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It’s Time To Talk About Your Climate Legacy: 3 Best Practices For Businesses To Approach Climate Justice And Accountability

January 11, 2022

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By Zoë Leeming and Fischer Heimburger

Climate change is already having severe impacts on human life, including premature death and illness from pollution, food and water insecurity, loss of livelihood, displacement and property loss, extreme weather events, and environmental degradation. Climate change is not an approaching disaster; climate change is an immediate global emergency, and millions of people are experiencing its devastating impacts. At Article One, we support our clients in integrating climate justice in their sustainability and human rights strategies and we recently partnered with PMI to explore the intersection of climate change and human rights in a briefing paper for the private sector. On the heels of COP26, where the need for climate justice emerged as a central theme, here we highlight the three best practices we see as essential first steps for companies as they begin this journey.

The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right and climate change is intrinsically linked to human rights. Threats to our environment directly interfere with our ability to enjoy human rights and even our right to life. While the changing climate threatens human rights across the globe, the impacts of climate change are disproportionately experienced by the world’s most vulnerable populations. The United Nations acknowledges that these populations often have increased exposure to adverse climate impacts, increased susceptibility to climate damages, and decreased ability to recover from damages. For example, climate change has dramatically impacted the human rights of low-income farmworkers. Rising temperatures and extreme weather events have forced many farmworkers to migrate. In addition, farmworkers are often forced to work long hours for little pay and are denied time off in the face of dangerous climate impacts—such as smoke exposure from nearby wildfires. Other vulnerable communities are disproportionately experiencing food insecurity, water scarcity, increased exposure to extreme weather events, and compounding poverty. In short, those least responsible for causing climate change are also those most likely to directly suffer from its impacts. Climate justice, a concept pioneered by environmental activists in the global south, seeks to address this disparity.

“Climate justice’ is a term, and more than that a movement, that acknowledges climate change can have differing economic, public health, and other adverse impacts on underprivileged populations. Advocates for climate justice are striving to have these inequities addressed head-on through long-term mitigation and adaptation strategies.”

Yale Climate Connection

Businesses contribute to the inequitable distribution of climate impacts and corresponding human rights impacts experienced today. In addition, many businesses have a climate legacy of contributing to climate change through a variety of ways, including current and historic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, depletion of Earth’s natural resources, and political donations and lobbying efforts against climate change policy. In addition, profit models that rely on low wages, exploitative business practices, and poor working conditions compound climate change impacts. While businesses have begun to recognize the contributions they make to climate change and are setting ambitious emissions reduction, carbon neutrality, and deforestation targets and expanding sustainability programs, few are pursuing meaningful approaches towards climate justice and climate accountability..

Below we outline three best practices for businesses as they start this journey:

1. IMPLEMENT A HUMAN RIGHTS APPROACH TO CLIMATE JUSTICE

Under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), business have the responsibility to respect human rights. The UNGPs provide a composite framework for companies to approach climate justice and accountability. According to the Mary Robinson Foundation, the UNGPs apply to climate justice just as much as human rights. Interpreting the UNGPs as a climate justice framework provides strategic recommendations for businesses to follow including:

  • Establish policy commitments that seek to minimize business contributions to climate impacts and maximize opportunities to advance climate justice. These policies should reflect the reciprocal relationship of environmental and social impacts. For example, environmental affairs or sustainability policies should include a commitment to a Just Transition and statements regarding the compounding impacts emissions have on human rights and vulnerable communities, particularly stakeholders in the supply chain. The World Benchmarking Alliance has recently published its Just Transition assessment methodology including the indicators that may serve as a useful roadmap for implementing a commitment.

  • Formalize a due diligence process that integrates impact assessments of both environmental and human rights risks. This process should seek to identify and mitigate salient climate risks, while also identifying and expanding opportunities for positive climate action—such as investing in the climate resilience of vulnerable communities.

  • Ensure that engagement with stakeholders—particularly under-represented or marginalized stakeholders, such as workers in supply chains in the global south—is an integral part of due diligence processes, as well as planning around sustainability, resilience, and adaptation.

  • Provide access to remedy for negative climate change impacts. This could include providing climate adaptation infrastructure, funding sequestration and reforestation efforts, investing in frontline climate solutions, or compensating for losses associated with business contributions to climate injustice.

Best Practice: Mars has embedded climate justice principles within its approach to Climate Action, recognizing that businesses setting climate targets need to back up public statements with accountability. Mars recently announced that it has linked executive pay to cutting GHG emissions.

