I: Climate Justice at the United Nations

Part of UN Sunday

The work of the United Nations on climate issues falls into several different categories. Because climate change is so pervasive, almost all UN Agencies and departments have elements of their work that address the climate crisis.

The UN as an organization, headed by Secretary-General António Guterres, sees the climate crisis as the existential issue of our time. He said at a high-level UN meeting on Sustainable Development in 2019, “Climate change is happening now and to all of us… No country or community is immune. And, as is always the case, the poor and vulnerable are the first to suffer and the worst hit.”

Addressing climate issues has been a component of the UU Office’s work at the UN since 2010, when congregations urged the office to do something about climate change. Dr. Jan Dash, a climate scientist and member of the UU@UN Board at the time, was instrumental in getting these efforts started and leading the UU@UN Climate Task Force. The work of the UU@UN has evolved in recent years from a focus on the politics and science of mitigating climate change to a focus more on the climate justice side of things that emphasizes human rights and indigenous sovereignty – all with an understanding that none of these issues is separate. In recent years, the UU@UN has been extremely active with partners in and around the United Nations to uplift the following climate justice issues:

  • Dangers to at-risk communities from air and water pollution as well as natural disasters, rising sea levels, and other effects of climate change. The UU@UN’s climate justice programs have specifically focused on the impacts on and leadership of Indigenous communities, people of African Descent, people with disabilities, and the populations of small island (aka “Big Ocean”) nations.
  • Ethical Eating: building upon a 2011 UUA Statement of Conscience on that topic, wherein Unitarian Universalists affirm that “we strive to choose foods that minimize harm and are protective of the environment, consumers, farmers, and all those involved in food production and distribution.”
    • This work is in partnership with the Tzu Chi Buddhist Foundation
    • The relationship between climate justice and food systems/food security will be the focus of the UU@UN’s 2021 Intergenerational Spring Seminar.

UN Entities and Climate Program Holders

Several United Nations entities are responsible for tracking and coordinating scientific research to do with our changing climate.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

According to their website, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established as a joint initiative of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP or UN Environment) in order to “provide policymakers with regular scientific assessments on climate change, its implications and potential future risks, as well as to put forward adaptation and mitigation options.” An important aspect of the IPCC’s work is its objectivity and transparency. In 2018, the IPCC put forth a report alerting the world that we had just 12 years (now 10 years before the 2030 deadline) to make massive changes in global energy systems and keep warming under 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. (see UNFCCC section for more on warming levels)

World Meteorological Organization

The WMO is a UN agency which provides the framework for international cooperation in all things pertaining to weather, climate, and water.

UN Environment

UN Environment is a UN agency whose mission is “to provide leadership and encourage partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing, and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.”

Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment

A 2012 session of the UN Human Rights Council appointed Mr. John Knox to serve as an Independent Expert on human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. After an initial three-year term, the UNHRC appointed him again to serve as Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment. The Special Rapporteur, currently David Boyd of Canada, is charged with the following mandate:

  • Examine the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment
  • Promote best practices of the use of human rights in environmental policymaking
  • Identify challenges and obstacles to the full realization of human rights relating to the enjoyment of a healthy environment
  • Conduct country visits and responds to human rights violations


The following are what the United Nations refers to as its “legal instruments” for the implementation of global climate change policy.

UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

This body assembles annually for a Conference of Parties (COP) in which countries are charged with working together, alongside civil society participants, to create and implement climate change policy. The 21st COP – known as COP21 – was held in 2015 in Paris and resulted in the Paris Agreement.

The Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations has UNFCCC status, which authorizes the UU@UN to credential official observers to attend COPs on behalf of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Canadian Unitarian Council. A priority of the Unitarian Universalist climate justice movement is to mobilize in solidarity with Indigenous front-line communities. Because indigenous voices are so often missing from or ignored in international climate policy conversations, Unitarian Universalist activities at UNFCCC conferences center around amplifying Indigenous-led organizing. In 2019, Unitarian Universalist-credentialed representatives at COP25 in Madrid hosted an event featuring Indigenous leaders from front-line communities in Fiji and Tuvalu, who responded to the true impacts of some of the UN’s climate solutions. (Read from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee’s blog about the Indigenous movement’s presence at COP25 and about UUSC’s Indigenous partners who were part of COP25 action.)

Kyoto Protocol

Adopted by the United Nations in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol served as an instrument of the UNFCCC, consisting of formal commitments from industrialized countries to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases. The First Commitment Period was from 2008 (when the protocol entered into force) to 2012, during which time the 37 industrialized nations party to the convention had committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to at least 5% below 1990 levels. The Second Commitment Period, from 2013 to 2020, calls for nations to reduce emissions to at least 18% below 1990 levels.

Paris Agreement

The UNFCCC Conference of Parties held in 2015 in Paris saw a huge amount of enthusiasm by world leaders for working together to combat global climate change. The Paris Agreement adopted at COP21 affirmed a collective goal of limiting global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The Paris Agreement includes each country’s Nationally-Determined Contribution (NDC) which lists that country’s specific commitments as far as climate change mitigation efforts.

While the Agreement was hailed at the time as a huge accomplishment (getting 195 parties to agree to anything at all was certainly something to be celebrated), there were and continue to be major concerns that the Paris Agreement did not go far enough. Although the Agreement set 1.5 degrees Celsius as the goal for limiting global warming, most of the NDCs submitted are wildly insufficient. If all the commitments were met perfectly, the planet would warm by at least 3, perhaps 4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – warming that would be devastating for food and water systems, cause the extinction of millions of species, and disrupt human life irreparably. The Paris Agreement was an insufficient step to move the world towards climate change mitigation, and an even less significant step toward climate justice.

An article from Intercontinental Cry, a non-profit newsroom that produces public-interest journalism centered on Indigenous Peoples, climate change, and international human rights, points to the failure of the Paris Agreement to recognize Indigenous rights in any meaningful way: “Despite the vocal presence of Indigenous groups throughout COP21, pressure from the United States, the European Union, and Norwegian delegates caused reference to the ‘rights of Indigenous peoples’ to be cut from the binding portion of the Paris Agreement, relegating the only mention of Indigenous rights to the purely aspirational preamble.”

The Paris Agreement stipulates that every five years, countries must submit a plan for how they will contribute to achieving the 1.5 degrees Celsius warming limit. COPs since Paris have been focused on implementation efforts. COP26 which was slated to take place in Glasgow in 2020, now rescheduled to November 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, was the next opportunity for countries to submit updated NDCs. Because of the postponement of the conference and the distractions caused by the pandemic, many fear that countries will neglect both urgently needed climate action along with their NDC contributions that are due this year.