Nearly 4,000 people from 90 countries convened at CU Boulder, either virtually or in-person Friday, for a day-long, candid exploration of something speakers contend isn’t talked about enough: how climate change impacts people’s lives right now.
“A lot of times, we talk about climate change as an issue that will affect future generations, but the reality is, for many communities climate change is already here …and has been for a long time,” said New Zealand-based Indigenous and disability rights activist Kera Sherwood O’Regan during the panel “Understanding Climate Change as a Matter of Human Rights.”
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis kicked off the three-day Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit with a stark reminder that no corner of the globe is immune to the impacts of a rapidly warming planet.
Less than one year ago, he noted, just miles from his podium, Boulder County suffered the most destructive fire in the history of the state, a rare wintertime blaze that burned more than 1,000 homes, including those of many CU faculty and staff.
“There’s no denying that climate change is also a humanitarian crisis,” Polis said.
Marshall Islands to Uganda
Throughout the day, speakers from distant corners of the globe shared what that humanitarian crisis has looked like for their communities.
For the young women of South and Central America, crushing drought has forced northward migration, which often comes with danger, including sexual assault, explained Astrid Puentes Riańo, a lawyer and human rights advocate from Colombia who joined the first panel.
She noted that in 2018, a staggering 82% of crops were lost in Honduras, prompting caravans of people, many of them women, to head north.
“It is not the same to be a wealthy man or woman here in Boulder impacted by climate change as it is for a 14-year-old Indigenous girl migrating all the way from Central America,” Riańo said. “If she is lucky, she will get to the U.S. alive.”
During an emotional keynote speech, with images of her great grandfather and other elders displayed behind her, Indigenous rights activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier described how youth suicide rates among the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic are soaring, in part due to the rapid vanishing of ice (long used for hunting, transportation and housing) and a cultural cornerstone for the Inuit people.
“The ice is our life force,” she said.
During an afternoon session titled “The Experiences of those whose Human Rights are Disproportionately Impacted by Climate Change,” youth activist and poet Selina Leem, from the Marshall Islands, spoke of a growing up in a place, just 2 meters above sea level, where global warming could literally mean the submergence of her homeland.
“We are not accepting of the idea of permanently relocating from our country. It is where it is and that is where we deserve it to be,” Leem said.
Beside her on stage, youth activist Hilda Flavia Nakabuye described how droughts and floods, and the resulting lack of harvest, forced her family of farmers to sell portions of their land and pull her out of school when they couldn’t pay the fees.
“Meals reduced from five a day to two to one until we just had to wait for water from the stream and then the stream started drying up. We asked why the gods were punishing us,” Flavia Nakabuye said.
Even well-intentioned “solutions” to climate change can also inflict harm, said panelist Mattias Ãhrén, who comes from an Indigenous reindeer-herding community in northern Sweden, where sprawling wind farms have begun to gobble up vital pastureland.
“Yes, climate change is terrible, but sometimes the fight against it is even worse,” Ãhrén said.
With candid stories about the devastating impact of climate change came stories of progress.
Panelists noted that at last month’s United Nations Climate Conference, COP27, in Egypt, participating countries reached a historic decision to establish a “loss and damage fund” to support nations most vulnerable to the climate crisis.
This summer, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution recognizing the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right. And a record 300 representatives from Indigenous communities attended COP27, noted Sherwood O’Regan. (Notably, 600 representatives from the fossil fuel industry were also there).
“Loss and damage getting across the line at COP27 is absolutely massive,” Sherwood O’Regan said, stressing that the initiative was brought forth by Indigenous and other front-line communities impacted by climate change. “It is critical that we give credit where it is due. They have not been given space by developed nations, it has happened because people have banged down the doors of those negotiation rooms.”
When asked by NPR journalist and panel moderator Lakshmi Singh to name their No. 1 ask in the battle to save the planet from climate change, the answer from afternoon panelists was universal: representation.
“The power to make decisions has to be shifted from those who might have the means to those who are actually affected,” said Ãhrén.