I: Climate and Food Justice at the United Nations

Part of UN Sunday

Because climate change is so pervasive, almost all UN Agencies and departments have elements of their work that address the climate crisis. The relation to food systems is at the top of the UN’s agenda in 2021 because of the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit in September.

Political and economic influence can go a long way at the United Nations. A need to get consensus means that the final result of UN negotiations – such as the Paris Agreement – tends to be significantly less ambitious than is actually needed.

It is important for organizations like the UUA Office at the United Nations (UU@UN) to be engaged as members of civil society, putting pressure on the United Nations Member States to uphold principles that we believe in and that the UN is committed to, such as inclusion, justice, and human rights. The influence of activist groups, grassroots and frontline communities, non-governmental organizations, and academic institutions are critical in these processes where corporate lobbying of diplomats is often prevalent.

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 greater focus on climate justice, emphasizing human rights and indigenous sovereignty – all with an understanding that none of these issues is separate.

About the UU@UN’s Climate Justice Initiative

Our aim is to protect the lives and rights of those most at risk from the environmental hazards that have caused and are caused by climate change. We strongly advocate against government subsidies for the production of fossil fuels and favor swift support for sustainable forms of energy, as well as supporting other initiatives that further climate change mitigation and adaptation.

As a member of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UU@UN is proud to send delegate observers to UN climate conferences. Our delegates advocate on behalf of Unitarian Universalists for global climate policies that affirm indigenous sovereignty and that hold polluters accountable for the destruction they cause to people and planet.

The UU@UN’s climate justice initiative is in close partnership with the UU Ministry for Earth and the UUA Green Sanctuary program—including the joint campaign Create Climate Justice, a hub for Unitarian Universalist climate activism.

In recent years, the UU@UN has been active with partners in and around the United Nations to address the following climate justice issues:

  • 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 has been done in partnership with the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation since 2015, and it formed the basis for the UU@UN’s 2021 Intergenerational Spring Seminar and now United Nations Sunday!
  • Inequalities in who is most at-risk from the dangerous effects of climate change, whether air and water pollution as well as natural disasters, rising sea levels, and other effects. 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.
    • Climate-forced displacement will be the focus for the UU@UN’s 2022 Intergenerational Spring Seminar, hosted in partnership with UU Ministry for Earth and UUSC, and expected to take place in New York City April 22-24, 2022.

UN Entities and Climate/Food Program Holders

These are some of the UN organizations or entities are engaged in addressing the intersection of climate and food issues:

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

The 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 2019, the IPCC put forth a special report about Climate Change and Land that recommended transitioning to more plant-rich food systems globally and increasing forest cover.

Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

The current Special Rapporteur is Michael Fakhri who was appointed to the position by the UN Human Rights Council in 2020. In his December 2020 report submitted to the HRC, he outlines the priorities he will focus on during his tenure. Of particular note, he emphasizes that “Experiential/traditional knowledge and agroecology are core elements of international food policy today,” urging the United Nations to make ample space for indigenous communities and small-scale producers in their forums pertaining to food systems.

UN Food Systems Summit

September 23, 2021, the UN hosted a Food Systems Summit as part of the Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. This summit intended to launch global action on the 17 SDGs, acknowledging that each of these Goals “relies to some degree on healthier, more sustainable and equitable food systems.” A Pre-Summit took place in Rome in July 2021. This whole process was described as a “People’s Summit” that would “bring together youth, farmers, indigenous peoples, civil society, researchers, private sector, policy leaders and ministers of agriculture, environment, health, nutrition and finance, among other participants."

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. This will continue for the upcoming COP26 taking place virtually and in Glasgow in November 2021. It will be important to make sure the principles of agroecology, drawdown, and food sovereignty are at the forefront as nations present their revised Nationally Determined Contributions (each country’s commitment to how they will mitigate climate change) during COP26.