Climate Justice in States With Extreme Human Rights Issues
My thing is climate change. Any independent research opportunity I’ve had since high school has focused on climate change or the environment in some way. I own a small forest worth of plants and my friends love to call me a tree hugger.
In college, the focus of the research I’m most proud of was the intersection between environment and human rights, particularly climate change migration: people forced to move because of climate change disasters or mitigation projects. I am passionate about this topic, but it generally first requires talking about the environment, which most people see as separate from themselves and their lives. To them, the environment is mountains, lakes, grasslands, and beaches that we purportedly have no relation to. The environmental movement is about saving the rainforest, the coral reefs, or animals they may never see.
I’ll get into why this limited view of environmentalism is flawed, but at first glance, putting environmentalism on the back burner makes sense. For states like Ivory Coast that are dealing with “bigger issues” like hunger, gendered violence, and radical terrorism, worrying about climate change can feel….like a privilege.
When I was in Morocco studying climate justice, my country coordinator said something I don’t think I’ll ever forget: “It is hard to care about climate change when people are being crushed by garbage trucks.” (This is referring to the murder of Mouhcine Fikri, a fish wholesaler who was crushed to death while trying to retrieve fish police officers had thrown in the back of a truck. Read more about his death and the movement is sparked here.)
Sometimes, I feel like an asshole talking about the environment where people are dealing with more pressing issues, but also my interests aim to get people to understand that these issues are intractable. The environment isn’t some abstract concept outside of an average Africans’ reach but something that shapes their lives each and every day. Food insecurity isn’t separate from worsening droughts or inconsistent seasons. Rapid urbanization isn’t this inevitable process that appeared without a catalyst. A basic tenet of modern environmentalism is that climate change is a threat multiplier, and any “pressing” issue that dominates the day-to-day will simply be exacerbated by its consequences. So when I discuss climate change, I don’t want people feeling guilty about a hypothetical sea turtle, I want them to understand that emissions halfway across the world may be driving conflict in their own backyards.
I should address the fact that Africans are responsible for some of the world’s lowest emission rates. However, Africans, and many other inhabitants of formerly colonized nations, will face the biggest brunt of climate change’s consequences. My goal in discussing climate change isn’t to get everyday Africans to net-zero emissions but to prepare them to understand how this anthropogenic phenomenon is going to impact their lives. From forced migration to political instability, discussing climate change in states with human rights issues warns people of what may be in store.
This may all seem depressing (and confusing) and it is. Many of my classes in undergrad were grim. But I like to ground myself in two things. First is the knowledge that climate change is an issue of grave severity but also boundless opportunity. If we do it right, we can address its consequences and build a holistically better world at the same time.
The other is one of my all-time favorite quotes from scholar, writer, and activist, Arundhati Roy:
“Another world is not only possible, but she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
I will share more on the intersections between climate change and human rights in the future, but for now, this is where I’ll start.