Young people have been at the heart of raising climate change as a human rights issue, new UN summit emphasizesNew UN summit emphasizes the role of young people in raising climate change as a human rights issue. Photo credit: Johannes Eisele/Getty Images
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By Dana Drugmand

Climate justice and human rights advocates are convening the first global summit on human rights and climate change this September, hoping to kick-start an escalation in the international human rights community’s response to the climate crisis. 

“Human rights groups cannot be bystanders as this crisis unfolds,” Kumi Naidoo, secretary general of Amnesty International, said Tuesday during a news conference announcing the summit, scheduled for September 18-19 in New York, in advance of the United Nations’ climate action summit

The summit aims to “galvanize the human rights community to urgently scale-up its efforts on climate justice.” Naidoo said the event will be an “attempt to build a large coalition” and to form a clear action plan for mobilization. 

Lead organizers include Greenpeace, Amnesty International, the Center for International Environmental Law, the Wallace Global Fund, the UN Human Rights Office, and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. 

The call for mobilizing the global human rights community comes on the heels of recent UN warnings that climate disasters are occurring much faster, at the rate of once a week, and that the world risks extreme impacts on poorer populations if urgent action is not taken. 

A recent report by Philip Alston, chair of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University and the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, warned of a situation where “the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer,” he said. Alston’s report urged human rights and environmental organizations to work together to address the climate crisis and also called out national governments and fossil fuel corporations for their failure to act and their substantial role in accelerating global warming. 

“Governments are not going to do it on their own. Corporations are certainly not doing it on their own,” Alston said during the press briefing. He emphasized the need for a widespread, bottom-up response. “It’s the grassroots movement that this summit is all about,” he said. 

Young people are at the forefront of this grassroots movement, exemplified by the school strikes across Europe inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and Sunrise in the U.S. that has succeeded in pushing the Green New Deal onto the Democratic political agenda. Young people are also turning to the courts. 

“There’s been a lot of leadership from youth not just in the streets but in taking their governments to court,” said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International. She said the youth climate cases, such as Juliana v. United States, are “all part of a power shift that needs to occur.” 

The Juliana case currently awaits a crucial decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on whether it can proceed to trial. Naidoo said that Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate and an expert witness for the young plaintiffs, recently told him, “We have to use this case as a push for accountability, but not be discouraged by legal impediments.” 

“We don’t have to win every legal battle,” he said. He added that he expects to see a “spiking” of climate litigation grounded in human rights claims. 

Accountability lawsuits will increase as climate impacts like sea level rise, more extreme storms and intensifying drought and wildfires worsen, said Carroll Muffett, president and chief executive of the Center for International Environmental Law. 

“We are already seeing a rise in holding not only governments but fossil fuel corporations accountable,” he said. “We’re going to see a continuing growth of these cases. When people’s rights and their communities are impacted, they have a right to seek recourse.” 

The fundamental human right to life itself is at stake, Naidoo said. “The threat of climate change constitutes a potential mass death penalty for many people on this planet,” he said. 

And while courts will decide claims of climate injustice and related human rights violations, the real impetus for transformative change, Alston said, will come more directly from the people. 

“Human rights is not just about litigation, it’s about mobilization,” he said. 

“Many of the most powerful demands for reasonable action are coming from movements, from young people,” added Craig Mokhiber, director of the United Nations Human Rights Office in New York. “This is about radical change, change that we need to make very quickly to save ourselves.”  

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