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Humanity at a Crossroads: Fighting for Climate Justice

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We are already teetering at the pollution level that can destroy the world's island states and low-lying deltas. Our survival is by no means guaranteed. The time to act is now.

"Time is running out for us in island states," warns Judge Tuiloma Neroni Slade, Secretary General of the Pacific Island Forum. I'm sitting with him at a climate change meeting in New York in mid-July. He comes from Samoa, a country that won't exist soon if we continue on this path.

"I am not against the endeavors of any country to develop. But when it impacts on the sovereignty of other nations' right to survival then it is a human rights violation." His warning is stark and echoed around the room where leading thinkers and global scientists are gathered for a discussion on the climate crisis that is facing us.

They confirm reports measured by scientists in the climate-observing station in Hawaii in May this year that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere recently topped the threshold of 400 parts per million. It means that for every one million molecules in the Earth's atmosphere, there are 400 molecules of carbon dioxide. If global warming is to be below 2 degrees Celsius, we need to stay below 450 parts per million.

Scientists say that even at 1.5 degree rise in temperature threatens the survival of most island states and low-lying deltas. They also agree that between 60-80 percent of coal, oil and gas reserves of publicly listed companies are 'unburnable' if the world is to have a chance of not exceeding global warming of 2 degrees Celsius.

Our first law of humanity is that we should not kill our children. In spite of our technological progress we have gone backwards in exceeding the planetary boundaries. The question is not the survival of our planet. It is the survival of the human species. The Earth will outlive us. It is humanity that faces extinction. Like the extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs. The difference is that today it is driven by our human greed which will kill our children. My generation faces a jury on intergenerational justice.

The root of our problem is that we are brainwashed into culture of consumerism. Driven by marketing steroids the act of purchase has become an act of worship. But it's a false religion. It brings not salvation but emptiness filled with more material things we don't need and a wanton destruction of our environment.

Nightly we stare at our TV screens with graphic pictures of the prolonged droughts in the Horn of Africa, Mali and Niger, the torrential flooding in northern India, Pakistan and China, the raging fires in Labrador, Australia and Indonesia. We know the rains are now unpredictable and fierce storms batter our lives and rob many of all they worked for. But we have not connected these dots to what we are doing to undo nature.

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim warned recently of "widespread food shortages, unprecedented heat-waves, and more intense cyclones. In the near-term, climate change, which is already unfolding, could batter the slums even more and greatly harm the lives and the hopes of individuals and families who have had little hand in raising the Earth's temperature."

For Sub-Saharan Africa, prolonged droughts and extreme weather will reduce maize yields by 40 percent and destroy much of the grasslands that support pastoral livelihoods. At a time when Africa's population is projected to reach 2 billion by 2050, there will be widespread hunger, civil conflict and social instability driven by the competition over scarce land, water and food. That's if we do not stand up and do something now to stop climate change in its tracks.

Narrow corporate interests, driven by financial engineers, with their short-term profit demands, now dictate the narrative and agenda of our world. But they operate under a social license. And their activities are life-threatening. They must be held to account.

Nnimmo Bassey, Director of Oilwatch Nigeria, says, "Oil companies in the Niger Delta made billions in obscene profits. But people are poor, our future is bleak and our environment has been destroyed. We have a right to say no to this reckless exploitation. We need an international tribunal for crimes against our planet."

Sharan Burrows, the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Federation, eloquently argues the case for green jobs. "We will have no jobs if we have no planet. We have done the modelling that demonstrates that more decent jobs will be created if our governments introduced policy changes in energy, industry and agriculture towards a carbon free economy. And the unions who control $2.5 trillion in pension funds have a central role to play."

The technical solutions are not difficult to implement. The global agreement on the UN Climate Change Convention is politically impossible in a context where political will is paralyzed.

As citizens and as parents we have to organize a democratic groundswell for climate justice. The richer countries have a historical responsibility to take the lead in emissions cutting, and to pay for the expenses incurred by developing countries in switching to low-carbon technologies and policies.

We need to reignite that 'moral moment' for truth, justice and fairness that characterized the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and bury our disempowering experience of Rio 2012. Why can't we have a global ideas pool -- free of intellectual property and innovation linked to human survival rather than profit? Already coalitions of mayors, cities, parliamentarians are moving ahead of their governments to take action as they experience the social impact and rising costs of more frequent ecological disasters.

The post-2015 MDG process and achieving a climate agreement present us an opportunity to lock in high national commitments to an ambitious, binding comprehensive agreement that addresses at its core climate justice, inequality and poverty.

Our commitment should be to build an unstoppable tsunami of hope and justice that places the voices of citizens and the poor as the centerpiece of our strategy. We are one human race with one planetary system. We live in a global village. Expanding our moral imagination, we can achieve the impossible dream of a future that is built on social solidarity, human dignity and living in harmony with nature.

Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, now the UNSG Special Envoy to the Great Lakes region and key convener of our group, closes two days of breathtaking discussion: "We are five minutes to midnight. People worldwide have a right to development. We must ensure fairer access to clean energy and a new understanding of economic growth that encompasses a low carbon growth path that deals with issues of poverty, inequality and gender rights. We need global pool breakthrough technologies for our human survival. And we need them free of intellectual property rights. This is the brief of climate justice narrative the world needs."

The choice is ours.

The alternative is too ghastly to contemplate. Albert Einstein described it as insanity: "Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

This piece was originally posted by The Daily Maverick.

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