Climate catastrophe isn’t looming – it’s already here. The fires raging in the Amazon and the devastation in the Bahamas are only the most recent reminders of this.
What’s at risk is all that we need to survive: clean air and water, food, a healthy environment. Our rights to these resources are also enshrined in international law. Yet, too often, we neglect the potential of this rights framework to hold governments accountable to create and implement sustainable policy, shape the law to uphold our moral vision, and provide local activists with tools to turn those rights into reality.
To achieve climate justice, the architecture of human rights that already exists is a critical but under-utilised asset. In this race against time, we must learn from global women’s movements and leverage human rights to address the climate crisis.
Significantly, feminists over generations refused to let the rights framework remain static. They fought to fundamentally expand it, for example, by winning groundbreaking legal protections that guaranteed reproductive choice and named rape as a war crime for the first time. They made the once-radical claim that “women’s rights are human rights” seem obvious.
Twenty-five years after feminists made this declaration at the 1995 Beijing conference on gender equality, we live in a different world. Today, the majority of countries ban domestic violence and most constitutions guarantee gender equality, for example. Local feminist advocates and movements have used these legal gains to protect lives and make those rights real.
We can do the same to tackle climate catastrophe. We can turn the barely-imagined into the self-evident: that we have a fundamental right to a liveable planet, that nature itself has rights, and that governments are obligated to protect those rights.
We have a fundamental right to a liveable planet, and nature itself has rights
Feminists also disrupted the false distinction between the ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres that once pervaded human rights law. They asked: why was it a violation for an interrogator to beat a detainee, but merely a private family matter if he beat his wife? In doing so, they created new norms and legal obligations that require states to prevent abuses by “private actors”.
The climate movement can use this precedent to hold other private actors, namely, carbon-polluting corporations, accountable for their actions – by recognising them as human rights abuses.
Throughout, women’s movements have seized moments of global political turmoil to forge new gains. Amidst tectonic shifts in global relations that followed the Cold War in the 1990s, women’s rights advocates secured some of their biggest wins. They used the human rights system as a unifying framework, transcending national boundaries and allowing advocates to organise globally on the basis of local experience.
Today, we’re in another moment of global turmoil, with right-wing governments on the rise and hard at work to destabilise the human rights system. While this instability poses threats, it also creates strategic openings. Rather than follow the worst impulses of US policymakers and abandon or attack multilateral spaces like the United Nations, climate activists can do the opposite: double down and engage.
That means using action in international human rights spaces to advance a just climate policy locally. Some activists have already begun to employ this tactic. Just this week, 16 young people filed a legal complaint with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, stating that countries’ failures to curb emissions violated children’s human rights.
Empowered social movements, not states, are the true guarantor of rights
In this way, climate activists can learn and build upon the most valuable lesson of all from the women’s movement: that human rights can be a powerful tool for change – if we realise that empowered social movements, not states, are the true guarantor of rights. This is how feminists secured vital policies like constitutional prohibitions on domestic violence in Colombia and laws to end impunity for rape in Tunisia.
Similarly, by merging political mobilisation with human rights advocacy, climate activists can build pressure on governments to live up to their international obligations and translate universal human rights into domestic policy. This can help ensure a Green New Deal that accounts for the global implications of US climate policy, for example, and centres the rights of women, people of colour, LGBTIQ and Indigenous Peoples in the US and worldwide – a vision advanced by feminist climate justice activists in the recently launched initiative for a Feminist Green New Deal.
As we race against the clock to prevent the worst impacts of cascading climate breakdown, these lessons from the women’s movement can strengthen our strategies for global climate justice.