The latest round of climate talks, in Tianjin, China, did nothing to break the stalemate of last year’s failed Copenhagen meeting—an outcome that was as predictable as it is maddening. The reality is that the most powerful delegates had nothing to lose from prolonging the standoff. But the one point of consensus, sadly, was a mutual disregard for the fate of millions of the world’s poorest people, who have the most to lose as the planet melts down.
The insular debate in Tianjin exposes the divide between the powerful states steering climate politics and the poor communities, concentrated in the Global South, at the front lines of the crisis. The gridlock also reflects a growing gulf within the so-called developing world between the have-nots and the have-lesses, as “emerging” economies like China and India diverge politically from the interests of poorer nations, even as they antagonize the wealthier nations that have long been the biggest emitters. While Chinese envoy Su Wei, invoking a Chinese idiom, likened the U.S. to “a pig preening itself in a mirror,” tiny island nations, indigenous peoples in South America, and farmers in drought-ravaged Kenya were out at sea, far from the inner sanctum of UN diplomacy.
Person for person, China and India are obviously poor countries compared to the countries that have historically churned out the bulk of cumulative emissions. But climate-justice activists point out that the developed-developing dichotomy doesn’t tell the whole story of the environmental injustice driving climate change. While the governments of relatively prosperous developing nations like Brazil and China have gained clout, the hardest-hit communities remain all but invisible.
A paper proposing a new Global Climate Fund by Oxfam concludes that much of the international financing devoted to helping countries deal with climate change has been skewed in the new economic hierarchy of the “developing world.” According to Oxfam’s analysis, the Global Environment Facility—which administers funds for environmental-improvement projects worldwide—has allotted just one eighth of its climate funding to the 49 poorest countries. A full third went to China, India and Brazil. Similarly, international donors have pledged just $220 million to support plans in the “Least Developed Countries,” which barely dents the estimated estimated $2 billion cost of the environmental burden.
That contrast was underscored in Tianjin by Maya Khodave, a 23-year old garbage-picker who has taken the podium on behalf of an “informal” workforce that spans the Global South, estimated at 15 million strong. The trashpicking group, sponsored by Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance, called for a program to enlist urban scavengers in the climate-change battle, by having them gather and sort waste materials for recycling programs.
“We play a very important role in the environment, yet our work is not recognized,” Khodave told reporters.
It remains to be seen whether governments see a scaleable global garbage-picking program as a worthy investment. But the group’s advocacy, and their symbolic presence in Tianjin, shows the limits of the mainstream climate conversation—as well as the potential for subaltern voices to broaden the UN debate. Grassroots community groups can transcend tokenism if they have a platform to present viable policy solutions—whether in terms of labor power, time-tested indigenous farming techniques, or age-old ecological stewardship traditions in sensitive habitats.
People like Maya Khodave are why groups are calling for the creation of a multilateral and inclusive international body to set climate-change policy through a more democratic framework. Oxfam, one of the rare established NGOs with an ear to the grassroots, has some ideas for revitalizing the concept of a Global Climate Fund:
Whether or not [international] finance helps such vulnerable communities is a litmus test for the new Global Climate Fund and the way it is set up. This will depend on ensuring:
• Developing countries are adequately represented in global decision-making in the future climate finance regime;
• That allocation decisions prioritise adaptation and vulnerable countries;
• Climate funds can be easily, efficiently, and directly accessed;
• National governments are able to plan effectively and decide how climate finance is spent; and
• Women and other vulnerable groups have a say in how money is spent, both through participation at a national level and through civil society representation in global institutions.
The challenge in distributing climate-change funds is not only to triage the needs of vulnerable countries, but to prioritize the communities who too often get neglected even by their own governments.
The international effort on climate change will continue its tailspin in the absence of a democratized decision-making structure. Even mainstream authorities, including the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, support the idea of an international body to set worldwide emissions standards and to monitor compliance.
After Copenhagen’s debacle, climate change now seems to be going the way of global trade, nuclear disarmament, and terrorism as issues in which public discourse is stifled by officials jockeying for geopolitical advantage, while shirking responsibility for their ecological footprints.
Leading countries in the UN climate talks continue seeing emissions reduction as a political poker game, but politically disenfranchised communities know all too well that the house always wins. At least, until international powers-that-be allow space for communities who live climate change every day. Ignoring their voices, after all, was the way we got into this mess in the first place.