Climate change: A call for responsibility and justice

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(NNPA)—As I watched the events unfolding in Copenhagen, Denmark, at the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference for those two weeks in December, I could not help but feel frustrated and energized at the same time. Frustrated because once again the world’s poor—African, Caribbean, Latin American, Asian and small island nations in particular—have had to justify their necessity to have a quality-filled life.

There is overwhelming evidence showing that these countries are the ones who will suffer the most if the world does not reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The evidence has come to us through disproportionate environmental degradation in communities of people of color including long extended draught years; heavy rains and floods during non-rainy seasons; coral reefs disappearing; and rise in sea levels destroying small islands. We have been told that if the globe’s average surface temperature rises above 3.6F these environmental changes will become a norm, destroying all of our lives. The biggest culprits of greenhouse gas emissions are rich developed countries in the North and China. The entire continent of Africa has only contributed 3.8 percent of the world’s greenhouse emissions. But as the continent seeks support in adapting to and mitigating climate change, it has not received pledges on its terms and conversations often focus on its responsibility in preventing the crisis.

This smacks of blaming the victim syndrome. Leaders in Africa met prior to COP15 and agreed to demand that an annual $400 billion fund for mitigation and adaptation be set up for developing countries by 2020. But a few days ago the African group representative, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, stated that they will compromise by moving the figure down to $100 billion by 2020. This would be accepting the proposal made by the United States.

Understandably, African civil society organizations at COP15 have reacted sharply to this. Augustine Njamnshi of the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance said, “Every other African country has committed to a policy based on science. That means at least 45 percent cuts by rich countries by 2020 and it means $400 billion fast-track finance not $100 billion.”

The leadership role of Africa, both by government leaders and particularly by grass roots civil society organizations, was undeniable. Despite what some have called Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s recession to the rich industrialized countries, there was unity on ensuring that a real deal is reached at the end of COP15. Civil society groups from thorough out Africa were active in making certain that their voices were heard and that the continent’s leadership was accountable.

Such displays of leadership and advocacy should come as no surprise. The continent has produced the first Nobel Peace Prize recipient who highlighted the importance of the environment—Wangari Maathai in 2004. In recognition of her long record as an environmental educator and advocate, at COP15, the United Nations named her a U.N. Messenger of Peace, focusing on the environment and climate change. Maathai, together with the grass roots organization she founded in the late 1970s in Kenya, the Green Belt Movement, have planted over 40 millions trees across the continent. She illustrates one of countless leaders on the continent working to ensure environmental justice.

What does COP15 mean for the global poor? As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said recently, “Climate change is already a serious crisis today. But we can do something about it. If we don’t—if we don’t, hoohoo! There’s no world which we will leave to you, this generation…And it is a matter of morality. It is a question of justice…Isn’t it?…If you are responsible for most of the mess, then you are responsible for getting rid of that mess. That’s justice. That’s justice.” I hope that the energy of COP15 can finally move us to real change.

(Nicole C. Lee is executive director of TransAfrica Forum.)

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