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Climate Justice, the human story at the centre of the climate crisis

For most of us in Ireland, when we learn about climate change we learn about the weather. About how sea levels are rising and flood damage is increasing. If we read about global effects, maybe we learn about how the ice in the arctic circle is shrinking rapidly and that we are set to lose iconic megafauna like the polar bear as a result. What we read is monotone and matter-of-fact. Emissions of greenhouse gases are continuing to rise, the last five years have been the hottest ever recorded, we have less than ten years left to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Climate change is a human story, but we rarely frame the problem in terms of people and their suffering. As humans we’re writing an autobiographical story in climate change. Yet, somewhere along the way we become removed from it. The human story is hidden behind the jargon, and perhaps for worrying reasons. Maybe here in the West we’re more preoccupied talking about ways of prolonging economic growth and maintaining material standards of living than we are with the human story of climate change because we have the comfort of retreating into our relative wealth to shield us from the worst impacts, for now? Or perhaps the human story remains untold because it shatters any hope that we can continue to live and consume as we do. The human story of climate change is one of injustice. Countries around the world are already facing droughts and increased extreme weather events as a result of climate change. The infrastructure in less developed nations often cannot cope with these disasters, and the existing problems of hunger and poverty are compounded. If that wasn’t enough, those who are suffering the most from this crisis have done little or nothing to cause it. From 1995 to 2015 the richest 1% of the world emitted more than twice as much carbon dioxide than the combined total for the poorest 50%.

There is something rotten in any system that allows such inequality to grow, and this unimaginable injustice is what Mary Robinson addresses in her book Climate Justice - Hope, resilience and the fight for a sustainable future. The former president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights tells the story of how the birth of her first grandson brought climate change into sharp focus for her. She could now see forward to mid-century and the challenges her grandson would face as the world changed. Through her work with the UN she had already travelled around the world and met those on the frontlines of conflict and the climate crisis, but now a personal link had been established.

In this book, the author seeks to help forge a similar link with the human side of the climate crisis for the reader. She does this to great effect by telling the untold personal stories of climate change from around the world. There’s the story of Constance Okollet in Uganda, whose community struggled with failing crops, the heartbreak of the people of Kiribati who soon face forced migration from rising sea levels, and the plight of nomadic tribes from the arctic circle to central africa as resources become more scarce. There’s also a less likely but equally important story of a Fort McMurray tar sands worker. Ken Smith represents the need for a just transition for fossil fuel workers so they don’t lose their livelihoods as the industry declines.

Each story pulls at the heartstrings and provides a different perspective on the multifaceted problem that is climate change. Does the author successfully build empathy with the reader? I think so, but I do feel that there are a few pieces that are missing from the puzzle. While the resilience shown in the stories recounted left me feeling compelled to do something, the call to action wasn’t particularly clear. The cause of the suffering for each of the individuals in this book is undoubtedly a failed system with excessive consumption, fossil fuels, and inequality at its core. The way the developed world goes about its business is intrinsically bad for the rest of the world (and the developed world itself in the long run). The author could make it clearer that to prevent thousands of climate tragedies like those told in this book from being written every day we need to completely reconstruct our society and economic system. We need to measure the success of society in the wellbeing of the people and the health of the ecosystems rather than in the gross domestic product. There is no climate action without climate justice, but there is no climate justice without such changes.

Since this connection is left unwritten, it is impossible to make a credible call to action for the reader. We should be urged to use these stories as impetus to transform our lives, our organisations and our politics. To make every change we can as individuals, but even more importantly to lobby our elected representatives for stronger climate action and to hold polluting industries accountable. Just one more chapter could have made this book a powerful and enduring statement. Instead it left this reader feeling inspired by the stories, but unsure where to turn next.

I’d give this book a 7/10. Stories of incredible individuals and their resilience in the face of the climate crisis, but some uncomfortable truths are left untold and there is no clear call to action as a result.

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