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Why We Celebrate World Environment Day—In Spite of Efforts to Hijack It

Frontline communities fighting for justice, not corrupt regimes, give us hope for the world’s environmental future.

By Josh Leach on June 5, 2024

This World Environment Day——the UN holiday that falls each year on June 5—we recognize a simple truth: environmental justice requires climate justice. And both are inseparable in turn from the larger struggle for human rights.

Of course, the health of the natural environment does not begin and end with the fate of the climate—but the two causes are deeply intertwined. Damaging our shared climate through carbon emissions is one of the worst forms of environmental destruction that industrial economies have inflicted on the rest of the world. It is also tied to many of the other environmental crises now facing the planet: such as the catastrophic loss of biodiversity from human-led consumption and resource extraction. 

Environmental justice is also a human rights issue. People facing the worst effects from the climate crisis are often the communities who have done the least historically to contribute to the problem, and who were already facing disadvantage and deprivation at home due to systemic oppression. These include Indigenous communities, whose homes and livelihoods were at disproportionate risk even before the climate crisis from war, colonialism, displacement, and genocide. 

These are some of the reasons why environmental justice and climate justice go together—and why both struggles are fundamentally about human rights, in addition to the rights of the planet’s other living inhabitants and ecosystems.  

This is not the story you will hear, however, from government-led celebrations of World Environment Day this week. The official UN-sponsored programming for Environment Day this year, after all, is being hosted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. That is to say: it will be led by an authoritarian regime best known around the world for its rampant human rights violations, its denial of basic equality to women and LGBTQ+ people, and its economy-wide dependence on the worst forms of fossil fuel extraction

Of course, it’s not hard to see what the Saudi government hopes to gain from sponsoring World Environment Day. Much like the Azerbaijan government planning to host the next major global climate conference in November, it’s a PR coup. It’s obviously in the interests of rights-abusing fossil fuel exporters to greenwash their contributions to the world’s ecological crises. It also helps them paper over the fact that—in truth—climate, the environment, and human rights are all intertwined. 

As the globe marks another World Environment Day, let’s shift the narrative away from these big polluters and despotic regimes trying to claim the mantle of environmental leadership, and put the spotlight where it really belongs: on the frontline communities fighting for a sustainable future. 

We won’t let authoritarian regimes hijack the narrative. The true heroes of the environmental struggle are the Indigenous leaders and directly-impacted communities—including UUSC partners—who are working to heal the planet. 

Here are just a few recent examples of their groundbreaking gains for human rights: 

  • Our partners in Louisiana leveraged a powerful system of human rights monitoring in the Americas to help secure accountability for the U.S. government’s destruction of their homes. 
  • UUSC partners in Fiji helped defeat plans to bring renewed environmental destruction to their ancestral homeland on Banaban Island in Kiribati. They have continued this work despite retaliation—and are asking for your direct support now to keep up the struggle.
  • Our partners in the Pacific are working to counteract the attempts of powerful governments and big polluters to hijack UN climate events. They are already preparing a comprehensive strategy to ensure the next UN climate summit centers the real causes of the climate crisis and pushes equitable solutions for the communities affected.   
  • Our partners in the Marshall Islands are highlighting an oft-forgotten chapter of U.S. history, in order to demand justice for generations of Marshallese people still living with the long-term effects of U.S. nuclear testing. 
  • Our partners in the Pacific last year achieved a first-of-its-kind UN resolution calling for an advisory opinion from the world’s highest court, dealing with governments’ legal obligations to address the climate crisis. Similarly, small island nations in the Pacific this year secured another groundbreaking advisory opinion from the world’s maritime court, informing governments of their legal obligation to halt destructive carbon emissions. 

These examples of courage and determination in the face of the climate crisis—not the cynical government-sponsored PR of the official UN World Environment Day events—are what really give us cause to celebrate this occasion. There is still hope for the world’s environmental future so long as frontline communities keep working for justice. 

UUs across the continent can be a part of this shared struggle. This fall, UUSC and our kindred UU organizations will be co-sponsoring a first-ever UU Climate Justice Revival. Congregations will receive all the info they need to participate—all that’s asked is to sign up as a congregational co-sponsor of the event. There will be an art show, an original song, creative contests with prizes, religious educational curricula, and everything else that’s needed to revive our spirits for the climate struggle. 

We invite you to sign up for the Climate Revival today. You can also sign up for regular updates from UUSC here. Finally, you can donate to UUSC’s annual fund. A contribution to UUSC helps  backstop our partners’ work to secure a just and sustainable environment for all.

Image credit: UUSC

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