Dec 12, 2023 - World

At COP28, activists link calls for climate justice with demands for Gaza ceasefire

Activists at COP28 protest to show solidarity with Palestinians amid the war in Gaza on Dec. 9. Photo: Fadel Dawod/Anadolu via Getty Images

Activists at COP28 in Dubai call for a ceasefire in Gaza during a protest. Photo: Fadel Dawod/Anadolu via Getty Images

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Activists at COP28 in Dubai brought the war in Gaza to the forefront of the UN climate talks over the last two weeks, linking their calls for climate justice to their demands for a ceasefire.

The big picture: The theme — "there's no climate justice without human rights" — has for years been a common message of the climate justice movement, but activists this year were specifically focused on calling for the rights of Palestinians to be respected and the end to the war in Gaza as Israel's bombardment and ground offensive continue to intensify.

  • "Whenever we talk about climate justice, and we talk about changing [the] system," said Haneen Jarrar, a Palestinian psychologist who co-chaired the people's plenary at COP28, "we are talking listening to Mother Earth ... and we are also talking about the oppressed."
  • "[W]hat is happening in Palestine right now is part of a colonial regime that does not care about human rights or international law, and just wants to grab, grab, grab," she told Axios.

Driving the news: Fighting resumed in Gaza following a seven-day pause as world leaders, humanitarians, activists, CEOs and others gathered in Dubai earlier this month to kick off the UN climate talks.

  • In the nearly two weeks since, Israel has escalated its operation, turning its focus on the southern city of Khan Younis. The death toll on Tuesday topped 18,400, according to the Ministry of Health in the Hamas-run enclave.
  • Some leaders, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and South Africa's Cyril Ramaphosa, used their speeches at COP28 to criticize Israel's actions during the war. The Iranian delegation walked out of the conference due to the presence of Israel's delegation, according to Iranian state news agency IRNA.

The first couple of days saw several backroom meetings that addressed the war.

  • Israeli President Isaac Herzog skipped his COP28 speech but did meet with several world leaders, including the UAE president, Indian prime minister and King Charles III, for talks aimed at maintaining support for securing the release of those taken hostage by Hamas and other Palestinian groups.
  • Secretary of State Tony Blinken stopped in Israel on his way to Dubai and reiterated U.S. "support for Israel's right, in compliance with international humanitarian law, to ensure that Hamas can never again repeat the October 7 attacks" during which Israeli officials say about 1,200 people were killed.
  • But overall Susana Muhamad, Colombia's environment minister who is of Palestinian descent, told Axios that she was "surprised by the disconnection" in high-level discussions between what is being talked about at COP and what is happening in Gaza and the occupied West Bank. It was as if "nobody cares," she said.

For climate activists at COP, however, the connection was clear.

  • "When we are talking about climate justice, we are really talking about those deep colonial, patriarchal and capitalistic roots that have been perpetrating systems of oppression and repression," said Gina Cortés, a Colombian representative of the Women and Gender Constituency, a stakeholder of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
  • The killing of Palestinians in Gaza, which Cortés described as genocide, "is based on that same structure that has been fueling" the climate crisis. "It has been fueled by the same countries that are perpetuating destructiveness systems, by the same countries that keep subsidizing militarism," she told Axios.
  • "It doesn't make any type of sense to talk about just [energy] transitions [and] about new systems ... if we cannot really achieve it all around the world," she added. "How are we going to apply [it] in territories that have been left into ashes [and] have been turned into rivers [of blood]?"
Haneen Jarrar retells her Palestinian family's experience of expulsion and loss in 1948 during the People's Plenary on Dec. 10 at COP28.
Haneen Jarrar retells her Palestinian family's experience of expulsion and loss in 1948 during the People's Plenary on Dec. 10 at COP28. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Calls for a ceasefire echoed at protests, during informal discussions around the conference grounds, and at the people's plenary, which brought together Indigenous peoples, feminists, unions and others.

  • Palestinians and their supporters donned lanyards depicting the colors of the Palestinian flag and the word "solidarity." Some also wore keffiyehs — the traditional scarf in the Middle East that has come to symbolize Palestinian rights and anti-colonialism more generally.
  • The largest protest, which took place on Saturday, saw hundreds march through the conference grounds, with banners calling for both the end to the use of fossil fuels and to the war in Gaza.

What they're saying: A representative for Israel's delegation did not respond to a request for comment.

  • But Gideon Behar, the special envoy on climate change and sustainability with the Israeli delegation, told VOA in the first week of the talks that "issues of climate and geopolitical issues" must be separated. "If we do not do that, the whole international climate negotiations will be kidnapped by geopolitical issues," he said.
  • A large banner at the Israeli pavilion of the conference read "bring them home," referring to the more than 130 hostages that are still being held in Gaza.

Zoom out: Linking climate justice to the Palestinian cause is more than about the call for human rights, advocates say.

  • The Mediterranean region is one of the most climate-vulnerable places on Earth. Warming in the water-scarce region is happening 20% faster than the global average, according to the UN.
  • The Israeli occupation poses one of the biggest barriers that Palestinians face when trying to implement adaptation and resilience strategies, several reports have concluded.
  • Activists in Dubai also highlighted the environmental costs of war and conflict. In the case of Gaza, Israel's bombardment has taken a significant toll on the enclave's infrastructure and agricultural lands.

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