Transforming climate advocacy: Lessons learned from COP28

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In July 2022, a groundbreaking resolution was adopted by the UN General Assembly (GA), officially declaring access to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a universal human right. The resolution garnered support from 161 member states. The GA’s recognition of this right emphasizes the importance of fully implementing multilateral environmental agreements within the framework of international environmental law, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Paris Agreement, and the Kyoto Protocol.

However, representatives to the COP28 negotiations missed the opportunity to actively remind states of their commitment to supporting the above-mentioned resolution, as well as the human rights obligations imposed upon them by ratification of the core international human rights instruments. This oversight occurred during negotiations and the side events organized by different parties and activists.

The reluctance of states to incorporate human rights language into climate negotiations is rooted in their human rights obligations, which require them to respect, promote, and fulfill human rights. Linking climate change negotiations to human rights might make states concerned about potential legal consequences and financial obligations, as well as the possibility that historical context will “complicate” the negotiation process. Thus, strong advocacy for including human rights language and ensuring representation for marginalized communities at the table is crucial. 

While human rights and associated language were not central to the discussions during COP28, and no direct linkage was made between climate change and human rights, the final global stocktake decision text included a paragraph addressing human rights. This clause opens the window for incorporating more efficient human rights–based advocacy into the climate change decision-making process. Yet without a clear framework linking climate decisions to human rights and effective advocacy, states may escape scrutiny for their contributions to and impacts on climate change that are directly linked to the enjoyment of human rights.


What are we missing? Advocacy for human rights language

The language we use and how we communicate, along with the messages we convey during climate justice advocacy, are crucial factors that contribute to the success of our outcomes. Despite a decade of environmental activists and advocates pushing for climate change negotiations to adopt human rights approaches, the word right remained unheard at COP28.

To ensure a comprehensive approach, it is crucial to explicitly address specific rights when discussing corresponding issues. This includes highlighting the right to food in discussions on food scarcity, emphasizing the right to water and sanitation when addressing water access challenges, and considering the impact of climate change on various groups using intersectional approaches.

It is vital to underscore that relevant international human rights laws, standards, and mechanisms exist to guide these discussions. For instance, it is essential to mention the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) when exploring the impact on women and girls, especially in situations such as displacement caused by weather-related events. Such displacement heightens the vulnerability of women and girls to various forms of gender-based violence.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) is another crucial instrument that should play a central role in climate negotiations. This covenant not only focuses on rights protection but also emphasizes state cooperation and the progressive realization of rights. 

Reminding states of the interdependence and indivisibility of all rights—as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and relevant treaties signed and ratified by most countries—reinforces their commitments at the international level. This approach strengthens the statements and efforts of climate advocates.


Centering human rights in climate negotiations

Human rights language can and should be incorporated into all climate change negotiations, at all levels, during side events, as well as in regular conversations before the Conference of the Parties. In addition to advocates and activists, scientists and environmentalists must also open the door for human rights.

Inserting human rights language into every discussion might seem impossible, but it is achievable through unity and consistency, information sharing, and strategic planning. Unity requires that advocates stop talking only to themselves and instead come together, engage in joint events, share information, open doors to interested individuals, and conduct more meetings with the wider public. Consistently highlighting human rights language and emphasizing why the current wording is less effective will make a significant impact, helping garner more supporters globally. Recognizing the power of people uniting around the cause will enhance efficiency in advocacy. 


Working towards changing the mindset

The integration of human rights language means not only focusing on specific wording but also understanding the disproportionate impacts of climate change and the concept of intersectionality, which renders different underrepresented groups more vulnerable. Sometimes, human rights advocates unintentionally contribute to strengthening existing gaps between the Global North and the Global South. 

During negotiations and conversations with various representatives at COP28, it became clear that the climate financing process—specifically the establishment of the loss and damage fund, which aims to support the Global South—faces unique obstacles. The main hesitation lies in how “developed” countries can transfer money to nations that might not have a “decent” human rights record. Why should developed economies finance others from their budget? Changing this mindset is crucial for tangible advocacy, starting with altering divisive language that perpetuates stereotypes.

Words matter, especially when raising awareness is essential for tackling climate change. The flawed division of countries into “developing” and “developed” on the basis of their economic development contributes to derogatory stereotypes that influence climate change discussions, diverting attention from historical industrialized polluters. Similarly, when advocates use terms like “debt forgiveness,” we obscure the inherent inequalities placing greater burdens on the Global South. Using the term “debt forgiveness” only further strengthens inequalities and the idea of patronage, opposing the principle of “equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” enshrined in the Paris Agreement. During COP28, a government representative from the Pacific pavilion highlighted their country’s constant state of recovery from successive disasters, further hindered by debts, preventing the establishment of an efficient fiscal system. Advocates should acknowledge that by repeating such wording, we support the reinforcement of inequalities. 

The missed opportunities at COP28 underscore the urgent need for a paradigm shift. While human rights language may not have been emphasized during negotiations, its presence while advocating for climate justice creates the opportunity to succinctly integrate what will be applied in reality. This integration is not just an advocacy strategy—it is imperative for addressing the inherent inequities in climate change discussions. As climate advocates move forward, unity, consistency, and a commitment to transformative language will be our tools for achieving tangible results.