The moral case for climate action

How climate change is changing lives
How climate change is changing lives

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How climate change is changing lives 01:46

CNN Opinion columnist John D. Sutter is reporting on a tiny number -- 2 degrees -- that may have a huge effect on the future. You can subscribe to the "2 degrees" newsletter or follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. He's jdsutter on Snapchat. You can shape this coverage.

Le Bourget, France (CNN)Constance Okollet, a farmer and mother of seven from eastern Uganda, remembers a time when there were two seasons in her village.

"These days we don't have seasons at all," she told me.
Esau Sinnok, an 18-year-old from Shishmaref, Alaska, believes his indigenous community will have to relocate as the permafrost melts and the coast continues to erode.
    "I live with my grandparents in a blue house in Shishmaref, and that is almost on the edge of the island," he said. "Whenever there's a storm and big waves, we hear that when we're sleeping.
    "Knowing that your hometown has to move," he said, "that's just very emotional."
    And Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a young mom from the Marshall Islands in the distant Pacific Ocean, has a hard time planning for her family's future because she knows the seas are rising and, unless swift action is taken to stop all fossil fuel use, her tiny country likely will disappear.
    "You don't know how big the ocean is until you go to the Marshall Islands," she said.
    "I hope that my daughter's granddaughter and her granddaughter can come back home and know where their island is, and be able to live there if they so choose."
    These are the moral voices for action on climate change.
    And, this week, they might finally be heard.
    Government ministers here in Paris for the U.N. COP21 climate change summit appear to be close to signing onto an agreement that would help the world avoid some of the worst effects of global warming.
    The accord won't solve the problem, to be sure. Policymakers have set a target of limiting warming as much below 2 degrees Celsius as possible. The pledges linked to the "Paris Outcome," as it may be called, are estimated to slow warming to 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100. That would carry disastrous consequences for people in Alaska, where warming is happening at twice the global rate, and the Marshall Islands, which may disappear beneath rising seas if warming isn't kept well below 2 degrees, perhaps to 1.5 degrees.
    Still, if 195 countries agree to a deal -- which is far from certain, since many of these negotiations have fallen apart quite dramatically in the past -- the signal will be clear: We as a world finally recognize the grave consequences of polluting so much that we're warming the atmosphere and throwing global systems out of whack. We know that continuing to burn coal, oil and natural gas will exacerbate extinction, drought, famine, conflict, storms and floods. And we know that to reduce the odds of these consequences -- which come with steep price tags the longer we wait to change our energy system -- we need to ditch fossil fuels entirely by about midcentury.
    Stories like those of Okollet, Sinnok, Jetnil-Kijiner and many others I met here in Paris and elsewhere have helped wake up negotiators and the public to these stark realities.
    While there certainly are business cases for climate action -- Unilever CEO Paul Polman told me it's smart business to curb emissions because bottom lines will be weakened by stronger droughts and less availability of water and other natural resources -- the central reason we must act on climate change is a moral one. It is fundamentally unjust that people who have done little or nothing to cause this problem are bearing the brunt of its consequences.
    I asked the U.N.'s humanitarian chief, Stephen O'Brien, about what's at stake with these negotiations, which could conclude as soon as 6 p.m. Friday.
    "The stakes, quite clearly, are people," he said.
    "In the end this is about how much is the world prepared to invest in its own future."
    People living on the front lines of climate change are doing their best to sound a clarion call for action on climate change.
    It can be a matter of life and death.
    Take Diana Rios, a 21-year-old from Soweto, Peru, a community lodged deep in the Amazon at least a day or two by canoe from the nearest city. Rios told me her father and three other community members were assassinated by loggers for trying to protect the rain forest.
    The local activists were walking across the border to Brazil for a meeting on how to stop illegal logging when they were killed, allegedly by people with ties to that industry.
    Put another way, her father died fighting climate change, since deforestation contributes perhaps 10% to 20% of global warming emissions.
    "They say that if you cut a tree you are cutting a human being because you can't breathe the oxygen that is contaminated," Rios told me. "We are not safe in this life. We continue receiving threats. ... They want to kill us because we are bringing justice."
    She sees her continued fight against illegal logging -- and coming to Paris for COP21 -- as ways to help avenge his death, to stop the people who killed her dad from winning.
    "We have hope that one day we can live in harmony and tranquillity," she said.
    Okollet, Sinnok and Jetnil-Kijiner also came to Paris to push for action.
    For them, this isn't about diplomacy.
    It's a matter of survival.
    Sinnok, the young man from Alaska, lost his uncle a few years ago. He died after falling through the sea ice on a hunting trip. Normally, the ice would have been frozen during that time of year, Sinnok told me, but rapid warming in the Arctic has made the ice thinner.
    Sinnok blames climate change at least partly for his uncle's death.
    "He was such a great person, a great uncle," Sinnok told me.
    His death inspired Sinnok's fight against climate change.
    Okollet, 51, the farmer from Uganda, told me that some people in her community, Tororo, had started to wonder if God had forsaken them because their community was flooding so often. Okollet's home was washed away in a 2007 flood, and she said many of her friends and neighbors died in the ensuring cholera outbreak, which she said the community never had seen before.
    "We thought, 'Is this God?' " she said.
    "I learned it was not God," she said. "It was climate change."
    Despite these grim realities, Okollet, Sinnok and other people living on the front lines of climate change haven't given up hope. And neither should we.
    We should take their stories as a window into the climate-changed future.
    And we must hear them as a call to action.
    "People need to listen more," said Jetnil-Kijiner, the woman from the Marshall Islands.
    "This doesn't just affect us," she added. "It affects the whole world.
    "If we save our island, you know, I believe that we can save the world."
    Negotiators in Paris: Listen up.