The image of participants traveling by private jet to a mountain town in Switzerland to discuss climate change perhaps epitomizes elite discourse on the issue. People and the interests of the planet feature less in what has been called the oligarch's party. The organizers of the World Economic Forum at Davos were .mindful of these negative optics and tried to encourage participants to travel by train and promised to offset their carbon footprint by supporting environmental projects.
Tribal communities in India have led people-centered climate justice action in India. Photo Credit: Jason Taylor | ActionAid Association
The sixth round of reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tells us that not enough is happening to stem the emission of greenhouse gases, cap the rise of temperatures at 1.5 degrees centigrade, and mitigate the impact or adapt to emerging situations. Governments have failed, the industry has failed and in fact, so has the international community.
There is little data and analysis on how the cost of extractive and exploitative production processes has been passed on to the working people across the world and to the planet’s natural resources. We do know that while workers live in precarity, the rich are getting super-rich and inequality is galloping. The World Inequality Report holds that global inequalities in income and wealth have been on the rise since the 1980s. In the year 2021, the richest 10% of the global population took in 52% of global income, while the poorest 50% made do with only 8.5% of global income. The inequality of wealth ownership was more severe, the richest 10% owned 76% of global wealth, and the poorest 50% only owned 2%!
This is particularly worrying as the costs of ecological distress and climate change are frontally and disproportionately borne by those lowest in class, caste, and gender hierarchies, and it is on these shoulders that the burden of climate action is also being passed on.
Sustainable futures and climate action plans need frameworks of environmental governance built on the participation of those most affected and impacted. Direct experience of vulnerability and suffering often builds strong sensitivities to social justice and equity needs. Ecological justice goes hand in hand with social justice. Whether globally, or within nations, it is clear that those least responsible shoulder the largest costs and burdens even while living in growing precarity. They should not be denied fruits of development and must experience progress in well-being in the short term. And this can be done in an environmentally friendly manner. Climate action, should put to the forefront needs of communities and countries that are facing the impact of climate change today, and hold countries and companies responsible for climate change to account effectively.
Distress migration and displacement have increased already high levels of social and economic vulnerability across the world. A large number of people lose their habitual place of life and work; there is a need for proactive policy interventions to protect, support, and rehabilitate climate-impacted communities, already in high levels of precarity.
Robust and active planning needs to be done for millions who are displaced due to climate impact – which includes both slow and fast onset events. While it is difficult to quantify losses, for those who lose homes, work, and livelihoods, and indeed their habitats and life worlds, there is an important and urgent requirement for a people-centered governance framework and a policy on migration and displacement due to climate impact. The scope of this policy needs to include those who migrate seemingly “voluntarily” due to worsening livelihood conditions where sustenance gets under threat, as well as those who are displaced rapidly and forcefully. While there is some thinking with reference to rapid-onset disasters and minimal provisions, there is as yet no framework that adequately considers slow-onset climate impacts such as increased aridity and recurrent droughts, desertification, sea-level rise, river erosions, glacial melts, and losses caused by the same.
“Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered” by economist E. F. Schumacher and published in 1973 provides us with wisdom and insight on how systemic thinking of small localized systems could build better resilience in the times of climate change. The main title of the book is misleading because Schumacher never romanticized small for its own sake, his concern was to ensure that the connection with individuals and communities remained in the study of economics and economic projects. In fact, this vision can be extended to other arenas also – especially to the world of governance. People-centric governance structures are what is needed to address the environmental crisis that the planet is facing.
The Working Group III of the IPCC reports on the role played by “non-state and sub-national actors including cities, businesses, Indigenous Peoples, citizens including local communities and youth, transnational initiatives, and public-private entities in the global effort to address climate change.” The challenge before us is to see how we can look to protect communities facing climate change today and enable them to play the role of frontline ecological justice defenders by taking over custodianship of ecological resources and providing environmental services which include agroecology and waste recycling.
Community-led ecological projects need to be funded by developed countries that need to fulfill their common but differentiated responsibilities for the centuries of carbon and greenhouse gas emissions that they have done and continue to do. We are fortunate in India with laws, governance structures, and employment guarantee schemes that can be leveraged to lead grounded projects on climate justice. India has governance structures in place right to the village level, and laws protecting the rights of communities over ecological resources. We need greater effort to encourage communities to populate these governance structures with democratic practices. Our employment guarantee schemes could be extended to urban areas and broadened in scope to cover a wider range of ecological projects for an increased number of days. We look to the Global South and countries like India, to take the lead in creating climate action where people and the planet matter.
(Sandeep Chachra is Executive Director and Joseph Mathai is Head of Communications, both at ActionAid Association. The views expressed are individual and do not necessarily reflect those of the organization represented)
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