The Blind Spot of Climate Solutions: An Interview with Daphina Misiedjan


Originally Published on Down to Earth; Platform voor groene journalistiek. Translated using Google Translate.


Climate change leads to extreme weather events, but also extreme inequality and injustice. Daphina Misiedjan wants to use legislation and regulations to reduce inequality between and within countries. “Being able to adapt to climate change is now a privilege.”


Making technology, subsidies and climate funds more widely accessible, listening better to minority groups, giving rights to nature… According to researcher and lawyer Daphina Misiedjan, there are plenty of opportunities to make the world more just. But first we have to discuss the underlying problems. “Inequality and injustice in relation to climate and the environment – or in one word: climate injustice – are still too much of a blind spot.”


What exactly is climate injustice?


“The unfairness lies in the relationship between contribution and impact. Certain groups or countries hardly have a share in climate change, but they do experience the most serious consequences of it. Think of residents of vulnerable regions, such as island states that suffer from sea level rise. Or areas that suffer from extreme drought or flooding. They often also have few resources to arm themselves against this, let alone move.


At the same time, the perpetrators – often rich Western countries – profit from their harmful activities. They can further develop economically, increasing the standard of living. They have the luxury of being able to take measures against the effects of climate change and invest in sustainable energy. The latter seems positive, but also leads to more inequality. For example, solar panels require raw materials that are extracted in areas such as Congo, where human rights violations, conflicts and environmental pollution are the order of the day. And a lot of CO₂ is emitted during production and transport.”


Does climate injustice also play a role within countries themselves?


“Certainly. For example, marginalized groups often live in places where there are also environmentally unfriendly activities, such as industry. Those are unhealthy places to live. For example, cancer is more common in neighborhoods with a lot of air pollution. Because these people cannot change that themselves, you should at least compensate them, for example by facilitating access to health care. But even better is to prevent people from being exposed to pollution. It also helps to make those neighborhoods greener. Poorer neighborhoods in particular are often very petrified, which means that residents suffer more from extreme heat and flooding.


There is also inequality and injustice within the Dutch Kingdom. For example, the climate targets do not apply to the Caribbean part – not to the autonomous islands, nor to the special municipalities. To keep energy affordable, Bonaire is now building a new fuel storage facility. While sufficient solar energy would have been available for a long time if the energy transition had started there earlier.”


How is that possible? The Netherlands is responsible for these islands, isn’t it?


“The official statement from the Dutch government is that there is too little capacity to implement international treaties there. That’s partly true, but of course it’s a bit of a lame excuse. The first climate treaties date back to 1992. The Netherlands has had 30 years to draw up a plan for CO₂ reduction, sustainable energy generation and climate adaptation. So it was a conscious choice. Traditionally, little attention has been paid to the Caribbean part. You can also see this in poverty alleviation. The consumer association of Bonaire has started a lawsuit against the Dutch government because it is doing too little against poverty.”


Many examples contain a contrast between rich and poor. Is climate injustice always linked to socioeconomic inequality?


“To a large extent, yes. Often one reinforces the other. Look at the energy transition: it is mainly aimed at the use of solar panels, heat pumps and electric cars. Expensive solutions for people with a good income. And they also have access to all kinds of subsidies. Meanwhile, people with a low income only see their energy bills rise, with no prospect of a sustainable solution. We need to look much more at solutions that benefit everyone. The fact that subsidies have recently been made available for making social housing more sustainable is a good step.


In addition, marginalized groups are less vocal and less likely to be heard. The energy transition is mainly lobbied by parties that have the money and resources, such as large companies. As a result, only a small group then benefits from the solutions. Being able to adapt to climate change thus becomes a privilege. Moreover, the lack of assertiveness makes it difficult to get a real picture of a problem. I was once in Yemen for a study where I wanted to talk to residents about access to drinking water. The people who had the time for such a conversation just weren’t the ones with the biggest problem. The people who do suffer, especially poorer people, I hardly got to talk to. They were too busy surviving.”


What can we do about all this inequality and injustice?


“In the first place, countries that cause pollution should pay for the damage they cause, also in other places. That is happening more and more. The Netherlands has pledged 100 million euros for an international climate fund. The problem is that countries that need the money have difficulty accessing these funds. This is mainly due to the bureaucratic red tape. When submitting an application you first have to go through a range of rules and processes, many countries do not have the capacity and knowledge for this. That procedure should be much simpler.


