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Scholars discuss the relationship between climate change and social justice

By Hannah Stewart

Section: News

March 18, 2016

In the Paris Climate Agreement, 196 countries agreed on preventative measures for combating climate change, a social justice issue that affects many around the world, according to three scholars who convened in Rapaporte Treasure Hall on Tuesday, March 15.
The agreement is an effort to combat the “cavalier attitude with which we treat climate change in this country,” said Professor Sabine Von Mering (GRAL/WGS), director of the Center for German and European studies who moderated the panel. Each panelist gave a presentation on one aspect of the Paris Agreement before the panel opened up to questions from the audience.
The “most vulnerable communities bear the brunt of the impact,” according to Dr. Joseph K. Assan (HS), Assistant Professor of International Political Economy of Sustainable Development who spoke at the panel. Although the recent mass displacements of people in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Iran have been accredited to ethnic conflicts in the regions, their true origin is in climate change, he argues.
“The underlying decision for most families to depart is the environment … their livelihoods are no longer sustainable, they have no prospects for their children,” said Assan.
Climate change negotiations have been largely unsuccessful since the term officially appeared on the international agenda at the 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The international community had great hope that many of the worst effects of climate change could be mitigated with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, but as Dr. Herman Ott put it, the protocol was “doomed from the beginning.” Ott is the Senior Advisor of Global Sustainability and Welfare Strategies of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy in Berlin.
America is the world’s number one historical cumulative emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG), one of the substances most responsible for climate change. Ott suggested that the Kyoto Protocol was not a complete failure though because many countries did manage to reduce their GHG emissions. There was hope again leading up to the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, but it was dashed once more when negotiations broke down.
The 2015 Paris 21 Conference of the Parties took a completely different approach. Ott praised the Parisian hosts, commenting that, “There was a time when French and diplomacy were synonymous.”
The Paris Agreement was not stylized as a treaty, meaning that the American Senate will not have to approve it, a concern that has kept the U.S. from involvement in other climate change talks. The language used in the agreement is neither substantive nor binding and cannot be used to potentially force the U.S. to do anything.
“The stakes are very high … Right now, with climate change … you are fighting for the future itself,” said Dr. Mihaela Papa (HS), a lecturer at Brandeis on sustainable development and conflict resolution.
She lamented that those who have produced the most pollution are not those who suffer the most from its effects. There are very few financial or legal incentives to cut emissions, Papa said, lamenting that the countries who cause the most pollution are not always the countries who suffer from it.
Brandeis has initiatives in place to combat climate change, including the Brandeis Sustainability fund, which involves student representatives.

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