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Science and Human Rights Coalition Meeting: Climate Change and Human Rights

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AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition Meeting
Climate Change and Human Rights
July 25-26, 2016

Throughout the first day of this meeting, participants discussed the human rights implications of climate change and the contributions scientists, engineers, and health professionals can make towards addressing these concerns.  The sessions highlighted examples of scientific research that is contributing to human rights-based policies for climate change prevention, mitigation, adaptation, and community relocation. In addition, panelists shared models for collaborative climate research in partnership with vulnerable communities. Meeting attendees were invited to participate in small group discussions in which they will identify specific actions members of the Coalition can take within their associations and institutions.

Coalition meetings convene scientists, engineers, and health professionals with human rights leaders and policy makers to discuss emerging issues at the nexus of science and human rights. The Coalition serves as a catalyst for the increased involvement of scientific, engineering, and health associations and their members in human rights-related activities. 

Meeting Sessions

Welcoming Remarks


The meeting opened with a welcome from Jessica Wyndham, Associate Director of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights, and Law Program (SRHRL). She commended the human rights community’s commitment to promoting society’s responsibilities to future generations, observing that among the challenges of the future, climate change looms large. Wyndham also highlighted the role of AAAS in addressing the pressing issue of climate change in public discourse, through its What We Know website documenting scientific consensus and the Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science and Technology, which focuses this year on training leading climate scientists in public engagement strategies. The AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition has been focusing on engaging students and young scholars in its work, in part through an essay competition for undergraduate and graduate students. The undergraduate winner of this year’s competition, Tanner Rolfe, an engineering major at the University of Dayton, joined the stage to receive his award for his essay on the environmental contaminant PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, used in Teflon and fire extinguishers). Rolfe argues that a lack of regulation of PFOA inhibits the human right to water.


Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and founder of the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice, addressed the attendees by video. Robinson warned that climate change could compromise many basic human rights, such as the rights to water, food, health, and security. However, human rights discourse could also be instrumentalized to further environmental destruction, as in the case of using the right to development to justify the installation of more coal power generators. Robinson emphasized that the article in the Paris Agreement to curbing temperature rise below 2°C is the most important aspect in the Agreement for the protection of human rights, but that overall response by governments and policymakers needs to be faster, more equitable, and rights-focused.

Keynote Address: Climate Change and Human Rights: Making the Connections

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer of the American Sociological Association (ASA) introduced keynote speaker Robert Bullard and added that social scientists have been instrumental in researching the societal impacts of climate change and in bringing these findings to policy makers. Bullard is the Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, and has written extensively on the intersections of race and class in environmental health, urban growth, and sustainable development. “I’m proud to be a sociologist,” began Bullard, commending the contributions of social science to the recognition of climate change as a human rights issue, and one that will impact many people living in the United States.

Too often Americans discuss climate change as something that will happen to the rest of the world, Bullard argued. But climate change is also a major human rights issue in the United States. Social scientists can play a role in driving this point home by showing how climate change will affect specific communities in specific places. The communities that will bear the brunt of the worst effects of climate change are also those that have contributed least to environmental degradation. They are disproportionately individuals with lower income and people of color, and primarily reside in the Southern United States.

Bullard drew on a vast array of reports, data, and maps to show the schools, zip codes, and states where air pollution, heat stress, and severe weather events are already impacting black and Hispanic communities. The history of racial subjugation and segregation in America has created inequities ranging from income disparity to food insecurity that will be exacerbated by the effects of climate change, making environmental issues central to any broader social justice movement. By focusing on the regional and geographic impacts of climate change, Bullard drove home his point that social scientists have much to contribute to fighting climate change by researching who will be affected and how and revealing the unequal burdens that are borne by marginalized communities.

These same communities are often underrepresented amongst decision-makers. Therefore Bullard is leading a coalition of activists, teachers, and students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to advocate for climate justice. The HBCU Climate Change Consortium took 29 students and their mentors to the COP21 climate summit in Paris last year.

Bullard made a forceful case for the need to continue to grow grassroots activism to address climate justice, starting with the lived experiences of those who are already being hit the hardest. He also named funding as a significant obstacle. Because climate change is so often framed as a scientific issue, focusing on parts per million, C02 emissions, and sea level rise, scholars and activists working on the social dimensions of climate change can be overlooked. Framing climate change as a human rights issue can and must change that narrative, he concluded, for many people cannot afford to wait.

Plenary Session I: Actionable Climate Science for Human Rights

The first plenary session featured a panel of scientists and policy-makers who discussed their current work as well as opportunities for preventing and mitigating the human rights impacts of climate change. Melissa Kenney moderated the session. As Assistant Research Professor in Environmental Decision Analysis and Indicators at the University of Maryland, she studies the processes and tools that can help improve evidence-based decision making about the environment.

The first speaker, Colin Kelley, addressed applications of climate data to predictive tools that can help communities anticipate and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Kelley, a research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security, studies climate-influenced societal upheaval. In particular, he works on forecasting and responding to food and water insecurity. Kelley picked up on Bullard’s theme that social factors can also exacerbate climate’s effects and magnify its impacts, citing complex relationships between climate and public health, migration, and internal displacement. Kelley described his contribution to several programs that use climate data to address these issues, including the UN World Food Program’s FoodSECuRE initiative. The program implements financial instruments that are tied to climate forecasts, and which will unlock funding for local governments in anticipation of climate events. Similarly, providing crop insurance for farmers in years with forecasted rainfall shortages will allow impacted communities to be more prepared in the face of drought or severe storms.

