Capturing Climate Justice: Mary Robinson Foundation

Recently Earth in Brackets prevented a proposal to have YOUNGO (the youth constituency within the UNFCCC) sign on to a letter from the Mary Robinson Climate Justice Foundation. We had concerns about YOUNGO signing on as a constituency to this letter and did not wish to associate with this letter as a group. YOUNGO endorsement would obviously have implied that. Our concerns were on several levels: where the letter was coming from, how it came to us, and the substance of the letter itself. We wanted to take the time to explain why and also to raise general concerns among civil society groups that the Mary Robinson Foundation is co-opting climate justice. 

As far as process went, we disliked the idea that YOUNGO was handed something from above to sign on to rather than developing our own. YOUNGO is not a rubber stamp for big green NGOs or foundations to gain moral authority. By endorsing this letter, we would be giving away our voice to a former head of state. This is an opportunistic attempt to use our constituency to give legitimacy to the Mary Robinson Foundation’s version of climate justice—a version that seems to be designed to be palatable to global elites rather than grassroots struggles. It is not a version that we have been asked to input to, in any case. We were not involved in drafting, even though a group within YOUNGO has been working explicitly on the issue of intergenerational equity. Which raises some questions: who’s behind this initiative? Do we take our lead from ex-Presidents of the North or social movements of the South? Who does YOUNGO really speak for? This letter was only a draft and could later be changed without our consultation, but after our endorsement. It appeared as if the Mary Robinson Foundation was attempting to use YOUNGO endorsement as PR to further its own goals.

The letter asks us to endorse “an effective, fair, and comprehensive deal in 2015” but doesn’t say what that looks like and who will get to define that. Instead, it includes a number of points that alarm us. We were alarmed by the emphasis on private investment as the source of climate finance. Recent developments with Japan and Australia regarding climate finance (Australia’s withdrawal and Japan’s announcement of $16b, mostly as loans from the private sector) make this an even more worrying inclusion. Investment demands a return on investment, but there is no return on investment to be made on loss and damage, nor is there sufficient return to be made on investment in adaptation and mitigation projects. Does this mean the hardest hit countries do not get to adapt because it is too expensive and there will not be enough return? We believe that true climate justice demands a direct transfer of resources to those countries most in need and this is not mentioned in the letter. So what kind of “climate justice” is the Foundation advocating? The vast majority of climate justice oriented civil society groups support public finance for mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage efforts so it is worrisome that the Marry Robinson Foundation is asking YOUNGO to sign a letter that leaves those important points out. The letter talks about “transforming the economy” but instead of addressing extreme wealth and the over-consumption of global elites, it is about “inspiring a new investment model.” This is not the transformative change we associate with climate justice.

In addition, we have concerns with the implication in the letter that everyone is equally part of the solution and that the actors who are currently the biggest problem and doing the most harm should be partnered with rather than isolated and confronted. We do not believe all actors should be equally consulted in this process; you wouldn’t consult a tobacco company on how to curb smoking so why should we engage the fossil fuel industry on how to limit emissions? You wouldn’t ask Polish communities fighting Allstrom to “act jointly” with them, or Canadian Indigenous fighting Tar Sands to partner with TransCanada, or the Ogoni people of the Niger delta to partner with Shell even as they kill activists and refuse to clean up their oil spills. In some places, the “action” that the people must take against multinational dirty energy corporations cannot be done “jointly” with those same corporations, as this letter implies. “Urgent and robust” action needs to be taken AGAINST certain actors. In places where people have literally been killed over these issues it is extremely offensive to ask those who have been victimized by these interests to work alongside their oppressors.

The incident also raised for us broader questions about the “youth voice.” Why does YOUNGO feel the need to sign on to things and endorse them as the entire youth? As a diverse constituency, groups within YOUNGO cannot presume to speak on behalf of the whole, especially when what they are saying is something which has been handed down to them from a Foundation. Earth in Brackets signs up to a lot of briefs with allies but we don’t bring them to YOUNGO, where we know that many groups could not sign on. We do not want to force groups into blocking proposals because we want to be in a coalition. We don’t want to strong-arm members of our own constituency. Signing on to these policies misrepresents a majority of the youth climate movement as again, we are only tiny segment of a wide array of movements.

In regards to us not wanting this to go forward with YOUNGO endorsement, we do not feel that it is imposing our ideas on anyone else. We are not asking YOUNGO to adopt our ideas of climate justice or equity; we are simply saying that the ideas brought forth in the Mary Robinson statement do not represent the entire constituency nor do they represent the views of many other non-youth civil society groups. The Foundations does not represent our views and we cannot lend our name implicitly or explicitly to the Foundation’s letter. Some of our fellow youth groups felt we drew an arbitrary red line and were unfairly sticking by it to the detriment of the constituency. But many of the principles we stand by are principles that are either rooted in the Convention or the demands of many developing country governments and social movements. On these issues their backs are against the wall, there is no negotiating because they will be negotiating away their lives and land. The countries that hold these positions have everything to lose if they do not receive what they are asking for, whereas many developed countries have space to negotiate. Look carefully at what you are asking someone to concede: it may not always be a fair item by item trade.

If anyone wishes to continue discussion on this, please get in touch.

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