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Reflections on Climate Justice from Santiago, Chile

This piece was co-authored with Tara Shine, head of research and development at the Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice.

We recently travelled to Santiago, Chile, a sprawling city of six million people just beyond the Andes. Our purpose was to attend the first sub-regional workshop of the Climate Justice Dialogue, a new initiative led by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Mary Robinson Foundation—Climate Justice (MRFCJ). But before we even made it inside the conference center, we were confronted by a poignant, real-life example of climate justice.

Upon arrival in Santiago, a taxi took us to a charming and quirky family-owned hotel. As we were welcomed at the concierge desk, we were surprised to find Chile’s Second National Communication among the tourist books and magazines.

National communications are reports submitted by countries to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). They provide scientific information about national climate mitigation and adaptation measures, as well as project proposals that help increase a country’s resilience to the impacts of climate change. They’re important documents for climate negotiators and policymakers because they hold countries accountable for their commitments under the UNFCCC. They are not, however, something you would expect to find as recommended tourist literature.

We asked the hotel owner why he displayed this document so prominently . He responded with a wise smile, “Because it is important.” He then explained how climate change is already affecting Chile’s tourism industry: The retreat of Andean glaciers affects the availability of freshwater for irrigation and domestic use, mountain recreation, and for the animals and plants that depend on glacier-melt for survival. It also makes the glaciers—as well as the related fauna and flora—less accessible to tourists, affecting his revenue. He also expressed his concern over the inadequate response to climate change from the international community, the national government, and a Chilean middle class that’s engaging in unsustainable consumption patterns. He concluded that climate change is part of Chile’s current and future reality, and therefore should matter to anyone who cares about his country—including tourists.

Climate Justice: Mobilizing Bold Action

This hotel owner’s insight speaks to the questions that the Climate Justice Dialogue seeks to answer: How do you mobilize consumers, civil society, the private sector, policymakers, and political leaders to build the political will for an equitable and ambitious international climate agreement by 2015? How do you win people’s minds and hearts?

These were also the questions we pondered at the recent Climate Justice Dialogue workshop, an event co-hosted with the Government of Chile, Energeia, and the University of Chile. The workshop featured two days of discussion, debate, and creative thinking with national stakeholders and climate negotiators from the newly created Association of Independent Latin American and Caribbean states (AILAC). This group featured representatives from Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Perú, Guatemala, and Panamá, with the support of Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

The Dialogue provided a space to discuss how equity can be applied in the new climate agreement, building on lessons from within the climate regime as well as other regimes. Participants got a chance to discuss what climate justice means in their own country or sector, as well as how to think about equity as a means to spur bolder actions.

2 Big Ideas from the Santiago Climate Justice Dialogue Event

Focused on the themes of equity, justice, and international climate action, the event yielded two overarching ideas, including:

  1. For AILAC countries, climate justice is not about refraining from climate action because others are dragging their heels. Participants agreed that this approach leaves us with growing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In the long run, we become prisoners of the consequences, missing out on the potential for an innovative and sustainable low-carbon society. Plus, with the prospect of a global population of 9 billion and the rise of the middle class, new demands will likely result in more emissions. There is no option but to be more creative, stop separating the economics from the social and environmental realities, and find ways to reduce individual GHG emissions. Strong climate action is the only way to prosper without polluting, while simultaneously lifting people out of poverty and attaining a new type of middle-class dream—one based on sustainable consumption, reduced deforestation, clean energy, and green jobs. The old mode of unsustainable development can’t deliver this. AILAC countries are poised to be at the forefront of the transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient society.

  2. We need to shape a new international climate agreement that is reactive to the changes in our society, our environment, and our economy. We need to embrace a path forward that acknowledges the fundamental right to develop and to exist. Equity is not only about sharing effort or burden: it is also about opportunity and the transition to a better future. Action by all—both developed and developing nations—is required, as is a shared legal framework that holds countries accountable to each other. Actions and timing may differ from country to country—provided there is a consistent set of criteria and a process for assessing and encouraging progress—but all must make bold commitments to effectively limit global warming.

Before leaving Santiago, we had a chance to walk in the beautiful San Cristobal Municipal Park. The green oasis offers a fantastic view of the city against the backdrop of the Andes—you realize you are somewhere special. But the view is slightly obstructed by a haze of smog and air pollution. Climate change is there for all to see.

But through the haze, we left Chile with a hopeful and innovative vision of what a just, climate-resilient society could be. AILAC countries seem to be ready to lead the transition to a new mode of development. It makes sense for them economically, socially, and environmentally.

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