Reports that Al Gore shed a single tear are unconfirmed.
By Robin Happel
Although for some of us Earth Day brings to mind little more than a vague memory of Jane Goodall, environmentalism is not just beleaguered blue whales or the plight of the panda. For many around the world, rising seas and heat waves are the difference between life and death. For this reason, protecting the planet is a major human rights concern, both for the United Nations and for its affiliated NGO’s. So far this year, the U.N. headquarters in New York went dark for Earth Hour, celebrated big cats on World Wildlife Day, and the U.N. Environmental Program recently launched a groundbreaking #BeatPlasticPollution initiative for World Environment Day this summer. Already, they’ve created a number of videos that made me very guilty I didn’t recycle plastic forks until like last year. (You can seriously recycle almost anything in NYC, you guys.)
Perhaps most poignantly, the U.N. is also becoming increasingly aware of how climate change widens existing inequalities, and its recent Commission on the Status of Women included groundbreaking talks on how rural and indigenous women are uniquely harmed by climate change. Natural disasters can worsen existing gender gaps, as well as put other marginalized people at risk. According to the United Nations, women worldwide already bear the brunt of gathering water and firewood, with this burden lessened somewhat by U.N. Foundation initiatives like the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. As told by Julia Roberts (yes, that Julia Roberts – she apparently really took her role as Erin Brockovich to heart) such projects are crucial to both people and planet. Every year, indoor air pollution from cooking fires sickens millions of women and children around the globe. And, although such statistics are grim, groups like the GACC have made great strides in saving lives, as well as empowering female entrepreneurs from Nepal to Nigeria. In lending her Mona Lisa Smile (sorry) to an oft-overlooked environmental issue, Roberts shows how organizations like the U.N. can lift up some of society’s most vulnerable, and raise awareness of the unique risks rural women face. In addition to limiting charcoal’s runaway greenhouse effect, the Runaway Bride also advocates for female entrepreneurs around the world, showing that such initiatives are certainly Something to Talk About (last one I swear).
Although clean cookstoves are currently a sector shrouded in optimism, Earth Day this year is also a somber anniversary for many around the world. The past two years have been some of the deadliest on record for environmental activists, especially in Brazil, Virunga, and other hotspots. Park rangers in Virunga risk their lives every day to protect the world’s few remaining wild mountain gorillas, and serve on the front lines of conservation in Central Africa. Similarly, the Equator Prize, awarded through the United Nations Development Program, honors indigenous activists in over seventy countries who fight to protect their ancestral lands. From saving the scarlet macaw in Central America, to snow leopards in Pakistan and sea turtles off the coast of Kenya, past Equator Prize winners live their lives on the front lines of global climate justice. Undeterred by death threats, they follow in the footsteps of leaders like Chico Mendes, and have been increasingly recognized as an invaluable source of ancestral knowledge.
In addition to the risks faced by activists themselves, climate change also has the potential to worsen conflicts around the world. Climate security is a rapidly growing concern among U.N. diplomats, with the Security Council recently citing climate change as a driving force behind conflict in Somalia. Since Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, the U.N. has considered creating a special climate division of its peacekeeping forces, and current Secretary-General Guterres has similarly warned that climate change threatens global security. From Syria to South Sudan, storms and droughts disproportionately impact countries already on the tipping point of war.
Far from a niche concern, in short, climate change should be everyone’s problem. Earth Day is about human rights, not just hugging trees, and it’s up to all of us to leave a legacy Al Gore would be proud of. In the old activist mantra, to change everything, we need everyone.