WASHINGTON -- As international climate negotiations got underway in Paris, panelists at a conference at the U.N. Foundation's headquarters Tuesday were optimistic -- provided delegates from developing nations, women and communities of color aren’t locked out of the conversation this time around.
At the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, developing countries were not included in setting the current international goal of preventing a rise beyond 2 degrees Celsius in warming. Since then, Pacific island nations have made emotional pleas to the leaders of the developed world, noting that the goal doesn’t consider the impacts of sea level rise that threaten their very existence. At the same time, President Barack Obama has secured a key commitment from Chinese president Xi Jinping to tackle the problem together.
“People in the north understand climate change, but they’re not feeling it. People in the global south are feeling it but they don’t have the words to put on to what’s happening to them,” said Reid Detchon, climate and energy vice president for the U.N. Foundation, noting that divisions of national wealth and development are largely aligned along opposite sides of the equator.
Detchon hoped the situation would change going forward with more involvement of countries such as India and China at this year's 21st meeting of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change. Unlike previous negotiations, 170 countries have already submitted plans to the U.N. with their proposed contributions to reduce climate-warming pollution.
Climate activist Esther Agbarakwe says the global divide Detchon described is why it’s important to educate young people in drought-wracked sub-Saharan Africa on the issue.
Agbarakwe, who spoke to reporters at the U.N Foundation via Skype from Nigeria, stressed the importance of Internet access and pointed to the climate change conversation gaining steam on Twitter and other social media platforms. Working through groups like the Africa Initiative of Youth on Climate Change and the Nigerian Youth Climate Coalition, she has been taking the message to secondary schools and to events held for recognition of International Women’s Day.
Women in the developing world are on the front lines of the climate crisis.
The Global Environment Facility, which invests in environmental sustainability through 18 organizations, including the World Bank, has reported that women are the primary users of forests -- which play an important role in offsetting climate change pollution. According to the U.N., “about two-thirds of the female labor force in developing countries are engaged in agricultural work,” yet they aren’t involved in the decision-making process for how to establish the sustainable use of the natural resources they’re the most reliant on.
“It’s time to get out of this negotiation rhetoric and focus on solutions, otherwise, in a hundred years, we’ll all be dead,” said Naoko Ishii, CEO and chairman of the Global Environment Facility.
The group’s partners recommend forest industries “allow wider access to employment for women taking into consideration their multiple responsibilities to care for their families.” Naoko reiterated the Global Environment Facility is formulating a gender equality action plan and hopes to see funding opportunities coming out of the Paris talks.
The panel agreed that compelling forms of storytelling are key to demystifying climate change for underprivileged communities. But the French government has banned a reliable form of climate change expression -- massive marches planned around the conference -- due to security concerns following the recent terrorist attacks on the city.
Activists are trying to find ways to work around this, but many point to the limitations as another way those expected to be most impacted by climate change are being left out of the deliberations.
“Our power is in the streets, not in the suites,” said the Rev. Lennox Yearwood, president of the Hip Hop Caucus, which works to involve communities of color in the U.S. in climate change activism.
Yearwood first got involved in climate activism after his home state of Louisiana was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Since then, he’s worked with groups like 350.org and the Sierra Club to raise awareness about challenges to environmental sustainability.
“From Ferguson to Pine Ridge, from New York to New Orleans, Paris is a conversation where we’ll either have climate justice, or we’ll have a death sentence,” Yearwood said at the conference.
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