Adopting a justice-based approach to the climate emergency

The environment isn’t the only thing that’s changing — society itself has to change too. But how can it do so in a way that is both fair and responsible?

On October 13 and 14, UBC Research and Innovation organized the UBC Climate Change Research Symposium. This two-day event featured groundbreaking research from departments across both UBC Vancouver and UBC Okanagan. The Ubyssey attended day two of the symposium which consisted of three panels and a keynote presentation by Naomi Klein, an award-winning journalist and the new professor of climate justice at the department of geography here at UBC.

The third and final panel of the day focused on how society can achieve a fair and responsible transition in a changing climate. This portion of the event was chaired by Dr. Gail Murphy, vice-president research and innovation.

The climate crisis is a human rights violation

The first panelist to give his thoughts was Dr. David Boyd, associate professor of law, policy and sustainability at the UBC Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability.

“The global climate crisis is also a global human rights crisis,” he said. “The rights to life, health, food, water, cultural rights, the rights of the child and … the right to a healthy environment are all being violated on a daily basis.”

He also explained that “the adverse impacts of the climate crisis fall disproportionately upon the shoulders of the poor, the marginalized, and the otherwise vulnerable communities.”

Boyd referred to the Paris Agreement, in which over a hundred world leaders gathered to determine a goal of 2, preferably 1.5, degrees of warming.

“The problem with these international environmental agreements,” he said, “is that there are no compliance or enforcement mechanisms, which means no accountability.”

Boyd mentioned how invoking human rights violations in the past is what enabled movements to witness actual transformative change, such as the women's rights movements and movement for the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Moreover, adopting a human rights-based approach for climate litigation has the distinct advantage of appealing to legal institutions and processes that can provide accountability on the basis of human rights, as Boyd asserted.

This kind of approach has been adopted before in “many countries around the world, including the Netherlands, Germany, Colombia, Brazil and France” and successfully “compelled governments to take more ambitious climate action,” said Boyd.

As Boyd explained, this climate action refers to a strengthening of environmental laws and policies, improvement of the implementation and enforcement of those laws and policies, and decreased environmental injustices. Most importantly, it includes improvements in environmental metrics like faster reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and higher levels of access to safe drinking water.

This is why Boyd was “delighted” to announce that on October 8, the United Nations Human Rights Council recognized “that everyone on Earth has the fundamental human right to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment — a right that includes a safe climate.”

“Human rights,” he said, “[when] placed at the heart of all climate action — mitigation, adaptation, and addressing loss and damage — can enable us to successfully, effectively and equitably address the global climate crisis.”

Importantly, “from a legal perspective, [this declaration means these measures] can no longer be considered options but rather obligations.”

Climate change is not anthropogenic

Robert Clifford, assistant professor at the Allard School of Law followed shortly after Boyd to speak about the importance of considering Indigenous and Aboriginal law in climate change discourse. Clifford is WSÁNEĆ and a member of the Tsawout First Nation.

Clifford clarified an important distinction during his presentation which is that Indigenous law refers to Indigenous peoples’ own laws which they use to govern their respective nations. Aboriginal law, in contrast, is a branch of Canadian law. It refers to the Canadian laws imposed upon Indigenous peoples.

Indigenous laws have historically and contemporarily been undermined via the erasure of Indigenous nations and sovereignty by Canadian colonial legal institutions. Clifford stressed that revitalization of these laws, reconciliation and climate change are “intricately entwined.”

“The barriers that … limit and restrain meaningful revitalization of Indigenous law align closely with the same processes and ideologies that have tended to drive climate change,” said Clifford.

An important illustration of this relationship is the problematic labelling of climate change as “anthropogenic,” i.e., caused by humans.

Clifford called this narrative “historically false.” This is because Indigenous communities spent millennia living in sustainable relationships with the land. Their very human, traditional practices did not contribute to climate change like the industrial processes of other human societies.

According to Clifford, this framing “depoliticizes the history of climate change and glosses over the dynamics that continue to fuel it.”

Understanding this context is necessary to understand that when Indigenous groups stand in opposition to projects that contribute to climate change, such as pipeline development, they are not committing “illegal” actions but rather are upholding Indigenous laws and legal traditions.

“We have responsibilities to care for those relatives, not just in our own actions, but also from harmful actions of others,” said Clifford.

Clifford specifically used the term “relatives'' how many Indigenous cultures refer to the land, other animals and living creatures. This is because many Indigenous communities understand these groups to be active subjects and agents of their own will. Moreover, many Indigenous peoples value their relatives as subjects with whom they have a mutual, reciprocal relationship based on mutual care and respect.

With this context in mind, Clifford explained how colonialism contributes to climate change by its refusal to acknowledge Indigenous laws. This refusal robs Indigenous peoples of the mechanisms to hold people accountable for engaging in harmful, climate change-driving actions within Indigenous peoples’ homelands and traditional territories.

