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Interview - Issue #8

COP26: Climate Justice

An interview with Maia Wikler

Where the Leaves Fall contacted global changemakers for their thoughts and responses to this year’s COP26 - the UN Climate Change Conference. Maia Wikler is a political ecology PhD student, climate justice organiser, and writer. Her most recent work appears in Teen Vogue and VICE. In June 2019, as a member of The North Face New Explorers Arctic Expedition, she reported from the Arctic Refuge on the impacts of the ongoing environmental and human rights crisis from the fossil fuel industry and climate change. She was recently selected as a National Geographic Early Career Explorer 2020 to document cross-border salmon stories and raise awareness about the threats to wild salmon from mining in Northern British Columbia. You can read the edited interview that was published in the print edition of Where the Leaves Fall here.

Where the Leaves Fall What do you feel are the most pressing issues for COP26 to address and why?

Maia Wikler Around the world, communities of colour, Indigenous peoples, and women are on the frontlines of climate-vulnerable regions and impacts from fossil fuel and resource extraction.

Climate policy will never measure up to the degree of action and leadership needed as long as corporate abuse and influence continues to infiltrate climate talks. Corporate accountability that puts an end to corporate abuse is pivotal to ensure that adequate climate action is taken.

We must quell the unrelenting destruction caused by the fossil fuel industry and mega resource extraction, both of which are largely responsible for this climate crisis. We have already surpassed our carbon budget to prevent the threshold of global warming that would entail catastrophic impacts. The climate crisis is here and unfolding around the world, not only must COP26 address mitigating the worst that is yet to come, but COP26 must support immediate adaptation strategies and support for those most vulnerable who already bear the burden of a burning world.

‘The global community on climate justice needs to address the implementation gap. Most countries in the world endorsed the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but only a handful of the countries actually translated that political declaration into legally binding legislation at the national level.’

— Maia Wikler

WtLF What outcomes (and practical measures) would you like to see emerge from COP26?

Maia I would like to see a framework of climate justice inform climate actions and policy from COP26. Climate justice puts human rights at the centre of global development and climate actions. It recognises the needs of those most vulnerable to climate change, demands equitable distribution of climate finance, and promotes vulnerable groups’ participation in decision-making on climate mitigation and adaptation. Climate change, like other disasters including the Covid pandemic, amplifies existing inequalities in our society - it is not a singular crisis of environmental devastation. Within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations, debate on equity focuses on criteria to decide the share and manner of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the unjust burden of climate change impacts and costs. This dialogue needs to go further, with greater urgency to address the intersections of climate justice. The evidence and history is clear leaving little to debate. Ongoing human rights violations will continue if climate justice is not at the forefront of climate action, policy and philanthropy.

A human rights-based approach must serve as a guiding framework for the development of specific climate crisis actions. Developing strategic programs that align with a rights-based guiding framework provides effective guidance for adaptation and mitigation. The first priority must be to “do no harm” to those communities most vulnerable to the climate crisis. A rights-based approach enables us to break from current programs which too often feed into the inequities intrinsic to a capitalism-based energy system. Second, this guiding framework ensures that we empower affected communities by developing a grass-roots strategy implemented at a global level. 

The global community on climate justice needs to address the implementation gap. Most countries in the world endorsed the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but only a handful of the countries actually translated that political declaration into legally binding legislation at the national level.  That “implementation gap” enables government and business interests to exploit vulnerable communities. Fundamental to a rights-based approach is to ensure that the prerequisite for any environmental action is the informed consent of local communities. Systems must be put in place to protect those on the frontlines defending the environment.

COP26 needs to support land rights and tenure. A recent UN biodiversity study makes clear that issues of land tenure are central to addressing biodiversity loss. While Indigenous communities protect and steward the vast majority of the world’s biodiversity, governments recognise only 10% of Indigenous and community legal ownership of the world’s lands. Rural communities and Indigenous peoples have legal or official rights to only about one eighth of the world's forests, around 513 million hectares.

Those forests store 37.7bn tonnes of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases - 29 times the annual emissions from the world's passenger vehicles. Legal recognition of land rights protects forests and biodiversity, reduces conflict and advances human rights.

COP26 needs to support Indigenous and local community-led solutions. Research demonstrates that lands managed by Indigenous people tend to be healthier and more vibrant than other areas. Indigenous-led solutions prove to be successful in addressing dimensions of inequity such as poverty, violence against women, public health and Indigenous resurgence. 

The conference needs to emphasise adaptation funding. With the Paris Agreement in 2015, the nations of the world made a commitment to mobilize, at minimum, $100 billion dollars a year beginning in 2020. To date, that target has not been met and there is already a funding shortfall. A disproportionate amount of the money raised for climate finance is going to mitigation and not adaptation. Investment in preventative measures rather than addressing immediate consequences of climate change leaves local communities at risk.

‘Currently, the dominant discourse on climate change fails to recognise colonial histories and multicultural perspectives and environmental solutions.’

— Maia Wikler

WtLF How optimistic are you that COP26 will deliver positive change, and why?

