Have you noticed who are often the populations most affected by the effects of the climate crisis? In many places around the world, racial/ethnic populations in situations of vulnerability are often among the main victims of large city floods, landslides, prolonged droughts and other extreme events caused by global warming. These impacts, which threaten adults and children in different ways, are at the heart of what we call environmental racism.
The term was coined in the 1980s by African-American activist and civil rights advocate Dr. Benjamin Franklin Chavis Jr. He developed the concept at a time of demonstrations by the black movement against environmental injustices in the United States, referencing the unequal way in which the most vulnerable communities are exposed to environmental phenomena and are distanced from decision-making. Since then, confronting socio-environmental inequalities has become an important part of the anti-racist struggle.
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In 2021, the issue gained even more attention when it was raised by activists at the COP 26 debates in Glasgow, Scotland. There, representatives of the black and indigenous movements in Brazil denounced the problem and demanded effective actions from world leaders. They argued that it is not possible to separate the environmental struggle from the recognition and respect for native peoples and the most vulnerable, and that climate justice must go hand in hand with racial justice.
The issue is also present in the inequalities between the global north and south, a consequence of the processes of colonialism, neoliberalism and globalization. Even today, the arrival of large enterprises in the countries of the global south often leads to the displacement of native populations from their territories, destroying their cultures and impacting the environment.
Environmental racism can be observed from the cities to the countryside. Subject to this history of inequalities are Brazil’s favelas, for example. Although 84% of the Brazilian population lives in urban areas, most of the conflicts in the country are related to climate justice. A study conducted by Fiocruz revealed that over 60% of the conflicts affect precisely the populations that live in the fields, forests and coastal zones. In these areas, the disputes for natural resources are linked to Brazil’s insertion in the international trade, generally with environmentally aggressive practices and resulting in direct impacts on low-income populations and ethnic minorities.
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The issue, which especially affects black, indigenous and Maroon children, led more than 220 civil society organizations to sign a manifesto against environmental racism at COP 26. At the occasion, the Black Coalition for Rights recalled that the climate crisis is also humanitarian and has a direct impact on the lives of black, Maroon and indigenous populations.
“In Brazil, the majority of the population is black and currently represents 56% of the population. To deny environmental racism is to deny that the Brazilian State is racist. It is to deny the reality of life in the peripheries of large cities, the increase in hunger. It is to deny the violation of the constitutional rights of communities, Maroon territories and indigenous lands. It is to deny the country’s history of urbanization and its deep territorial inequalities,” stated the Coalition in the document.
Nonetheless, Brazil did not recognize the concept of environmental racism at the UN. During a session of the Human Rights Council held in 2021, representatives of the Brazilian government questioned the use of the term, arguing that this was not an “internationally recognized” terminology. For the current government, the relationship between environmental problems and social issues, such as racism, should have a “balanced and integrated approach to the social, economic and environmental dimensions”.
The result is a lack of information about environmental racism in the country, while possible solutions are often discussed only superficially. It is important that we start looking at our past, our present and call things by their real names.
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It is true that extreme weather events impact everyone, but there is no denying the persistent and structural grouping of those who are most affected. Within this web of vulnerabilities, the black, Maroon, fishing, peripheral, indigenous and riverside populations, especially their children, are paying the highest price. It is necessary to bring the people who suffer climate injustices to the center of the decision-making processes. Only then will it be possible to guarantee a habitable planet for children in the present.
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In recent years, Brazil has seen fires and deforestation increase at a rapid pace and advance over several biomes. While the inspection agencies, responsible for curbing and preventing these problems, are being dismantled, funds to finance preservation programs are being frozen. This context has led the country to increasingly judicialize the climate crisis. That is, both political parties and civil society organizations have filed lawsuits with the Brazilian Supreme Court to try to contain the setbacks in the environmental agenda and protect nature and children.
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In 2022, the Brazilian Supreme Court received seven filed actions related to the guarantee of socio-environmental preservation measures, in the so-called “green package“. The Alana Institute participated in three of these actions as amicus curiae (friend of the court), with the function of providing subsidies to the ruling body. It brought to the case records the voice of children, who are interested parties because they are part of one of the most vulnerable groups to the effects of climate emergency.
“In these more than 400 drawings and letters that we delivered to your Excellencies (Ministers), the children are unanimous in asking that nature be cared for and preserved. For us, from the Alana Institute, protecting nature is taking care of Brazilian children with absolute priority“, stated lawyer Angela Barbarulo, who coordinated the Climate Justice and Socio-Environmental axis of the Children and Nature program, from the Alana Institute, during her oral argument.
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It is unusual for the highest court in the country to docket so many actions on the same topic in a single session, but the severity of the moment demands it. The deforestation rate in the Amazon rose 73% from 2019 to 2021, according to the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) linked to the Federal Government’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. Deforestation and wildfires have intensified, increasing air pollution and climate destabilization.