Corporate responsibility

Following Clifford’s exposition of the role of settler colonialism in causing the climate crisis, Dr. Carol Liao, an associate professor at the Allard school of law, discussed the importance of corporate responsibility.

According to Liao, “it’s difficult to deny that corporations play a monstrous role in our efforts, or lack thereof, to combat climate change.”

“Some multinational corporations’ power now dwarfs that of many governments in terms of financial resources, capital, mobility, technological know-how, scalability and political influence,” she explained.

Liao’s research as a principal co-investigator at the Canada Climate Law Initiative (CCLI) seeks to ensure that “Canadian directors and trustees understand their fiduciary obligations with respect to climate change.”

Fiduciary duty to the “legal and ethical relationships of trust that a fiduciary [such as a Canadian corporation] owes to another party [such as its stakeholders]” to behave in their best interests. In practice, this usually translated to corporate boards trying to maximize profits for shareholders.

Liao’s work at CCLI has “clearly clarified and settled” that responsible climate governance is part of any corporate boards fiduciary duty to the planet and society as a whole.

The Supreme Court of Canada has given judicial notice — a formal indication that “fact is so well-known and proven that it cannot be reasonably doubted” — that “climate change is a threat of the highest order to the country and the world.”

This means that being a climate change denier, as a board member, represents a failure to exercise one’s fiduciary duty.

“The CCLI has commissioned legal opinions from well respected lawyers in Canada confirming that, in executing their duties, Canadian directors are obliged to be proactive and critically evaluate and address the material risks and opportunities associated with climate change,” said Liao.

Liao also noted the importance of considering who is sitting in those boardrooms. A lack of diverse representation in those leadership roles directly and indirectly influences what the board as a whole identifies as problems, how those problems are solved, and whose interests they deem worthy of protection.

Although much of her work revolves around holding corporations accountable to existing corporate laws, Liao also acknowledges the limitations of these legal systems.

“[These] laws… are colonial in nature and do not integrate stewardship or sustainability [into] their [legal] systems.”

Since the global economic system is so interconnected and interdependent, is it incredibly difficult to which corporations are in control of what. This is partially why achieving corporate sustainability is so difficult. Liao suggested that any new models of corporate law need to consider these difficulties because existing models are unable to effectively hold corporations accountable.

Not all energy transitions are created equal

As the final speaker of the climate change research symposium, Dr. Hisham Zerriffi, associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion and associate professor at the UBC department of forest resources management, highlighted how sustainable energy transitions manifest differently among different nations.

He first outlined that certain countries produce less carbon emissions per person than other countries. For example, a country like Angola averages a little over one tonne of carbon emission per person whereas Canada averages 15 tonnes per person.

As Zerriffi pointed out, this illustrates that the responsibility for carbon emissions is borne unequally among different countries. With this in mind, Zerriffi begged the question, “what does [a] global energy transition mean for a country like Canada versus a country like Angola?”

There has been an increasing amount of public and political support for transitioning away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. But how does this push take into consideration that there is a “real need to actually increase energy consumption [in countries like Angola] to improve their standard of living?”

Zerriffi explained that in “advanced economies,” there is a declining trend in the usage of coal as an energy source and a rising trend in the usage of renewables. Conversely, in developing economies, there is actually a slight increase in the usage of coal and other fossil fuels with an accompanying increase in the usage of renewables.

Carbon usage is commonly framed using the idea of a “carbon budget.” High-income countries have historically used up the majority of this budget. As society transitions towards a primarily renewable-based energy system, “who has the rights to the remaining carbon budget?”

“What is the responsibility for countries like Canada to move very fast and aggressively [towards a renewable energy transition] to give headroom to countries that … have to grow [potentially, using fossil fuels],” asked Zerriffi.

A nondifferential demand for every country to immediately and fully transition towards renewable energy does not take into consideration how some countries may depend on or need to transition toward fossil fuels.

Zerriffi specifically cited how there are 2.6 billion people in the world that cook with biomass. In their case, moving towards natural gas stoves actually improves human health. Counterintuitively, switching to a gas stove would actually be better for the climate than continuing to use biomass.

“How do we account for growing energy demands [that will] improve livelihoods and standards of living,” asked Zerriffi. “How do we account for the historical responsibilities for climate change?”

When is the justice in eliminating fossil fuel investments in low income countries while simultaneously supporting fossil production in high-income countries such as Canada?

Herein lies the crux of the matter, as Zerriffi presented it: “what do we mean by a just, [fair and responsible] transition?” Throughout his presentation, Zerriffi seems to hint at an answer: an equitable global energy transition requires differential national energy transitions.