Published: Dec. 3, 2022 By

To hold governments and industry accountable for protecting human rights threatened by climate change, youth, women and front-line communities must mobilize. Economists and investors must rethink what success looks like. 

And, as a last resort, litigation must be used, according to speakers at the Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit at CU Boulder Saturday.

After an at-times emotional first day of the summit Friday, in which panelists from around the globe made the undeniable case that climate change is a humanitarian crisis, speakers on Day 2 focused on accountability, called for action and suggested that a human rights framing is precisely what’s needed to spark action.

“We are living in an exciting time,” said panelist David Boyd, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, in the session “The Obligations of Governments Arising from the Human Rights Impacts of Climate Change.” “By harnessing the power of human rights and the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, we can see a path forward where governments will begin to actually take action.”

Mobilizing from the ground up

In multiple sessions, panelists pointed out that it has been women, Indigenous people and activists from developing countries or the Global South who have pushed forth some of the most critical advancements in fighting climate change. That includes the Paris Agreement goal to limit global warming to, preferably 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels and the recent establishment at COP 27 of a “loss and damage” fund for nations most vulnerable to the climate crisis.

In a rousing speech before a packed house, many of them CU Boulder students donning orange caps reading “Divest,” former President of Ireland Mary Robinson called for a new women-led global climate justice movement, a feminine version of the male-led “moonshot” of the 1960s, to hold the duty-bearers, including government and industry, to task for protecting the planet.

“They said putting a man on the moon was impossible but it was achieved in eight years,” she said.

During the morning panel with Boyd, moderator Nick Clark, of Al Jazeera, called on governments to protect defenders of human rights and the environment, noting that four environmental activists are murdered every week and their killers often go unpunished.

He pointed to the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, better known as the Escazú Agreement, as the first human rights treaty in the world to include a provision to protect activists.

Meanwhile, panelist Janine Coye-Felson, of Belize, challenged those with financial resources to support such defenders around the globe.

“That is the big challenge: How exactly can we mobilize when what we have to mobilize is so limited in terms of resources?” Coye-Felson asked.

In a panel on the role of education, representatives from youth-focused organizations stressed the need for teachers to include the human impacts along with the science in their lessons on climate change, in order to inspire a new generation of climate activists.

“People can’t see the human face from these graphs,” said Ili Nadiah Dzulfakar, panelist and chair and program director of the climate justice and feminist organization Klima Action Malaysia (KAMY), led by young people to mobilize a climate emergency declaration in Malaysia. “You can’t see the death.”

Panelist Jono Anzalone, executive director of The Climate Initiative (TCI), a nonpartisan organization that aims to inspire, educate and empower 10 million youth around climate action by 2025, stressed that just getting climate change education into the curriculum is a challenge. While 84% of educators want to teach climate science, only 43% do.

“How do we close that gap?” Anzalone asked.

Think beyond profit

In an afternoon session, “The Responsibility of Business and Industry to Respect Human Rights in the Context of Climate Change,” several panelists suggested that in order for industry to be able to fully respond to the climate change crisis, the global economy, including investors, must rethink the “Milton Friedman mindset” that success is inextricably tied to short-term profit.

“The actions we need to take may not be profitable in the short run but if we don’t take those actions, human civilization itself is threatened,” said Gillian Marcelle, CEO and founder of Resilience Capital Ventures, LLC.

Investors and corporations should also look to benefits outside of profit, including social good and consider the unseen costs, such as environmental degradation.

Other panelists added that profits from transitioning to a renewable economy will come but it will take time so society must shift its timeline for gauging economic success.

And, as economies transition to renewables, they must ensure that the transition is just, enabling countries in the Global South to continue to develop and workers in the Global North to feel they won’t lose their financial security.

“Working people around the world have to feel like they're not going to be left behind,” said Monte Tarbox, executive director of the National Electrical Benefit Fund, which provides pension benefits to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “So that they have buy-in and back the political initiatives that are needed for this and we don't end up in the situation we’ve been in politically in the United States in the last five, six years.”

Litigate as a last resort

Should citizens sue their governments to force them to do something about climate change?

Many panelists viewed this as a last resort but noted that it has been done, and it can be done again.

For instance, in 2015, in the case of the Urgenda Foundation vs. the State of the Netherlands, the plaintiffs prevailed in their effort to require their government to do more. 

The court in the Hague ordered the Dutch state to limit Greenhouse Gas emissions to 25% below 1990 levels by the end of 2020. The success inspired several other countries to use legal conventions on human rights and climate change to bring cases to demand reduction in fossil fuel emissions.

“It’s a case that’s had a really transformative effect on the way that people litigate climate change against governments,” said panelist Tessa Kahn, in the session “Climate Justice Activism: Litigation and Other Strategies to Hold Governments Accountable in the Context of Climate Change.” “I still don’t think we’ve hit the limit of what can be learned from the decisions that were issued in that case, and how they can inform legal strategies in other countries.”

In a separate panel, Naderev ‘Yeb’ Sano, executive director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, stressed that economics and law aside, human empathy will be key to achieving real progress: “Litigation can only go so far. The battle will be won or lost in the chambers of people’s hearts.”