Social Movements Gain Momentum in the Fight for Climate Justice

While welcoming this sense of urgency, tightly knit coalitions of activists stand firm in the belief that communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis hold the real solutions in turning the rising tides -- not the corporate-driven UN agenda.
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Upwards of 400,000 people taking to the streets of Manhattan this past September 21, combined with parallel protests around the world, was truly a spectacular scene. Even while energized by the People's Climate March and subsequent People's Climate Justice Summit and Tribunal, key organizers in the climate justice movement insist that the real task at hand began when the crowds filtered out in the critical weeks and months leading up to COP global treaty negotiations in Lima this December and in Paris in December 2015.

On Sunday, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Synthesis Report, warning of the "severe, pervasive and irreversible" nature of climate change. While welcoming this sense of urgency, tightly knit coalitions of activists stand firm in the belief that communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis hold the real solutions in turning the rising tides -- not the corporate-driven UN agenda.

"The voices of affected communities are missing in conversations among political leaders and environmentalists," said Michael Leon Guerrero, national coordinator of the Climate Justice Alliance's Our Power Campaign. "We know what works best in our communities, and we also understand the importance of thinking globally from an environmental, economic and justice framework," he continued. Guerrero stressed that negotiations at the UN level are too focused on numbers. "Cutting CO2 does not address inequality and the displacement of indigenous, people of color and poor white communities," he explained. The Our Power Campaign attempts to provide that connection by linking movements in the U.S. with their global allies.

Jihan Gearon, a Flagstaff, AZ-based Navajo activist and executive director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, a member of the Climate Justice Alliance, explained that the land and people of Navajo Nation often paid the price for unsustainable desert metropolises such as Phoenix and Tucson. Navajo Nation contains 75 percent of all un-electrified homes in the U.S., with unemployment as high as 70 percent. Water from the Navajo Aquifer -- the exclusive source of drinking water in the region -- is diverted to suburban swimming pools and golf courses while developers loot the earth for coal, uranium and timber. Four sacred mountains in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico envelop Black Mesa. Megaprojects and big development therefore not only threaten the Navajo people's access to resources and contribute to climate change, but also undermine their culture and indigenous belief system.

"Empowering communities to realize a just transition is the most effective way to stop climate change," said Gearon. And that is precisely what her organization does -- nurturing the traditional native connection to land along the way. "We must break our dependence on fossil fuels to realize the true potential of our people," Gearon explained. Black Mesa Water Coalition is reclaiming land contaminated by coalmines for Navajo-owned solar energy sources while restoring regional watersheds. The group also supports wool markets and food sovereignty projects -- shortening supply chains and reducing dependence. These projects are grounded in Black Mesa Water Coalition's commitment to educate Navajo communities about climate change and foster local solutions to global problems.

Elisa Estronoli represents the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) in Brazil, and organizes communities in resistance to mega-dams such as the Belo Monte Dam in the Amazon. Brazil has built over 2,000 dams that have displaced an estimated million people -- 70 percent of whom received no compensation for their losses or support in resettlement. The Brazilian government maintains that it has the capacity to construct more than a thousand new dams, which will undoubtedly deepen cycles of poverty and displacement and further disrupt climate patterns. MAB plays a critical role by organizing families in demanding their constitutional rights to land, water, housing, education and health care in light of these violations. The very existence of such a political force -- representing more than 80,000 members throughout 17 Brazilian states -- is a victory for families affected by dams.

"We need to address the larger question of how energy is produced," Estronoli said. "Many people in Brazil are starting to understand that this is not just about dams, but is part of the economic model controlled by transnational corporations," she continued. Estronoli was adamant that MAB couldn't tackle such problems alone. "We need to build solidarity with other social movements by weaving our stories together in a movement to define alternatives," she firmly stated.

Grassroots organizations have linked up with one another through the World Social Forums and follow-up meetings. At the 2013 World Social Forum in Tunis, they organized a Climate Space to discuss strategies. As part of the People's Assembly in Rio de Janeiro that ran parallel to the 2012 Rio+20 high-level conference, they further built from those blueprints. Most recently, movements met in Caracas and Paris to discuss the "Road to Paris", a collective process to insert marginalized voices into the outcomes of December's COP 20 in Lima and next year's COP 21 in Paris, the later of which is set to unveil a universal and legally binding agreement on climate. It is through these dialogues and maximization of scarce resources that people are figuring out together how to fight back against false solutions proposed by corporations and governments.

"People are joining forces like never before because of the lack of transparency and accountability in the negotiations led by the UN," said Saulo Araujo, director of the Global Movements Program at WhyHunger. "They consistently repackage the very policies that have brought us to this point in the first place," he continued, "A telling example is the promotion of industrial agriculture." Climate-Smart Agriculture, aiming to increase food production, has been widely touted as a climate change mitigation strategy and was officially launched during the emergency climate meetings at the UN headquarters in September. But many social movements view it differently. Via Campesina, representing more than 250 million peasants globally, recently issued a statement firmly denouncing Climate-Smart Agriculture as a re-masking of the Green Revolution that will sabotage food sovereignty and local control of agriculture.

WhyHunger, a New York-based organization dedicated to nurturing the work of rural and urban communities around the world to end hunger, sees climate change as a threat to people's right to food. "Since we are located in the U.S. where many decisions are made behind closed doors, we believe we have a role to amplify the voices of families who are struggling for their rights to food, land, water and seeds," Araujo elaborated, "Without respecting those rights, we will never be able to live in a world without hunger or a climate in crisis."

The protracted debate over the severity of climate change is over, as clearly indicated by the UN's emergency meetings and the IPCC's landmark climate report. What remains to be seen is who will be in charge of righting this wrong. If social movements have their way, the transition to climate justice will come from the bottom up -- and many have proven that they are positioned to take the lead.

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