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Erika Rosenthal: On The Impacts Of Climate Change

Earthjustice National Press Secretary Kari Birdseye speaks with Erika Rosenthal, attorney with the international program.

Much of Rosenthanl's work addresses reducing the causes of climate change, tackling emissions on the international stage, participating in negotiations and working to reduce emissions of other global warming pollutants, like black carbon and ozone, which are accelerating warming and melting in the Arctic.

Length: 29 min 27 sec
Recorded: November 2011
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Erika Rosenthal: Earthjustice has an organization-wide strategic focus on climate change and internationally we take that forward in many different forums, both at the international climate negotiations but also regionally in key areas like the Arctic. Earthjustice as an organization also domestically in the U.S. does a tremendous amount of work in the Arctic, forest protection, and offshore oil development. But internationally, we’ve been working very specifically on climate in the Arctic and the ways in which the accelerated warming and melting in the Arctic will impact both the extraordinary cultures, landscapes, and wildlife of the region, but also the world as ice melts and sea levels rise and impacts are felt here at home, at coastal areas, in Florida and elsewhere and very strongly in areas like Bangladesh and the Pacific Islands where livelihoods and lives and sovereignty even is threatened.

Erika: I have always been, and it is a great privilege to be able to say this, I’ve always worked with environmental organizations. I’ve always had a desire from a very young age to work with organizations that protected health, the environment and wildlife. In the 1980s and 90s and certainly throughout this new century, the changes in the world climate system are by far and away the most extraordinary global risk that the world community has ever faced. So the work that Earthjustice and allied environmental organizations around the world are doing to try and push governments to take the serious actions they need to take to forestall, what look to be, and the scientific community has consensed around, the projections of very calamitous impacts for all people and all the other living creatures on the Earth in the next 20 or 30 years. We really need to focus on reducing carbon emissions of all sorts. And we work both on that, here at home, reducing CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants and from the transportation sector and other sectors. We work on it internationally in the negotiations and we work on it in the Arctic—very specifically looking at some of the other global warming pollutants like black carbon and ozone that are having a particularly important impact in terms of accelerating warming and melting in the Arctic

Civil society’s role or the NGOs' [non-governmental organizations] role generally is to hold the governments’ feet to the fire, to set a marker—the old expression “Speak truth to power.” There are very clear steps that need to be taken and they are difficult ones and they involve changing the energy sector in our country and other countries. They involve other significant investments. All of which, have the great potential to actually be economically advantageous and to create jobs. Nonetheless, there are big economic changes that need to happen and civil society organizations work in these various negotiating forums internationally to help both to make sure that the light of public scrutiny is brought to bear on the discussions between governments to let them know that we are bringing the message back to their constituents, the voters at home, about the kinds of positions that they take and to push them to do the right thing. Many governments and negotiators they know what the right thing is but they are being buffeted by many economic interests. Industry has of course huge representation at all international forums and so it is the NGOs' job to represent those people around the world and certainly those creatures around the world that don’t have a voice and can’t speak for themselves.

Kari: You speak fluent Spanish. You have extensive knowledge of Russia and Latin countries. How does your background serve your work now?

Erika: I think it is always helpful to have a bit of an insight into other countries and cultures when you are engaged in international negotiations. There are so many different cultural factors and different economic factors that are at play, different historical and traditional factors at play that help to define a country’s position, with respect to any issue and that could be oil and gas development in the Arctic, it could be at the climate negotiations that could influence a country’s willingness or not to take significant ambitious measures to reduce their emissions or to fund adaptation work so that the poorest countries can defend themselves from some of the worst impacts from climate change. So having lived in these other countries, gives me a very small window sometimes into some of the thinking that might go on. One of the wonderful things about getting to do this kind of international work is that you have a community of international NGO representatives, as well as government and industry representatives, that you see on a regular basis and get to work with some of these NGO representatives from every country on the planet, helping to forge common positions and strategies and to organize civil society to move issues forward and just being able to work with international colleagues to get their insights on why their governments respond in particular ways is a great privilege.

Kari: Can you talk about the work you did before you came to Earthjustice and how did you transition to the work you are doing today?

Erika: Immediately before coming to Earthjustice, I worked for an organization called the Center for International Environmental Law, an organization whose focus is very much akin to Earthjustice’s international program. At the Center for International Environmental Law, I worked principally on international chemical negotiations and treaties, and there are several of them that address issues ranging from whether or not certain chemicals should be on the market at all because they cause significant damage to human health or the environment. Whether or not there should be provisions, for example, so that chemicals that are exported from countries where they have been banned, like our own, to other countries, usually in the developing South, should have to abide by rules so that they notify the governments that these chemicals are very dangerous and that they have been banned for use because of health impacts or environmental impacts—those kinds of agreements.

And very interestingly, quite of bit of that work on chemicals came about internationally because chemicals applied here in the U.S. and elsewhere, like DDT, were actually carried by the air currents north to the Arctic and they ended up bio-accumulating up through the food chain so that they were in very high levels in polar bear fat, for example. So that gives you a really clear idea of how there are no national boundaries in terms of international environmental issues. Chemicals applied in cotton fields here in the United States make their way all the way to polar bears in the Arctic.

