At COP 26, a bigger and stronger climate movement made its mark
This column is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration co-founded by Colombian journalism review and The nation to strengthen coverage of climate history.
Science tells us this is the decade to take action to avoid the irreversible impacts of climate change. This is the urgency that underlies the United Nations climate conferences, which bring together 197 members each year to commit to reducing emissions, providing financing to developing countries for mitigation and adaptation, and find other ways to cope with the crisis. Since the first climate conference in 1992, activists have been frustrated by the slowness of negotiations. This year’s conference in Glasgow, Scotland, which ended on November 13, was no exception. Yet there is no doubt that the progress made by the resulting agreement reflects, in part, the growing power of climate activism around the world.
Over the past decade, climate activism has changed and grown, often reflecting changes brought about by other movements, such as #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and Standing Rock. As these movements have brought forward demands for gender, race and class equity, the climate movement has responded, with many groups taking an intersectional approach and with new organizations and initiatives highlighting forward the voices of a much more diverse group of climate activists.
In 2016, the Standing Rock movement, initiated and led by Indigenous women, shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline. Their actions brought indigenous tribes together in one of the largest mobilisations to have taken place on Turtle Island – as many indigenous peoples refer to North America – in decades. Environmental organizations and allies of the settlers have shown solidarity. And action has taken place across the United States in a strong sign of support.
Young people, too, have become a vital force. Fridays for Future, the lone school strike launched by Greta Thunberg, has grown into a global movement with action and solidarity among young people around the world. In the United States, the Sunrise movement and activists like Xiye Bastida, Jerome Foster II and Alexandria Villaseñor are at the forefront of youth climate action. At the other end of the age range, Bill McKibben’s Third Law engages people over 60 in climate activism.
Watching the COP26 negotiations unfold, it was evident that the work of people of color, especially women, from the Global South has had a significant impact. Powerful opening speeches by Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, and young activists Elizabeth Wathuti from Kenya and Brianna Fruean from Samoa immediately drew attention to the situation in their home countries, especially the impacts of sea level rise and drought.
This year, Tina Stege, representing the Republic of the Marshall Islands and chairperson of the High Ambition Coalition, a group of 61 nations that aims to make the outcome of the negotiations as ambitious as possible, and Lia Nicholson, representing Antigua and Barbuda and the Chief Negotiator of the Alliance of Small Island States, stood out. With Ahmadou Sebory Touré, representing Guinea and chief negotiator of the G77 and China, an alliance of 134 developing countries, they lobbied for much-needed funding, both for adaptation (measures taken to respond to effects of climate change, such as the displacement of infrastructure and people inland) and compensation (financing of loss and damage caused by the unpredictable impacts of climate crisis events such as hurricanes).
While narratives of the UN climate talks often pit activists outside the halls and negotiators inside, it erases real alliances between activists and non-governmental organizations and country negotiators. from South. Groups like Action Aid, Climate Action Network-International and Power Shift Africa, among many others, have been at the forefront of calls for more funding. These negotiators and activists achieved a major victory when the countries of the North agreed to double adaptation funding from 2025. But confidence is fragile, as the North has not yet paid the full 100 billion dollars. dollars a year that were to start in 2020 and run until 2025. The final deal also includes recognition of loss and damage, another victory for countries in the South, but without funding to address it. Northern countries, especially the United States, have consistently pushed back loss and damage financing, fearing it could expose them to liability.
Likewise, while the news that 23 countries were planning to phase out coal caused a stir, activists pointed out that out of the top five coal producers – China, India, the United States, Australia and Indonesia – only Indonesia signed. They also pointed out that the outcry over the last-minute change India has called for (and for which it has been excoriated) – changing a “phase-out” of coal into a “phase-out” – is diverting the attention of the public. United States, the world’s largest producer of oil and gas.
Nonetheless, these synergies, combined with the new emphasis on equity in the climate movement, will keep the pressure on the Global North to recognize and take responsibility for historic emissions. So far, of the G20 countries responsible for 80 percent of emissions, only the European Union has made the necessary cuts to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Although some activists have celebrated that negotiators are due to return to the table in a year (rather than in five years, as the Paris agreement required) with higher reduction targets, it is still a year away.
This says a lot about the situation in many countries in the southern hemisphere as the focus is on funding. Funding is, as Stege said, a “lifeline” for his country. Nations formed by low-lying atolls as well as countries in sub-Saharan Africa do not have the luxury of time. The crisis is at their doorstep, on a daily basis.
This is why activists are not confined to climate conferences. When activists tackle inequalities in their own communities, they get involved and tackle global inequalities as well. Climate activism in the United States and other developed countries – a blocked gas pipeline, a shut down power plant, reduced fossil fuel subsidies – is having direct results in both local communities and countries in the South. For example, an activist movement led by Indigenous women lobbied Enbridge Line 3, the 1,097-mile-long pipeline that carries crude oil from Alberta to Wisconsin, and Line 5, which carries oil from northern Wisconsin to northern Michigan and Ontario. In the wake of COP26, Michael Regan, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, traveled to Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, an 85-mile-long chemical corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and met with the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, which has long called for greater oversight of the fossil fuel industry in the region. (This was the first time an EPA official had visited the region.) Shortly after the conclusion of COP26, climate activists blocked Australia’s port of Newcastle, halting exports from the largest port coalman of the world and protesting against the theft of unceded lands of the Worimi and Awabakal people. The move to divest from fossil fuels continues to weigh on the industry’s bottom line. Each of these steps adds up to the total, and each is vital, as time goes by.