Exclusive CL.com Feature: Climate Justice – A Global View

A look across borders at the global perspective on climate justice.

By Gopal Dayaneni Apr 02, 2008

Scientists tell us that to avoid catastrophic climate changes, we must achieve zero growth in global greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2015, and then reduce these emissions continually to reach a 30% reduction by 2020 and as much as 80% by 2050.  This means we must start mobilizing fundamental infrastructure changes on a global scale, within the next eight years.  This challenge is monumental and we can’t wait for government negotiators to figure it out.

In this context, it is exciting to see a multi-racial movement within the U.S. calling for a just transition towards a green economy, a transition that helps save the planet while also producing jobs, wealth and economic stability for marginalized communities within our country. Our struggle, however, must include an international perspective to be complete.  A local farmer in India, for example, will not be on the ‘pathway to a green job’ if she is forcibly displaced from her plot of land and relocated to work in a factory producing solar panels for the U.S. market.

Poor people across borders need to build strong links in order to avoid an eco-apartheid-like future in which wealthy people monopolize the diminishing amounts of clean water, food, air and land left for human use.  If we apply this international lens to the our domestic organizing agenda, U.S. climate justice activists will help solve the climate crisis in a way that’s permanently good for everybody and not just temporarily good for elites.

Our domestic frame will also be more effective if we build alliances with Global South climate justice activists. The false dichotomies of economy vs. environment or race vs. environment don’t exist for many of the vibrant and sophisticated movements leading the charge on these fronts in the Global South. Indigenous and land-based peoples, who understand how our collective survival is deeply dependent on our relationship to the Earth, anchor many of these struggles. From the fights of the U’wa in Colombia to prevent oil development on their land to Indian farmers organizing seed banks to protect the cultural and biological diversity that has enabled them to weather drought and flood for hundreds of years – communities throughout the South are fighting back and creating their own solutions.  Organized through international networks, such as Oilwatch International and Via Campesina, these Global South movements are moving radical and successful platforms from which we can learn a great deal.

The bottom line is that all communities, whether in the Industrial North or Global South, have a fundamental right to decent levels of food, housing, health and clothing.  Any climate policies we pursue in the U.S. must actively support poor communities everywhere.   Our domestic frame should push for sharing the burdens of the coming transition between the rich and the poor globally in ways that are fair and equitable.

Our Role in the U.S:  Power Down & Fight the Power

The deadline for an international climate accord that establishes real solutions & puts forth mechanisms to make them happen is December 2009, when U.N. sponsored international talks already underway are set to conclude. The scope of the climate emergency means that we’ve got to get our government committed to signing an international accord no later than Fall 2009.

In such a process, compromise is inevitable. The challenge is to make sure that historically marginalized communities here and in the Global South don’t bear the brunt of those compromises. Political realities will constrain what happens in Washington but, as always, our best solutions will emerge from grassroots organizing and popular mobilizations. The scope of the debate at the policy-negotiating table will be narrower if we aren’t holding down a principled pole with a climate justice platform that prioritizes the rights of communities over corporate profits or the wealth of nation states.  Our demands should lead to both global reduction in greenhouse gasses and an increase in economic equity and justice worldwide.

Equitable Burden Sharing

A central fact stands out in this policy struggle:  a fair and workable international accord must be based on the historical responsibility wealthy industrial countries bear for causing climate change as well as the capacity of these countries to finance the necessary transition. Said another way, rich and poor countries need to share the burden equitably, which is very different from sharing them equally.

The United States is (and has always been) the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. China may soon surpass the U.S. as the largest CO2 emitter, but China’s population is 4½ times larger.  Per capita emissions in the U.S. are much, much larger than China’s. Furthermore, the United States, the European Union, Japan, and Russia account for nearly 70% of the global build-up of fossil fuel CO2 between 1850 and 2004. Per capita, these regions account for the highest levels of consumption, emission and resource depletion.  The U.S. has also played the leading role in promoting the excessive consumptive habits that depend so heavily on fossil fuels and that have wreaked havoc on communities across the globe. 

Further, nations in the Industrial North became rich at the expense of the Global South.  The transfer of resources over the past 500 years through colonialism and conquest is immeasurable – the ‘development’ and industrialization of the North has come about through the continual and forced extraction of minerals, plants, humans through slave labor, fossil fuels, spices, food and animals from the Global South. This longstanding economic and ecological debt from North to South must be integrated into the solutions and mechanisms agreed upon internationally to address our climate crisis.

Towards A Green Economy – A Global Perspective

So what does a global green economy paradigm look like? How do we solve this climate crisis in a globally equitable way?  What are our allies in the Global South calling for?

The definition of a sustainable livelihood varies from the Bronx to rural Brazil.  Activists in the Global South are calling for a paradigm that makes room for this full range of definitions. In some places, for example, a ‘green job’ means defending the right of family farmers to continue long-standing traditional sustainable agriculture practices.  For small-scale fishers, a ‘green solution’ means being able to harvest fish sustainably for the next 500 years.  In an urban context, a just transition supports communities’ capacities to meet the basic needs of their people, rather than forcing them to produce ‘green goods’ for wealthier consumers in distant, wealthier countries. 

These lessons have emerged from Global South movements:

1.    We must move away from export-driven, export-led economic models and toward local living economies that equitably meet the needs of the people in that city, town, region or rural setting. Local needs must lead the way in setting priorities for any particular community. Urban communities need to move towards self-sufficiency and be organized to meet local needs.

