by  | Nov 24, 2021 | Environment

From left to right: Ramón Cruz, President of the National Board of Directors, Sierra Club; Alex de Sherbinin, Associate Director for Science Applications & Senior Research Scientist, Center for International Earth Science Information Network, Climate School, Columbia University; Dana Johnson,Senior Director of Strategy and Federal Policy, WE ACT for Environmental Justice

Also available in Spanish.

By: Jenny Manrique 

The 26th UN Conference on Climate Change (COP26) in Glasgow left environmentalists divided on the real commitments that developed countries should make to stop the environmental and human disaster the world is facing.

For some, the fact that the U.S. delegation brought an agenda to a space scorned by President Trump helped regain confidence in the country’s collaborative role in reducing carbon emissions. For others, the bigger issue was the “climate gap” — the failure of developed countries to commit to reparations to pay for the impact climate change has already had on the developing world.

“The US had an all-star negotiating team very committed to the success of the process and the Paris agreement,” said Ramon Cruz Diaz, president of the Sierra Club’s Board of Directors and the first Latino to hold that position, during a briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services on Nov 19. “Commitments on deforestation, the initiative on methane, and developed countries pledging not to do any public funding of gold projects overseas are positive successes,”  added Cruz Diaz, speaking from Edinburgh after attending COP26.

“This COP could be the start of the writing of the last chapter in the book of coal,” he added, referring to the UK’s promise to phase out the use of coal, despite the reluctance of India and China to do their part. Cruz Diaz also hailed as a breakthrough the campaign to close more than half of the coal plants in the U.S. led by Mike Bloomberg who came to Glasgow as UN Special Envoy for Ambitions and Climate Solutions. “Now we can focus on private financing of coal,” Cruz Diaz said.

Nevertheless, one of the biggest criticisms of the United States and the European Union during the COP was their decision to block the request from developing countries to take responsibility for the loss and damage caused by their role in climate change. This would mean designing financial mechanisms so that vulnerable countries can recover from disasters.

“The countries did not want to commit to something very new for the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), because the financial mechanisms that we have had under the Kyoto Protocol are to support and promote new technologies…not necessarily for something that is about more disaster relief, “said Cruz Diaz. “Establishing a new financial mechanism would take many years.”

The Build Back Better bill recently passed by the House of Representatives, takes steps in that direction by allocating $555 billion for conversion to renewable energy that seeks to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. Pending its approval in the Senate, this bill also promotes environmental justice with the Justice40 Initiative, which will give 40% of the benefits of the reduction of the carbon footprint to the most disadvantaged communities.

For the environmental justice movement these steps are miniscule given the impact of climate change on low-income communities of color.

“The United States really put us at a disadvantage by going into COP without having a solid game plan that fulfilled President (Joe) Biden’s commitment to embed environmental justice in the operations of our federal government,” said Dana Johnson, Senior Director of Strategy and Federal Policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice. The organization was founded in Harlem more than 30 years ago, in response to the siting of a sewage treatment plant in a predominantly African-American community.

“Speeches by President Biden and Gina McCarthy, (White House National Climate Advisor), signal that there will be a reliance on the business community industry to reach our greenhouse gas emission reduction targets … This was still based on fast solutions and greenwashing.”

Johnson criticized fossil fuel companies for having pavilions on the COP26 floor to talk about technologies such as biomass or green hydrogen, carbon capture and sequestration which she sees as  “false solutions that extend our dependence on fossil fuels and do little to address legacy pollution, disruption in social cohesion, economic instability, and poor indoor and outdoor air quality in communities and households.”

The priority, Johnson argued, is to “address the legacy of environmental racism” present mostly in the Global South where “poor governance, historical disenfranchisement, and economic inequalities” leave people with no options but to migrate.

By the year 2050, between 48 and 216 million people may become internal climate migrants in developing countries, she noted.

According to Alex de Sherbinin, Associate Director for Science Applications and a Senior Research Scientist at the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), Columbia Climate School and its Earth Institute, habitability in certain parts of the world is put at risk as temperatures reach unprecedented levels.

“Environmental hazards impinge upon mobility due to their location and intensity, and on the other hand, due to the social vulnerability characteristic of populations.” Sherbinin mentioned the response capacity of governments as a contributing factor: such as whether they have disaster management agencies, early warning and risk management systems, and a solid network of hospitals to deal with emergencies.

According to the Groundswell Part 2 report, researched by Sherbinin for the World Bank, in ecosystem dependent communities, those that depend on rainfall, rain fed agriculture and pastoralism, it is imperative to improve their livelihoods to make them more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

Although economic factors are still predominant for migrants, rural-to-urban migration is highly influenced by the deterioration of crops due to extreme droughts or floods, Sherbinin said.

The expert believes that the objective of limiting the increase in global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius “is a bit of an arbitrary threshold”, because “we’ve seen massive impacts already with just under one degree C warming globally.”  A step in the right direction, he said, is giving subsidies to low-income countries to support the reduction of their carbon emissions.