Climate Change and the Social Justice Dilemma

10 Jun

“Our coasts are already under siege. Our beaches are already eroding.  Our land is already being washed away. Our coral reefs, and the marine life that they support, are already dying. Our homes, way-of-life and culture are already at risk. Our human rights are already being compromised, and our very lives are already being imperiled.”

–    H.E. Mr. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, President of the Republic of Maldives, in his address to the UN

Beach Erosion in the Maldives

Beach Erosion in the Maldives

In a December 7, 2005 petition to the Inter American Commission on Human Rights from a diverse group of Inuit from across Canada and Alaska made a dramatic charge: “The effects of global warming constitute violations of Inuit human rights, for which the United States is responsible.” The petition continued, “because of their close ties to the land and environment, the effects of global warming violate the Inuit’s right to enjoy the benefits of their culture.”

Gayoom’s voice and the voices behind the 2005 petition are few in a growing chorus from across the globe speaking out on human rights of those affected by global climate change. British Secretary of State for International Development Douglas Alexander notes that in 2001, for the first time ever, environmental refugees exceeded those from war and violence.

Too often, conferences on climate change convene to discuss economic matters, environmental concerns, food chain disruption, or threats to global health, however, not enough discussion revolves around the profile of who is be most affected. What will the socio-cultural affects be to those most vulnerable populations? Who is and who will be protecting the human rights of those unable to bear the brunt of climate change on their shores, in their air, in their food supply, on their bodies, and oppressing their “right to enjoy the benefits of their culture”?

These questions will not go away on their own. If they remain un-addressed they will transform social justice in climate change from a back-burner issue to one that is central to how states and leaders proceed with mitigation or adaptation regimes. The deep-seated feelings of inequality and victimization – often directed at the U.S. or developed world in general – may end up as insurmountable roadblocks in the quest for global unity on this issue.

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