World’s First Climate Change Hearing Staged in Copenhagen

Cayetano Huanca, Peru, OcongateCopenhagen, Denmark - Climate "witnesses" from Bangladesh, Peru, the South Pacific, and Uganda testified at the world's first climate change hearing on Wednesday.

The hearing, organized by Oxfam International and Action for a Global Climate Community , was designed to put climate change victims-those whom climate change affects the most yet who have contributed least to the problem-at the center of the climate debate, according to Oxfam Executive Director Jeremy Hobbs.

The concept of "climate justice" is widespread in the negotiation rooms, side events, and rallies at the ongoing international climate talks in the Danish capital.

"Fourteen percent of the world population has produced 60 percent of the world's carbon emissions since 1850," said Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, at the hearing. "The poorest have the least role in causing climate change yet they are being hit first, hardest, and worst."

Wealthy nations have proposed distributing $100 billion in climate aid annually by 2020 to the most vulnerable nations affected by climate change. U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton announced Thursday that the United States would help raise public and private funds for the effort.

Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi proposed on Wednesday that poorer nations receive $50 billion each year in immediate climate funding, with the aid increasing to $100 billion annually by 2020. Other African leaders have criticized the proposal as insufficient.

Pelenise Olafa, a community leader from the island nation of Kiribati, called for additional support for the South Pacific islands, where the highest land area is less than four meters above sea level. "We are on the frontline and may be the first countries to go down," Olafa said. "Don't we understand that climate change is not negotiable? It is a matter of life and death."

Shorbanu Khatun, a single mother of four from Bangladesh, described the loss of her husband and home as a result of rising sea levels, increased ground salinity, and the onslaught of Cyclone Isla. She and her children have lived hand to mouth during the decade since their home was lost to the sea.

"We have lost everything," Khatun said. "We used to think that God was punishing us, but I have come to know that climate change is manmade. I have come to you to seek justice and compensation. I want my life back."

Climate impacts are being observed in the mountain regions of South America as well. Cayetano Huanca, a farmer from Peru's Ocongate district, described new emerging diseases in his homeland. "The weather seasons have changed completely and are affecting our culture, cattle herding, and the life of human beings," Huanca said, noting that crop failures, glacial melt, and large temperature swings are becoming more regular. "We the indigenous people will not pay for the consequences. Are we guilty?"

Constance Okollet, a farmer from Uganda, described the devastating drought, flooding, and disease that has occurred in her village of Tororo since 2007. "We want our seasons back. We want our generations. Children and old people are dying. We want them to stop the emissions because we are suffering and dying as a result of them. We want money to adapt with the changes of climate because we are dying," she said.

"All of us are seeking to be heard," said Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who oversaw the session. "People who are living on the frontline of climate change...are the ones that must be listened to more than anyone else. They are the voices that must be heard...heeded...and acted upon."

Most of the individuals currently suffering from the impacts of climate change have not taken legal action to collect repayment for damages done.

However, on Wednesday the International Court for the Environment Coalition, a campaign run by "lawyers and environmentalists throughout the world," announced plans to create an International Court for the Environment where victims of climate-related human rights violations could air their grievances, said Philip Riches, the coalition's director.

At the conclusion of the testimonies, Commissioner Robinson delivered her verdict, observing that climate change is a "deep and global injustice" that is "undermining human rights on an unprecedented scale."

Archbishop Tutu closed the session with words of caution: "We are here to tell the leaders of the world we have one Earth home. If it is destroyed, there is no other. And we are in it together. We are going to swim or drown together. We are interconnected. We are bound together. If one slips down inexorably, he or she brings down the whole lot. We are here to call for action."

Worldwatch Staff Writer Ben Block contributed to this report.

Anna da Costa is a Worldwatch Institute research fellow based in New Delhi, India. This article is a product of Eye on Earth, the Worldwatch Institute's online news service. For permission to republish Eye on Earth content, please contact Juli Diamond at jdiamond@worldwatch.org.