We are seeing now with some of the short-lived climate forcers, particularly black carbon, that black carbon emitted from a diesel truck here in New England, for example, can be carried by wind all the way up to the Arctic and deposited on Arctic ice and snow, where it accelerates warming and melting. And then there is a chain reaction that warming and melting in the Arctic leads to sea level rise around the world. So we are all very connected

Kari: Can you talk about your work with indigenous people?

Erika: Currently Earthjustice is working with a number of Arctic indigenous peoples organizations focusing on oil and gas development and on climate change in the Arctic—the accelerated melting and warming in the Arctic. The Arctic is warming at anywhere from two to three times as fast as the rest of the world and there are other places in the world that are also experiencing more extreme climate warming than the global average, places in Africa and elsewhere but the Arctic is particularly critical and the Arctic is home to many indigenous cultures that have been there for millennia and whose culture and livelihood have evolved very, very closely with a very harsh environment but one that they have come to live in very successfully.

So they are, in many ways, have been the early warning call expressing to the world what they see in their daily lives, which is that the Arctic changing enormously quickly. They are seeing species of insects in the Arctic that they had never seen before; a dragonfly all of the sudden appears way, way north in Arctic. They are experiencing huge forest fires at rates that never happened before. They are experiencing early melts of both sea ice and river and lake ice. They are experiencing permafrost melt and subsidence. They are experiencing changes in the migratory patterns of the various species that they rely for subsistence—from caribou to the seals and other animals. So they are seeing this all in the span of a generation and they are both enormously concerned about preserving and continuing their cultures and having the youth and the next generation be able to live on the land in the same way that they have for millennia.

But they are also engaged internationally, both at the climate negotiations and the various Arctic governance forums, to bring what they are seeing to the governments and tell them that they need to take immediate action both on CO2 emissions and also black carbon and ozone emissions because the Arctic is changing and its changing now and it is impacting them very directly in their daily lives and that is a harbinger of the kinds of impact that these changes in the Arctic are going to have all around the world, here in the U.S. in terms of changed weather patterns and more extreme storms, sea level rise and around the world on the other side of the planet as sea level rise and storm surge threatens small island developing states in the Pacific and low-lying areas in India and Bangladesh and elsewhere.

Earthjustice has worked to represent Alaskan native communities in litigation for many, many years, specifically on oil and gas issues. We have worked with indigenous organizations that span several countries in the Arctic like the Inuit Circumpolar Council to bring a human rights petition against the United States asserting that the United States lack of action to reduce CO2 emissions contributes to the global warming that is undermining the human indigenous rights of Arctic peoples and we working today with Arctic organizations like the Arctic Athabaskan Council to continue that kind of human rights work, looking at the short-lived climate forcers like black carbon. Athabaskan communities are struggling every day to be able to continue their traditional livelihoods and cultures in the face of a very changing environment. It is within the government’s power to reduce emissions of black carbon, reduce emissions of CO2 and they are not. By not doing so they are violating agreements in our hemisphere, agreements of the Americas that enshrine human and indigenous rights.

Kari: What’s the best part of your work?

Erika: What I truly most enjoy about my work is being able to be engaged with this extraordinary community of international, environmental human rights, indigenous, environmental health activists from around the world. Earthjustice works in all of these areas and has been a leader domestically in these areas. One of the great challenges and most rewarding aspects, I think, of our work in the international program is linking that great work that our colleagues do domestically with the international aspects, both so that standards set internationally don’t undermine stronger standards here in the United States—for example, around oil and gas development in the arctic. But also, so that the implications and ramifications of some of the stronger environmental laws here in the United States don’t have negative repercussions abroad. For example, the export of a chemical that’s banned here in the US, and so the manufacturers send it to a poor third world country where nobody knows how to use it correctly, and there’s no protections for the workers or the local community.

I think another really gratifying part of the international program’s work is to be able to take the model of United States transparency and citizen participation and environmental lawmaking and rulemaking, and use that as a model for work in other countries, for example in Latin America. One of the things that we are advocating for very strongly, both in the arctic at the arctic council, and internationally for example at the UNFCCC—the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—is for maximum transparency and public participation in the various sessions. We’ve seen here in the U.S. over the last 30 to 40 years more going back to the sort of early days of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, which became Earthjustice. This citizen engagement in environmental decision-making is critical, and one of our huge challenges and most gratifying aspects of our work internationally is to help bring that model to international forums.

So one of the very gratifying things that the Earthjustice International program gets to do and what I get to do sometimes is to help open the doors at various international processes, which seem to be for all of us, but especially if you are living in an isolated village in the Arctic or an isolated village in the Amazon, or many other places around the world. These processes are very, very distant. It’s like court processes being very, very distant if you live in small communities. Yet they have enormous impact on all of our futures. And so one of the things we get to do is to help open the doors for these indigenous organizations and communities in developing countries to have a voice in these international processes, both through very typical legal drafting work, suggesting language that can be adopted that would be principles and procedures in terms of public participation and transparency in various international processes, and also in helping indigenous organizations and communities to get their message across to the right people.