Even if an application has been approved, it is still not clear when the money will be available. This is because all kinds of parties are involved, such as large aid organizations. Sint Maarten, for example, is still waiting for part of the money for reconstruction, after the destruction of Hurricane Irma. That was in 2017! It would help if the money is given more directly to local organizations. We also need to make knowledge and technology more available to poorer countries. That intention is there, but a lot is still on a voluntary basis, which means that it happens too little in practice.”


As a lawyer, how do you try to contribute to more justice yourself?


“I look at how better legislation and regulations can reduce and – preferably – prevent inequality. I am very much involved with drinking water as a human right. For example, I did research into access to drinking water in Suriname. Due to the lack of good infrastructure, some groups do not have access to clean water, while they do live on a river, for example.”


During that research in Suriname, the country where her parents come from, Misiedjan saw for the first time how the rights of minority groups turned out to be worth less than those of others.


“My family belongs to such a minority group. So it touched me personally. I find it shocking that people are the victims of something they have no control over. Where you are born determines the extent to which you can lead a safe and healthy life. I used to have the illusion that everyone was equally entitled to that.


Incidentally, the issue of access to drinking water is not a far-fetched show. In the Netherlands, families who cannot pay their water bill are cut off from drinking water. Even if they are in the process of refunding. I don’t think that’s possible. In countries around us, such as Belgium and France, the municipality pays the water bill when someone cannot pay it. That should happen here too. Drinking water doesn’t have to be free, but you can’t cut people off. Especially not when children are involved. They cannot do anything about the financial situation of their parents.”


From her legal background, Misiedjan also follows the increasing number of climate cases, such as those of Milieudefensie against Shell and Urgenda against the Dutch state. Cases that, in her opinion, tackle subjects that are very challenging for the law.


Are these climate issues important?


“Yes, of course! They are about corporate territorial responsibilities and the government’s duty of care for current and future generations. Even if you are not completely responsible for climate change, you must take responsibility for your own contribution. The court rulings show that the law can facilitate change. That’s a good development. At the same time, we must recognize that the law still too often sided with power.”


But the law is always neutral, isn’t it?


“That’s a misconception. In the end, it is still people who make the law. Often people with political power. Experience shows that economic interests sometimes outweigh social interests for them. In addition, the law is not equally accessible to all people. Not everyone has the time, information and resources to file a complaint and go to court. So even if the law is on your side, that doesn’t mean it’s going to help you.”


How do we break through these kinds of power structures?


“That’s an age-old question. And I fear it will always remain a challenge. Although history also shows that power does not always win and minority groups are extremely resilient and resilient. These groups must then be given the space to make their voices heard. This can be done by protecting the right to demonstrate and by giving minorities more speaking time and say in international institutions, such as the United Nations.


More and more small countries are now using the right to be heard. For example, a group of islands in the Pacific Ocean has gone to the International Court of Justice to oblige polluting countries to do more against climate change. Another way to counteract more in the law is through politics. In New Zealand, for example, Maori MPs stand up for the interests of nature.”


How do you anchor the interests of nature in the law?


“By giving nature – rivers, mountains and forests – rights. Just like people and companies. This is already the case in a number of countries, such as New Zealand and Bangladesh. This concerns, for example, the right to good quality and the right to be repaired. Ecologists are involved in formulating these interests. When rights are violated, a guardian can represent nature in court. Abuse of these rights is lurking. In Bangladesh, for example, people who live in informal houses along rivers are evicted under the guise of natural interests.”


Don’t you ever think: I’d better become an activist?


“I’m not one to stand on the barricade, I’d rather leave that to others. As a researcher, I do hope to contribute to change. I participate in the social debate and I try to influence policy in discussions with governments. But I also want to offer space to people who are less likely to be heard. If I get a request to speak somewhere and I think someone else is more suitable for this, such as someone from a marginalized group, I’d rather give up my seat. That feels more fair.”


What about inequality in science?


“There is still some profit to be made. Science entails a certain ethics. As a researcher you have to be very careful with the information you collect: what kind of information is it, who does it come from, what do I do with it, who deserves the credits? Those questions are not always asked. As a result, science is sometimes still too much of a way of making money off the backs of others. I think you should also give back to the people you research and speak to. Show them what you are researching and contribute ideas about the implementation, share your findings and name researchers you cite by name. Scientists too often want to take credit for themselves. Although there are more and more universities with ethical committees that assess research methods.”


How do you deal with that yourself?


“When I now read my own previous research, I see that I sometimes fell short of that. By looking critically at my own work, I started to do things differently. For example, involving marginalized groups more and at an earlier stage in my research. Although that is not always easy, as turned out in Yemen. With good self-reflection we make science more credible and fairer.”