Maia The climate crisis cannot be tackled without addressing the systems and structures responsible for racial and gender inequalities. Our climate solutions are compromised if we fail to address colonial violence. At the heart of climate justice is the understanding that urgent climate action based on community-led solutions and human rights inherently supports biodiversity and intact ecosystems. We will not be able to stop climate change if we don’t shift from a corporate-based economy and colonial culture that values extraction and exploitation over life. The world cannot afford to keep women and BIPOC in the shadows; they are change makers who provide a just, transformative framework for the climate crisis.

What would human rights look like if funding instead focused on providing political, legal, and financial support to solutions already being proposed, enacted and protected by women and BIPOC communities on the front lines? We must incorporate local knowledge, culture, and history into climate action to fully address the global complexities of climate change and the real threats facing local communities. Every climate action taken, every policy enacted, every effort funded, should prioritise the most bold, rights-based approach to the climate crisis. We face a catastrophe that is and will continue to imperil those who did the least to cause it. In just nine years, if we champion climate justice, the fate of the world could change course. If we want to live in a just, abundant world of thriving biodiversity and human diversity, climate justice must be at the forefront.  It is imperative that the global climate movement right the wrongs of the past and address the inhumane roots of this crisis.

WtLF What do the world leaders, and everyone else, need to change on a personal level?

Maia The climate crisis is often framed as an imminent disaster, relegated to scientific metrics and data points. However, our current climate emergency is the culmination of disjointed and exploitive relationships between humanity and the environment. For many people, particularly those pushed to the margins of society, the climate crisis is a day-to-day struggle. Globally, people of colour, immigrants, women, and Indigenous peoples experience the impacts of climate change directly and immediately from forest fires, droughts, floods, sea-level rise, storms, permafrost melt, and other ecosystem changes.

While those in positions of privilege interpret climate change as ominous signs of impending disaster, the crisis already imperils vulnerable human and nonhuman lives. We need a rights-based approach to the climate crisis founded on principles of climate justice to effectively address the deep-seated racial and gender inequity inherent to climate change. Currently, the dominant discourse on climate change fails to recognise colonial histories and multicultural perspectives and environmental solutions. Only a sober assessment that addresses how we got here coupled with a strategic investment in social equity, can offer a global path forward from this crisis.

‘There are no consequences for inaction while billions of dollars in funding are squandered for greenwashed net-zero pledges and false solutions coming from countries and corporations.’

— Maia Wikler

WtLF Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Maia The failure of global leaders to act on climate change from a human rights-based framework may be the most significant inter-generational human rights violation in history. In 2013, the IPCC’s fifth assessment gave us only three years before our carbon budget was to run out at current emissions to avoid 1.5C (with only a 66% chance of avoiding this).

According to the 2013 report, we used up our carbon budget in 2016. In 2018, the IPCC in essence reversed its earlier estimate and expanded the global carbon budget to the 1.5C target to the equivalent of 10 years of current emissions, simply because we had already used up the global carbon budget. The revised 2030 deadline is premised on the assumption that future generations will be able to remove hundreds of billions of tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere with yet to be developed carbon capture sequestration technologies that might never exist at scale, and definitely won’t emerge in the timeframe required to abide by the Paris Agreement.

One can only conclude that our current timetable is much shorter than the 2030 deadline would have us believe. The countries most responsible for the climate crisis would need significantly more than a 50% emissions reduction by 2030 to prevent the most dire circumstances for those on the frontlines of climate change.

Most countries, including the US, are nowhere near the generous Paris Agreement targets. Delays and inaction to enact the bare minimum needed to address the climate crisis represents the colonial-capitalistic mentality responsible for the crisis, a gross negligence and disregard of life. The global south and BIPOC communities face devastating impacts with everything to lose and lack the privilege to gamble with their future.

Given the scale and urgency of this crisis, it is clear that current climate mitigation strategies and policies that promote “cheap” carbon emissions offsets and trading opportunities (such as afforestation and other market mechanisms) are inadequate solutions and an ineffective use of valuable funds and resources. Intact forests are one of the last remaining lines of defence for the planet against the worst possible consequences of climate change. Intact forests mitigate against both drought and flood conditions, maintain slope stability and soil structure, and can withstand low-intensity fire. These consequences include intensified forest fires, disrupted local hydrology, increased risk of flooding and increased likelihood of landslides. Decades of multilateral programs, from REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) to the Bonn Challenge, have treated large swathes of the global south as an inexhaustible carbon sink.

Despite consensus that inaction and colonial violence has accelerated climate change to dangerous levels, the world's largest contributors to the climate crisis continue to drag their feet on taking real substantive action. The world’s two biggest emitters - the US and China - still haven’t released updated pledges. There are no consequences for inaction while billions of dollars in funding are squandered for greenwashed net-zero pledges and false solutions coming from countries and corporations. The market for carbon offsets is worth at least $5bn globally and is expected to become much bigger as companies and countries pursue net-zero emissions goals. The power imbalance dynamic of corporations and rich countries paying poor countries for carbon offsets is referred to as carbon-colonialism. Existing “carbon capture” technologies and techniques can today capture only 0.1% of global emissions and should only come as a last resort. These climate mitigation strategies fail to address equity because they not only reinforce power dynamics where local communities do not have the ability to steward their lands according to local knowledge and cultural practices, but it also focuses on lofty calculations that do not adequately reduce emissions and does not support climate adaptation for those on the frontlines of the climate crisis. It is important to realise that climate justice will not come from corporations or market schemes, because these structures are complicit in causing the crisis in the first place.

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