And I think that’s one of the key roles of western environmental organizations—one of the important roles of western environmental organizations can play at some of these international forums. It’s a whole lot of technical expertise and there’s certainly legal skills that we bring to the table, but we also bring the model of public participation and transparency and working with communities who are often first to be impacted, the most vulnerable, the first to be impacted by climate change for example, and helping them have a bigger platform from which to share their message.

Kari: If you had two wishes and they had to be related to your professional work, what would you wish?

Erika: Certainly I would wish that the U.S. Congress would get its act together and adopt ambitious domestic U.S. climate legislation. Sadly, that does not seem to be on the political horizon for some years to come, but U.S. role internationally is key. The fact that the United States has not engaged in the international climate process—we did not sign the Kyoto protocol, we have not taken significant measures to reduce our emissions, and we have not pledged to take significant measures—is a significant barrier to the rest of the world moving forward. The Obama Administration and Lisa Jackson’s EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] are doing what they can administratively, and they can take some really, really important measure they already have in terms of reducing emissions by enacting rules under the Clean Air Act and our Earthjustice colleagues have been front and center in the mix of both litigation and administrative advocacy to make that happen. But it’s not going to be enough to unlock the international process.

So certainly, one of my two wishes would be that the politics in the U.S. shift so that this country and our elected leaders realize how critical it is for our own economy, for job creation, and for our collective future and the planet’s future to shift towards a low carbon economy and to adopt the legislation necessary to incentivize that.

So my second wish would be that international process, unlocked by strong action in the U.S., would move forward quickly. The international process has, UNCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] at the last convention of the parties at Cancun last year agreed to enshrine a two degree temperature rise goal, the objective is to keep global average temperature rise below two degrees. Many people would say that two degrees is too much. We’re already experiencing in many parts of the world significant impacts—fires in Russia, droughts in Africa, melting in the Arctic—and we’re only at a 0.8 degree centigrade temperature rise. But nonetheless, the international negotiations gave us that 2 degree objective. I don’t think 2 degrees is the right goal. Many of our colleagues would say that it’s not as well. But the really frightening thing is that scientists now are saying that we are on a path to three, four, five and more degrees temperature rise by the end of the century, and that kind of world is one that is very difficult to imagine how many people in many parts of the planet will be able to survive. So we are crafting by our own inaction a future for our children and grandchildren that will be shockingly different than the world we live in today and a very, very, very hard one to live in.

The greatest contributions that I make, that we can all make, and that Earthjustice makes, internationally are incremental and that we move the process forward. Part of the challenge of doing international work is that it is like going back 30 or 40 years in the U.S. So internationally, the standards are just now being discussed. Questions of whether or not international standards just be set are being discussed. So think back in the U.S. to before there was a Clean Water Air or Clean Air Act and all of the incremental work—shoulder to the grindstone kind of work of building the support from all stakeholders, private industry and various civil society organizations and governments to get the understanding that you needed a Clean Water Act because rivers were spontaneously combusting or you needed a Clean Air Act because inner-city, urban area air quality was so bad and respiratory illness rates skyrocketed. So internationally on a lot of issues, for example, on whether or not there should be Arctic-wide agreements on oil spill response, on emissions of black carbon and other short-lived climate forcers, that are contributing so dramatically to the accelerated warming and melting of the Arctic. The discussions are just happening now about whether or not there should be a collective international community response.

And one of the things that Earthjustice and many other environmental organization allies have been doing over the last years is pushing the international community to recognize that they need to take action on, for example, black carbon and other short-lived climate forcers. And so it has been very gratifying to see the Arctic Council moving forward and setting up a task force to look at the impacts of black carbon and ozone and methane. And now, just as of a few months ago, giving this working group the mandate to come up with policy recommendations for the Arctic countries to begin to reduce these emissions.

Similarly, it has been gratifying to be engaged with other organizations to help push a regional air quality agreement to begin to negotiate standards on PM2.5 [fine particulate matter air pollution] emissions with a specific focus of PM2.5 being the category of particulate pollutions—soot, for example—that’s very small—that gets deep into your lungs that causes a lot of health issues and it also includes black carbon—the smallest of these carbon particles that are emitted from diesel engines and other kinds of inefficient combustion that are contributing very seriously to the accelerated warming and melting of the Arctic. So this air quality agreement, to which the United States is a party, LRTAP—Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution Convention—decided in December of last year that they would work on developing standards for PM2.5 and black carbon.

And that was huge move. It was the first time that an international agreement turned to black carbon and officially said—and it is a good reflection of the U.S.’s position—yes this is a critical issue and yes we will develop standards. I think it is an incremental move forward. It is developing those international standards in a very similar way to 30 or more years ago here in the U.S.—developing the domestic environmental law standards. And it is a privilege to be a part of that international process.