The Human Face of Climate Change

Less than two kilometres away from Vigyan Bhawan, the venue of the eighth Conference of Parties (COP-8) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the most marginalized people of the Indian sub-continent gathered to redefine climate change.

Even as international bureaucrats, politicians and corporate representatives at the COP-8 quibbled over the wording of the Kyoto Protocol, adaptation and trading carbon emissions, participants at the Climate Justice Summit (October 26-28,2002) made connections between the degradation of their living environments, loss of livelihoods and climate change.

This unique summit, organized by the India Climate Justice Forum (ICJF), a coalition of mass organizations and groups - both Indian and international - was designed to provide a platform for communities most vulnerable to climate change – fisher-folk and coastal communities, farmers, Adivasis (indigenous peoples), Dalits and the urban poor.

"The biggest injustice of climate change is that those least responsible for creating the problem are the hardest hit. And they have also been left out of the negotiations to solve the climate crisis," said Amit Srivastava of CorpWatch, a San Francisco-based group working on issue of corporate accountability and one of the organizers of the Summit.

That climate change caused by global warming is real is no longer a matter of debate. The relevant questions are: How severe is the impact going to be? What can be done about it? What is the human face of climate change? For instance, what is the impact of the rise in the global average sea level of 0.1-0.2 metres in the 20th century and the predicted rise of 0.09 to 0.88 metres by 2100?

The large contingent of fisher-folk, under the banner of the National Fish-workers Forum (NFF), a federation with about 10 million members, described how the rising water level leads to submergence of coastlines. Rising ocean temperatures have been found to deplete fish and other marine resources. "We may not know the science behind it, but we do know that global warming is affecting our livelihoods," said N.D. Koli of the NFF.

This year's scorching summer in Delhi was a symptom of climate change, most felt by those without access to basic civic amenities. Cycle-rickshaw pullers - mostly migrants from rural areas where farming has been rendered nonviable - brave the intense heat, bitter cold and unseasonal downpours in pursuit of their livelihoods.

The rickshaw unions drew attention to the issue of equity - not only between the industrialized and developing nations but also within India. The country's elite, with their high resource and energy consumption, were imposing an unsustainable development model, they said. "In the present transport policy, it is resource-intensive modes like the metro rail which get precedence over non-polluting, sustainable modes like the cycle rickshaw," rued Rajendra Ravi of Lokayan, a Delhi-based group that is unionizing rickshaw pullers. The massive rally on the last day of the summit saw hundreds of cycle rickshaws enter the New Delhi area (where they are prohibited from plying) to make a loud statement against climate injustice.

Some connections drawn were more subtle, but no less important. Jyotsna Tirkey of the Adivasi Mahila Manch, a coalition of 17 mass organizations of indigenous peoples in the newly-formed state of Jharkhand, pointed out that the out-migration of Adivasis from the area is linked with the dependence on fossil fuels. Impoverishment and alienation from traditional land is a direct result of mining in the area, she says. Ceaseless extraction of coal and other minerals has degraded acres of forest, while inadequate compensation for acquired land has rendered countless Adivasis landless.

Climate change directly impacts those dependent on land. "With the failure of the monsoon for many consecutive years, marginal farmers are forced to migrate to Bengal, Benaras and other parts of Uttar Pradesh to work as manual laborers in brick kilns. Earlier, the migration used to be seasonal, but now it is permanent," said Tirkey. Last year, an estimated 17,000 Adivasis migrated out of the Singhbhum district alone. Thousands of young Adivasi women migrate to Delhi to work as domestic maids, earning a pittance under humiliating work conditions, Tirkey added.

In an economy still largely fuelled by coal, oil and gas, more and more indigenous peoples are bound to become 'environmental refugees', say activists. "Over 10 million Adivasis have been displaced in the name of development, and 10 million more are being displaced in the name of conservation," said C.R. Bijoy of the Indigenous People's Caucus, a coalition of several Adivasi groups.

Yet, the emphasis of the COP-8 negotiations lay elsewhere. "The focus is on the cost of reducing emissions, rather than the cost of doing nothing, because the voice of the impacted communities does not find a place in the negotiations," said Kate Hampton, Climate Change Coordinator of Friends of the Earth International. Rather than cutting emissions, the thrust is on setting up complex mechanisms for monitoring and trading, she pointed out.

"The negotiations to solve the climate change crisis have been hijacked by corporations and industrialized nations, especially the US. These meetings resemble a trade meeting to push globalization over developing countries rather than a conference to meet the genuine needs of people," said Medha Patkar, national coordinator of the National Alliance of People's Movements, one of the ICJF constituents.

Just 122 corporations in the world account for over 80 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions. Oil produced by just four companies - Shell, Exxon-Mobil, BP-Amoco-Arco, and Chevron-Texaco - accounts for nearly 10 per cent of all carbon emissions.

"Most of the action to prevent climate change needs to happen in the North due to their over-consumption. On the other hand, the people who need to prepare most for the impacts are in the developing world. No equitable solution to climate change will be possible without both these things," said Yin Shao Loong of the Malaysia-based Third World Network, another constituent of the ICJF.

Shao Loong was critical of 'false solutions' like the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) which does not contribute to sustainable development. In fact, it is merely repackaged Foreign Direct Investment, where the odds are stacked against the developing countries.

While the US pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, and the official Delhi Declaration was a damp squib - merely repeating empty promises made at the WSSD in Johannesburg earlier this year in October - the representatives of communities impacted by climate change came out with their own 'Delhi 
Climate Justice Declaration'.

Resolving to redefine climate change from a human rights, environmental justice and workers' perspective, the Declaration states, "We affirm that climate change is a human rights issue - it affects our livelihoods, our health, our children and our natural resources. We will build alliances across states and borders to oppose climate change inducing patterns and advocate for and practice sustainable development. We reject the market-based principles that guide the current negotiations to solve the climate crisis: Our World is Not for Sale!"


More by :  Laxmi Murthy

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