In the span of a decade, the city government of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, has cut down infant mortality rates by 41 percent, thanks to an urban food program spurred on by a peoples’ movement for food security.  Poor people across the city now have full access to healthy, organic, locally grown food sold at prime retail locations at half the retail price.  The city provides local farmers with good plots of land, key retail locations and a stable market for their produce. Public school lunch programs across the city use these crops. The Restaurante Popular, a government-run cafeteria, provides affordable meals to more than 5,000 people a day. 

As less food needs to be trucked into the city at great distances, the city has cut down its carbon footprint dramatically.  This whole venture has cost the city less than one percent of its yearly budget.  In one broad stroke, a large urban center (3.4 million people) has begun building an equitable, healthy, climate friendly, and environmentally just future for its people.  
2.    We must actively campaign to end over-consumption in Rich communities and resource depletion of poor ones.  If rich communities move towards a “Clean Energy” paradigm but continue to depend on the natural resources and cheap labor of the poor in the Global South to feed their huge appetite for stuff (even if it is “green” stuff), the problem will persist.

In China, for example, agrarian villages are being displaced for the development of export-oriented industrial zones.  A new zone west of Shanghai will span 98 square kilometers, and includes a “Solar Valley” to produce photovoltaics and other green technologies for export. Ironically, this development zone’s energy needs will be fed by multiple coal power plants.

Replacing every kilowatt of “dirty” energy for “clean” energy will not solve this crisis; there must be a permanent removal of energy from our consumption load- so that we are no longer sucking the world dry.

3.    We must push for an immediate transfer of wealth, sustainable technologies and material resources from the Industrial North to the Global South.  Such a transfer should support dignified standards of living based on safe, clean and community-led renewable energy generation.

To start, there should be an immediate cancellation of the Global South’s international debt to institutions like the World Bank and the IMF.  Money currently entering the coffers of wealthy banks in the Industrial North could instead be utilized locally to meet people’s fundamental needs in the South.

Second, Northern governments can decrease their military budgets, end subsidies for dirty energy production, increase tax rates on this production and then contribute an equitable portion of that generated wealth towards a sustainable development fund for the Global South.  To avoid the pitfalls of previous historic and colonial set-ups, institutions other than  the World Bank should manage these new funds.  The mechanisms set up to distribute and allocate these funds should be transparent, democratic and accountable to civil society in the Global South.   

4.    We must support food, land, and energy sovereignty across the globe. Communities should be able to control and manage their environmental resources locally.

On food and land sovereignty, Henry Saragih from Via Campesina stated recently, "Farmers need land to produce food for their own community and for their country. The time has come to implement genuine agrarian reforms to allow family farmers to feed the world. The global struggle…is the clash of different models of production that on the one hand – the industrial model – exacerbates climate change and causes hunger and on the other hand – the agroecological model – that can "cool down the Earth" and provide sufficient healthy local food.”

Energy sovereignty implies moving toward decentralized and democratic control over the production and distribution of energy. Communities, regions, and nation states around the world should be able to dictate their own energy future. This concept of energy sovereignty in turn leads us to one of the simplest solutions to the climate crisis:  supporting indigenous frontline communities who demand we keep existing fossil fuels in the ground. If we don’t extract it…we won’t use it.

Recently, the indigenous Huaorani people of Ecuador won the support of the Ecuadorian government in their campaign to keep the oil in the Yasuní National Park untouched. The Ecuadorian Government is willing to abandon the development of an oil field located in Yasuní in return for international economical compensation.  The success of this initiative could be a watershed moment in the struggle for climate justice.

5.    We must support the absolute and unquestioned right for working people to organize internationally. Workers everywhere will be affected by the massive economic transition the climate and energy crisis is bringing forth.  Actively supporting labor organizing internationally will insure that this transition serves all, and not just consumer elites. Producing clean technologies in sweatshops abroad does not advance our equity agenda.

Crisis Brings Opportunity
The unprecedented mass consciousness surrounding the climate crisis, and the fundamental changes it demands of all of us, creates a powerful opportunity to advance the core struggles that poor people around the world have been organizing around for decades: economic equity; racial justice; land reform; debt elimination; access to safe, clean, healthy food for everyone. Integrating an ecological lens into our existing grassroots organizing and linking up to communities of struggle around the world will serve us well here in the U.S. 

As cities work to bring down their carbon footprint, they can either provide subsidies to wealthy homeowners for solar panels, or they can put solar panels in low-income communities, giving poor folk lower energy bills. The federal government can provide tax breaks to people who buy hybrid cars, or instead invest in a ‘Free Buses For All’ program that retrofits our public transportation system and moves us away from a car-based culture. As the example from Belo Horizonte illustrates, urban food security projects providing healthy local food could blossom across major U.S. urban centers, at a relatively low cost.  The People’s Grocery in Oakland, CA is one of many organizations already pushing forth this reality. 

As we move to shut down dirty power plants and refineries, and as we demand more low-income housing that integrates sustainable design and renewable materials, we will be building an equitable future for our children that also solves the Climate Crisis we are currently facing. These changes, if led by poor communities and communities of color on a global scale, will eventually build our power to radically transform our world for the better.

Key organizations putting forth a Global South perspective:

Oil Watch International
Third World Network
Via Campesina
Eco Equity
Friends of the Earth International
Focus on the Global South