Human rights work and environmental activism are essentially the same thing, campaigner Dr Kerry Kennedy has said.
Dr Kennedy, president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, said there is a direct correlation between democracy, respect for human rights and respect for the environment.
Speaking at the World Forum on Climate Justice at Glasgow Caledonian University, she said people in the poorest communities tend to suffer the most from environmental threats and have the least power to change things.
But she highlighted the work of activists such as Melissa Mays, who was involved in founding campaign group Water You Fighting For calling for safe drinking water following the scandal in Flint, in Michigan, US, when the city temporarily switched to lead-poisoned Flint River water in 2014.
Dr Kennedy, daughter of former US Attorney General Robert Kennedy, said: “Today front-line climate justice defenders are women and men who stand up to Government oppression, risk imprisonment and torture for basic rights. These are today’s heroes.
“There is no difference between human rights work and environmental activism, they are in essence the same thing.
“Humans rights law is founded on the principle that there are certain inalienable rights belonging to every person as a member of the human family.
“There is a direct correlation between democracy, respect for human rights and respect for the environment.”
She added: “Where people are powerless, democracy fails, corruption becomes rampant, rights are systematically violated and the environment is destroyed.
“It is no coincidence that in the United States the poorest communities with the least political power are consistently those that suffer the largest burden of environmental devastation.
“Race is a major factor as well as poverty.
“Four out of five toxic waste dumps are in predominantly poor African American communities, our largest toxic waste dump is in a town that is 85% black.
“The most concentrated cancer cluster in the entire country is in California, home to poor Mexican American farm workers who are constantly exposed to toxic pesticides.
“As poor people in the United States have their civil rights trampled and their environment destroyed so do poor people around the globe.”
Dr Kennedy highlighted the work of climate activists around the globe who are addressing climate justice in “myriad ways.”
She also praised the willingness of the next generation to address climate change issues and said their attitude was personified in schoolgirl activist the “great Greta Thunberg”, who has inspired the school strike for climate change movement.
“Climate change can feel overwhelming and in our current climate it can be tempting to think there is little one person can do but being with all of you today gives us hope,” Dr Kennedy said.
Other speakers addressing the conference on Wednesday include former President of Ireland Mary Robinson and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, as well as academics from around the world.
The forum is being organised by Elsevier in partnership with the Centre for Climate Justice at Glasgow Caledonian University and runs until Friday.
More than 130 delegates representing 35 countries, including the US, China, India and many African countries are attending.