According to an Ibope survey, 77% of Brazilians believe that protecting the Amazon should be a priority. By docketing actions related to the environment, the Supreme Court shows that it is connected to the wishes of the country’s population and becomes an essential institution to curb omissions and pressure governments to protect our environment.
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Recover resources from the Amazon Fund and the Climate Fund
One of the lawsuits docketed by the Brazilian Supreme Court deals with investments in defense of the Amazon. A Direct Action of Unconstitutionality by Omission, ADO 59, was filed because the federal government has paralyzed activities and failed to make available the R$1.5 billion in the Amazon Fund, aimed at financing preservation projects in the Legal Amazon.
The Brazilian government has been making changes to the fund’s format since 2019, extinguishing the technical and guiding committees and preventing them from acting on new projects. For this reason, Minister Rosa Weber proposed that the Union reactivate the Amazon Fund and refrain from making new suspensions. The issue was analyzed this month by the other members of the Court and, by 10 votes to 1, the Ministers determined the resumption of the fund within 60 days.
Among the actions within the Supreme Court’s green package was also the Argument of Noncompliance with a Fundamental Precept, ADPF 708, which dealt with the non-allocation of resources by the federal government for the National Fund on Climate Change (Climate Fund) since 2019. In July of the current year, the majority of the Supreme Court Ministers prohibited the contingency of the fund’s revenues and determined that the Union must adopt the necessary measures for its operation, with the consequent allocation of resources.
Deforestation and dismantling of inspection
Deforestation was also brought to trial before the Court. Seven political parties and ten civil society organizations – among which was the Alana Institute – jointly filed the ADPF 760 in 2020 to demand from the Court the resumption of compliance with the goals established by national legislation and international agreements undertaken by Brazil on climate change.
Rapporteur for the case, Minister Cármen Lúcia voted for the Supreme Court to order the Brazilian authorities to present a plan with goals, actions and budgetary allocations to resume environmental control and inspection activities, as well as to combat crimes in the Amazon, by safeguarding the rights of indigenous peoples. But the final ruling on the matter was suspended by a request for examination by Minister André Mendonça.
The quality standards of the air we breathe
The Direct Action of Unconstitutionality, ADI 6148, was also heard by the Supreme Court. The lawsuit challenges CONAMA Resolution 491 of 2018, which establishes air quality standards. According to the lawsuit, this resolution does not effectively and adequately regulate such standards, being “vague and permissive” and leaving unprotected the fundamental rights to environmental information, the ecologically balanced environment, health and, consequently, life.
The Supreme Court did not recognize the unconstitutionality of the resolution, but determined that CONAMA should update the standard so that it has “sufficient protective capacity for air quality” within two years. If this update is not done, the country will have to use the air quality standards adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The Alana Institute, through the Child na Nature program, acted as amicus curiae in ADPF 760, ADO 59 and ADI 6148.
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Brazil has also judicialized the crisis in the Pantanal
The climate crisis has also been causing imbalances to the Pantanal, an area of 150 thousand square kilometers between the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, which is home to the largest floodplain on the planet and represents a complex with great biodiversity. Targeted by fires and burning, the Pantanal has also seen its own crisis taken to court.
In ADPF 857, four political parties are asking for a plan and actions to prevent the fires that occurred in the Pantanal in 2020 from happening again in an aggravated manner. They contend that the fire, besides putting at risk a significant amount of wildlife species, advanced over indigenous lands and caused immense economic, social and public health losses for these peoples. The situation, they argue, violates several constitutional principles.
There are other lawsuits with similar objectives filed with the Brazilian Supreme Court. ADPF 743 and 746 have also been filed to force the federal government to comply with measures against the advance and the effects of the fires that are affecting the Amazon and the Pantanal wetlands.
Indigenous health in the pandemic taken to court
Faced with the lack of response from Brazilian institutions and the advance of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country, the need for action to protect indigenous peoples has also been judicialized. The Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) joined political parties and civil society organizations and filed, with the Supreme Court, ADPF 709 with the aim of confronting the omission of the federal government in combating the pandemic and demanding measures to protect various ethnic groups. The action requested, for instance, the installation of health barriers in territories where isolated or recently contacted peoples live, in order to protect them.
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Protecting the environment is protecting the future of children
The socio-environmental and climate mismanagement in Brazil has demanded strong actions from the Justice system, especially to ensure the protection of the rights of those most vulnerable. In this group are children and adolescents, who suffer the effects of climate change in an amplified way.