2. ACKNOWLEDGE HISTORICAL EMISSIONS AND CURRENT IMPACTS

Businesses should acknowledge their role in historical emissions and corresponding impacts. As stipulated in the UNGPs, businesses should “know and show” that they respect human rights. Given the human rights impacts of climate change, this obligation can be extended towards businesses’ climate impacts. This must start with an inventory and acknowledgment of climate change contributions. Acknowledging a climate legacy can be both complex and daunting, but an honest evaluation of a business’s contributions is necessary for change. Additionally, climate change won’t be solved by a single business—cross-industry collaboration is required. Effective collaboration requires honesty, transparency, and a willingness to ask difficult questions. Acknowledging business’s role in climate change is a crucial first step towards climate justice. This approach has the additional benefit of serving to:

  • Inform and guide effective climate action policy

  • Lay the groundwork for robust and inclusive climate due diligence processes

  • Demonstrate commitment to climate justice to shareholders, stakeholders, and rightsholders

  • Increase reputational capital as a leading, responsible business

  • Advance climate action and pave the way for a sustainable future.

Best Practice: Google accounts for its “climate legacy” in the development of its climate action plan and goals for a 24/7 carbon-free energy supply by 2030.

3. UPLIFT AND SUPPORT FRONTLINE CLIMATE CHANGE SOLUTIONS

While vulnerable communities unjustly bear the brunt of climate change impacts, they also  hold the key to many climate solutions. These frontline communities have been unjustly forced into desperate situations, but as Angela Mahecha Adrar, executive director of the Climate Justice Alliance, explains in her TED talk, “desperate times can lead to beautiful strategic and innovative solutions.” Many frontline and indigenous communities have been creating and pursuing innovative climate solutions for centuries; however, far too often they lack the resources and attention necessary to sustain or scale their initiatives and are often excluded from decision-making forums, such as COP26. Businesses are uniquely positioned to uplift, support, and collaborate with these frontline communities.

According to the UNGPs, businesses should participate in meaningful stakeholder and rightsholder engagement, and prioritize those most vulnerable or marginalized. Uplifting frontline solutions is an excellent way to meaningfully engage with the communities most vulnerable to climate change and collaborate in effective and sustainable climate solutions. Climate action by the private sector must center frontline communities—not only to fulfill engagement responsibilities or because of a moral imperative, but because it’s the smart thing to do. Frontline communities are deeply knowledgeable about the impacts of climate change, are experienced innovators, and have already established climate solutions. A few of the many fantastic organizations advancing frontline climate solutions include:

  • Tierra y Libertad is an organic worker-owned farm cooperative in Washington state that centers farmworkers and other vulnerable communities in the fight for climate justice. Tierra y Libertad provides twofold climate solutions: first, organic-community based farming mitigates GHG emissions and deforestation caused by current industrial farming, and second, through helping to build climate adaptation and resilience for vulnerable communities.

  • Georgia WAND is an independent, grassroots, women-led organization in Atlanta, Georgia that centers frontline communities in long-term climate justice solutions. They help rural southern communities identify the problems and connection between environmental contamination and public health, and provide resources and direction for vulnerable communities—specifically people of color, women, and youth—to advocate for themselves, address inadequate political representation, increase decision-making participation, overcome racial inequities, and fight for a sustainable future.

  • The Micronesia Climate Change Alliance is a grassroots organization in Guam aimed at creating community-centered climate change solutions. By focusing on both climate justice and system change, the MCCA advocates for a Just Transition centered on indigenous rights, food sovereignty, youth and women empowerment, and community engagement.

  • The Ashaninka Association of Rio Amônia – Apiwtxa is a community organization created by the Ashaninka indigenous people of Peru and Brazil. Apiwtxa designs and implements various projects including work to protect the environment, preserve and enhance Ashaninka culture and spiritual knowledge, increase political participation and advocacy, and foster sustainable development. The United Nations continues to reference the efforts of indigenous people, such as Apiwtxa, as effective and beneficial climate action.

Climate change is a global emergency and climate justice is necessary for any solution. Businesses have an opportunity to implement a human rights approach to climate justice, acknowledge their climate legacy, and collaborate with frontline communities to uplift and support frontline climate solutions.  Now is the time to advance climate justice and set the foundation for a positive climate legacy.

To learn more about how Article One works with our clients to integrate climate justice in human rights and sustainability strategies, contact us at hello@articleoneadvisors.com.