Roni Neff, who directs the Food System Sustainability Program at Johns Hopkins, also works on strategies for climate resilience. She described her collaboration with city officials in Baltimore to implement climate preparedness strategies that include food preparedness as a coordinated part of future responses to crises. Neff stressed that food security is often overlooked in climate change planning, but that “no regrets” actions – contingency measures which will also have an immediate benefit for urban planners – help to strengthen the right to adequate food in advance of any climactic impact. Neff works with a wide range of collaborators, and explained that this kind of project requires diverse methodologies, from working with engineers to plan fault trees that will map crisis events, to qualitative interviews with community members and emergency professionals. Working across disciplines will ultimately result in a more coordinated crisis response city-wide.

Sociologist and anthropologist Michael Cernea, formerly the long-time Senior Advisor for Social Policies and Sociology at the World Bank, focused on the unprecedented scales at which climate change is already affecting communities. Cernea described climate change as a household crisis, a state crisis, and a global crisis, and one which development organizations, many of which work on the front lines of impacted populations, have been slow to connect to human rights issues. For example, the World Bank still does not include human rights in its policies. Whereas the previous speakers focused on how to improve resilience in the places where climate change will have severe effects, Cernea sees climate-induced displacement as a key area where research is lacking, including at the top levels of climate research such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The greatest impact of displacement will be multi-dimensional impoverishment, as people are forced to leave land, infrastructure, and resources that they depend on for their livelihoods.

Plenary Session II: Effective Scientific Partnerships with Frontline Communities

In the afternoon, the discussion turned to building successful scientific collaborations between communities directly impacted by climate change, and researchers with other forms of expertise. Natasha Udu-gama, the Director of Community Partnerships at the American Geophysical Union, facilitated the conversation. AGU’s community partnerships include the Thriving Earth Exchange initiative (TEX), which pairs scientists with community groups to solve pressing environmental challenges at the local level. Udu-gama described AGU’s approach to “community science” as one in which members of the public are treated as equal partners who prioritize problems, and develop tools, positions, and solutions. She highlighted potential roles for scientists within community partnerships to provide basic research, advocate for specific issues, answer narrow and specific research questions, and be an honest broker of empirical information. Having framed how model science-community partnerships can function, Udu-gama then posed the question to the panelists – why are partnerships important in the first place?

Julie K. Maldonado, the Director of Research for the Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN) and a co-organizer of Rising Voices: Collaborative Science with Indigenous Knowledge for Climate Solutions has extensive experience working with communities facing forced migration due to climate change, including the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi Chitimacha Choctaw resettlement team in coastal Louisiana. She put it simply – western scientists and communities need things that other groups can provide. Scientists need community input, trust, and respect if their expertise is going to be adapted and implemented, and communities need data and broader communication of the issues that affect them.

Partnerships are also a necessary way to include historically marginalized groups, added Juan Declet-Barreto, a Fellow of the Climate and Energy Program and the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In his work with environmental justice groups and activists, he identifies inequities in health impacts, environmental hazards, and energy access in low income communities and communities of color, that are often overlooked by decision-makers.

Vivek Maru, the founder of Namati, a global grassroots legal empowerment organization, pointed out that partnerships can help groups with different experiences and approaches learn how to use a common language to address shared problems. Scientists who want to contribute to local issues also need to understand local contexts, whether they are cultural, social, historical, or legal. All the panelists agreed that humility, respect, and the ability to be a patient listener are necessary attributes that scientific experts need to bring to any community partnership. Often the framing of an issue that comes from lived experience in a particular local context can change the approach to the solution.

The discussion then turned to ways of facilitating successful partnerships. The speakers touched on the roles that students and young people can play, including taking on leadership. Maldonado spoke to the willingness to make compromises in other areas of professional life as a scientist, since community partnerships are not always recognized as scientific in nature. All agreed that more data and evidence can be beneficial to problem-solving, but that the scales and kinds of data can be informed by the communities themselves; testimony and qualitative data are important sources of information that some scientists may not be as comfortable working with; and focusing on local data collection can better reflect the experiences of particular communities which may be obscured when data is collected and analyzed at larger scales. To illustrate the power of alternative forms of testimony, the panel closed with a recording of a young environmental activist from Hawai’i, singing about the urgent need to act now to protect the earth.

Report Back from Small Group Discussions


Learn More About Climate Change And Human Rights

The following resources provide an overview of the challenge and work in progress: 

"The Effects of Climate Change on the Full Enjoyment of Human Rights," a report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; 

Climate Change and Human Rights by the United Nations Environmental Programme in cooperation with the Columbia Law School; and 

Achieving Justice and Human Rights in an Era of Climate Disruption, a report by the IBA Presidential Task Force on Climate Change Justice and Human Rights. 

Listen to the TED talk by Mary Robinson, the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy on Climate Change, former president of Ireland, and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, on "Why climate change is a threat to human rights":

In 2009, Mary Robinson gave the keynote address at the meeting marking the launch of the Coalition. Listen to her remarks on the role of the Coalition in bringing together scientists, engineers, and human rights advocates: 


Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former President of Ireland, remarks on the significance of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, launched Jan. 14-16, 2009. | AAAS

Want more information? Check out these relevant articles from Science Magazine


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