opposed to an “anthropocentric” – perspective that is “rooted in the protection of life, not only human life but all systems of life that coexist and are interrelated in our world” (ibid. p. 423). This has led some Indigenous climate activists to call for the recognition of the rights of Mother Earth which conceptualizes the planet as a living entity with rights that need to be guaranteed.
Therefore, pursuing environmental justice from an indigenous perspective requires the use of a different lens that acknowledges the history of settler colonialism, “embraces the ways Indigenous peoples view land and nature” based on understandings of reciprocity and responsibility, including the issue of sacred sites, and that is based on the political recognition of Indigenous people and their right to self-determination” (Gilio-Whitaker , pp.12-13). It entails thinking about a model that actively encourages decolonization and that is able to see beyond “a homogenizing, assimilationist, and capitalist state (ibid. p. 25).
Media and climate justice
For the majority of people, information about climate change and how to deal with it comes from media and news sources (Roosvall and Tegelberg, p. 1). In relation to climate justice, one of the main roles that media are expected to play is that of monitoring the extent to which actors that have been deemed responsible for addressing climate change, such as governments and energy sector corporations, are meeting the obligations they have committed themselves to. In this regard, media institutions “hold great potential to contribute or even to lead efforts to make injustices visible” (ibid. p. 45). This is because “communication as not only reflecting but also constructing, producing, and naturalizing particular human relations with the environment” (Tema, p. 345). As a result, “societal responses to ecological degradation are filtered through dominant systems of environmental representation.” (Tibid. p. 346).
As the concept of climate justice becomes more prominent, “the voices we hear calling for climate justice are increasingly the voices of Indigenous people” and those of other people and communities disproportionately affected by climate change, especially at international climate summits. (Roosvall and Tegelberg, p. 1).
However, Indigenous communities and grassroots leaders are “struggling to have their voices heard in political and media spheres” For example, Indigenous people might get media attention “for their clothes, culture or spirituality” but rarely for their political actions and ideological critiques, which increasingly take the form of demands for climate justice (ibid. pp. 4-5).
This is problematic as the effects of climate change will be most felt by communities living in geographical areas like the Artic, the Amazon, the Andes, the South Pacific, the Himalayas, or the Australian flatlands, that are geopolitically “remote” from the centres of power in media and politics where major decisions around climate issues are being made (ibid. p. 8).
This problem is particularly salient for Indigenous or other ethnic minority communities who in some countries may be mis- or under-represented in media coverage and may be portrayed as not being full members of society. For example, during major anti-government protests that involved a clash between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Colombia in April 2021, mainstream media portrayed the situation as “fights between Indigenous people and local citizens” and characterized Indigenous protests as a “siege” of a capital city (Schaefer, 2021). Examples of the mis- or under-representation of Indigenous people like the one described above are rampant in corporate media – which are often intimately connected to economic and political power – in countries across the world, where these communities are often represented as “living in the past and enjoying underserved special right” (Klein 2014 quoted in Roosvall and Tegelberg, p. 54).
Roosvall and Tegelberg argue that this can have the effect of undermining Indigenous claims to climate justice because those “constituted as ‘not members’ cannot claim redistribution, recognition, or ordinary political representation” in the same way that other members of society can (ibid. p. 44).
For Indigenous and other vulnerable communities, there is a sense that international climate events like the COP, which are designed to bring together the governments of UN members states, do not represent a space where transnational or intra-national communities like themselves can fully participate and exert meaningful influence (ibid. p. 9). This is also reflected in media coverage, as Indigenous-led events at climate conferences about Indigenous knowledge and experiences are seldom featured in global headlines (ibid. p. 111).
Given the general invisibility of Indigenous and vulnerable communities in coverage of climate change, many of these groups have “taken media into their own hands in order to develop their own narratives and challenge dominant stereotypes” (ibid. p.105) through community media, and regularly employ social media for political organizing and disseminating information (ibid. pp. 108, 117).
Why communication rights are essential to climate justice
Upholding the communication rights of people and communities most affected by the effects of climate change greatly strengthens climate justice efforts. In order for climate change to be addressed according to ideas advanced by the climate justice movement, vulnerable people and affected communities, especially in the South, need to be at the centre of the conversation and be able to put forward their own solutions to the crisis as well as to turn public opinion in their favour.
This can only happen if those communities, whether they be fossil fuel workers, Indigenous peoples, racialized people, climate migrants, vulnerable women and girls, communities fighting extractivist projects, subsistence farmers, and the urban poor, among others, are organized well enough to be able to act locally as well as to generate political will in support of their struggles. Clearly, these are social processes that need media and communication. They require vulnerable people and communities to be media literate, have access to media platforms, be fairly represented in media content, and be able to exercise key communication rights such as freedom of opinion and expression, assembly, association, and information.
As Roosvall and Tegelberg point out, one of the central notions of climate justice is that of “parity of participation”, which requires “social arrangements that permit all to participate as peers in social life”. There are multiple obstacles that impede this type of participation. They include economic, institutional, and political barriers (Fraser ,2008 quoted in Roosvall and Tegelberg, p. 37). Schlosberg echoes this notion in his “recognition and capabilities” approach to climate justice, which entails, first and foremost, “recognition” of “people and communities who have been systematically ignored, misrecognized, and unrecognized by more powerful groups” which he argues can only be achieved by creating mechanisms for the meaningful and genuine political participation of these communities. (Schlosberg, pp. 449-452).
In practice, this will entail the following:
- Efforts to enable grassroots climate activists and media houses to build connections and trust;
- Promoting greater access to media, the Internet, and ICTs among Indigenous and marginalized communities;
- Calling for the allocation of broadcasting licenses to community-based groups affected by climate change;
- Building the capacity of Indigenous and other grassroots communities to engage with media;
- Supporting grassroots communities to systematize and share traditional ecological knowledge that help theirs and other communities to adapt to climate change.
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Lorenzo Vargas is a communication for development specialist and researcher on citizens’ media. A Colombian-Canadian, he manages WACC’s Communication for Social Change Program, which supports grassroots sustainable development initiatives in the Global South. He holds degrees in international development and communication from York University and McGill University, and is pursuing a PhD in Communication and Culture at Ryerson University, where he is affiliated with the Global Communication Governance Lab. He has also pursued studies on media and Internet policy at DiploFoundation, the University of Brasilia and the University of Oxford. His publications include Citizen’s Media as a Tool for the Local Construction of Peace in Colombia (2013); Indigenous Community Media Aid Reconciliation in Canada (2015); and Expanding Shrinking Communication Spaces (ed. with Philip Lee) (2020).
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