The analysis of such actions by the Supreme Court must be based on the rights of children and adolescents foreseen in article 227 of the Brazilian Constitution, which ensures their best interests and the absolute priority of their fundamental rights, as well as in article 225, which endows the right to a balanced environment with the status of a fundamental right. In practice, this means starting from a human rights perspective based on justice, respect for human and non-human life, as well as intergenerational solidarity.
“Protecting nature is taking care of Brazilian children, a constitutional duty, a legal rule, imposed on all of us – families, society, companies and the State – and, thus, the principle of intergenerational equity must be placed at the center of the debate when we think about our common future,” stated Angela Barbarulo.
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The world is already experiencing a number of effects from climate change that affect billions of people. Extreme weather events such as floods, heat waves, and prolonged droughts especially threaten the most vulnerable populations. Furthermore, the most fragile party in this scenario is children, who see the climate crisis jeopardizing a whole range of rights, among which are the most basic rights to life and development. Boys and girls are classified among the most vulnerable groups by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading group of scientists studying the climate crisis.
It is in this context that it becomes clear that the steps taken globally to contain the effects of climate change are no longer sufficient. To ensure a habitable planet for children today and in the future, mitigating agreements, i.e. to reduce or prevent greenhouse gas emissions, are not enough.
This is because, although mitigation is an important and necessary action, the world will continue to warm even if we manage to stabilize emissions. The effects of the warming that has already occurred are real and are being felt by everyone around the globe.
This is why we need to go beyond mitigation and, in addition, embrace adaptation actions (solutions aimed at reducing damage, risks and finding opportunities) more vigorously. Anticipating the effects of the climate emergency that are already occurring and that will come in the future, as well as managing their consequences, are actions that can save lives.
We need to learn to live, for example, with longer periods of drought and heavier rains in some regions, which often cause disasters such as landslides and floods. We need to adapt to this warming world and protect the most vulnerable, such as children.
“There is an opportunity to engage in adaptation actions that transform urban infrastructure such as schools, for example, by using nature-based solutions that can contribute to prepare our cities in the face of the climate crisis, while providing environments where children can play, grow and develop better,” stated Bebel Barros, researcher for the Child and Nature program.
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The impacts of low public funding for adaptation
Currently, only 20% of global public climate funding is earmarked for adaptation. If this investment is not significantly increased, millions of children will suffer irreversible impacts that have already been triggered.
Brazil, for example, faces a high risk of river floods: under a high emissions scenario, it is projected that by 2030 more than 78,000 people could be at risk of annual flooding due to climate change.
These floods often cause drowning deaths and infectious disease outbreaks, as well as impacting food production and water supply. As for indirect effects, they can also lead to post-traumatic stress and population displacement.
However, we do not see effective actions being taken. The Legal Amazon, for example, one of the regions that most draws worldwide attention when it comes to environmental preservation, covers nine Brazilian states (Amazonas, Acre, Rondônia, Roraima, Pará, Maranhão, Amapá, Tocantins and Mato Grosso) and none of them has warning systems or permanent contingency plans for extreme events such as floods, droughts, forest fires and heat waves.
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A fund to adapt cities and homes to climate disasters
In view of these facts, it is essential to establish specific policies and funds to adapt cities, homes, schools and the entire infrastructure to possible climate disasters, as well as to allocate resources to recover the losses and damages from these events, especially in the most vulnerable countries. The matter will be taken to COP 27, to be held in 2022 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The Alana Institute participates in the event with the objective of proposing agendas on climate justice and childhood at the center of the political negotiations.
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“At this COP, advances in the global goal of adaptation will be debated and, for a possible fund for losses and damages, it will be necessary to guarantee specific measures for children and adolescents, particularly in the territories where they live, study and circulate, so that they are seen and are the first to be protected against climate disasters. States must place the rights and the voices of children at the center of their climate action to motivate urgent mitigation, adaptation and financing actions”, argued JP Amaral, coordinator of the Children and Nature program of the Alana Institute.
The so-called Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA) was defined within the Paris Agreement with the aim of increasing global adaptive capacity, resilience and reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change. An adaptation committee has been responsible for reviewing the GGA and assisting member countries with actions towards climate adaptation.
In 2021, COP 26 established a comprehensive two-year work program between Glasgow and Sharm el-Sheikh on the global adaptation goal. This year, entities should demand new priorities from the program, such as focusing on social services that serve children and communities most at risk, as well as strengthening data and monitoring mechanisms to track or measure the resilience of essential services.
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Droughts, floods, heat waves and extreme weather events directly affect a broad spectrum of children’s rights, such as their right to health and education. But this need not be the future for children around the world. To change course, countries must put children’s rights and voices at the heart of their climate action, driving urgent action on mitigation, adaptation and financing.
Rapid emission reductions must still be prioritized, while capacity for adaptation is radically strengthened and measures are put in place to protect children and their rights, including in cases of loss and damage. Moving in this direction is positive for children and for the planet.
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