Part I of 2 Parts Reposting from AfricaFocus Bulletin
July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded worldwide, as a wide swath of the continental United States sweltered with heat indexes of over 100° F. This northern hemisphere summer also saw unprecedented heat waves in Europe and in the Arctic, from Alaska to Siberia. Greenland´s glaciers were melting at an unprecedented rate. Add in more frequent storms, flooding and wildfires, and the scale of the crisis is harder and harder to ignore, even in the United States, where climate denialism has been more prevalent than in any other major country.
The Trump administration made its withdrawal from the global climate agreement official, but not before using its membership to block any meaningful progress at the 25th international climate summit in Madrid in December 2019. Nevertheless, the climate of opinion in the United States is shifting rapidly, spurred in part by the unprecedented wave of activism spearheaded by the youth-led Sunrise Movement. Public opinion polls show that a majority of registered US voters now favor the ambitious Green New Deal.
New social movements have expanded the horizon for debate on other issues in recent years: #OccupyWallStreet and the 2015 Sanders campaign on economic inequality, #BlackLivesMatter on racial inequality, #MedicareforAll on the right to health, and #MeToo on gender equality, to cite only a few. Yet the #GreenNewDeal and the climate crisis are the issue with the most easily understood links between “domestic” and “foreign” components.
In the twentieth century, mainstream U.S. environmental organizations paid little attention to environmental racism, despite research and activist pressure highlighting the unequal impacts of environmental damage along racial and class lines. In the twenty-first century, and particularly since Hurricane Katrina submerged New Orleans in 2005, public awareness has grown substantially. Today’s climate activists are homing in on climate justice issues, emphasizing how the climate emergency hits the most vulnerable populations with greatest force. Existing inequalities by race, class, and gender make recovery from disasters more difficult for minority communities, the poor, and women. Women have fewer economic resources, face higher risks such as gender violence in disasters, and are left with greater responsibilities for care of children and the aged. And youth face a future with frighteningly greater climate risks.
All of these inequalities are accentuated at a global level, as illustrated by events in 2019.
Cyclone Idai struck Mozambique and neighboring countries in March 2019, leaving over 1,200 dead and some 2 million acres of crops destroyed by floods. Meanwhile, storms in the U.S. Midwest caused floods just as farmers were preparing to sow their fields. In each case the impact was devastating. Yet the toll was far greater in Mozambique, and the capacity to recover far less. Almost 150,000 people were displaced, and by the end of the year many were still in resettlement camps without permanent housing. In such contexts, in addition to the general misery, women and girls are particularly vulnerable to predators and opportunists.
The rich countries must step up
The causal connection between climate change and extreme weather events is clear. The need for climate actions in both poor and rich countries is beyond dispute. These include mounting a sustainable response to crises, increasing resilience to the effects of climate change through adaptation, and rapidly accelerating action to cut greenhouse emissions from fossil fuels.
Whose responsibility should this be? At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the first global climate agreement affirmed that much of the burden should be shouldered by the wealthy countries:
The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.
The global climate agreement signed in Paris in December 2015 reconfirmed that, while all countries have obligations to act, rich countries have special responsibility for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and coping with the impact of worldwide climate disasters. Unfortunately, the agreement itself – which relies entirely on nonbinding voluntary pledges called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – does not include any provisions to ensure that rich countries meet this responsibility. According to analyses by civil society, rich country NDCs fall far short of what their “fair share” of global climate action should be.
Despite this, Donald Trump insisted that the Paris Agreement was “unfair” to the United States. Although the Trump administration has formally confirmed U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, it is not fully effective until November 2020, and all U.S. Democratic presidential candidates are opposed to U.S. withdrawal. But the next major opportunity to commit formally to stronger global action will be at COP26 in November 2020, before a newly elected U.S. president could take office.
In both its cumulative historical and current per capita emissions, the United States bears a major share of responsibility for the climate crisis. From the first use of industrial fossil fuels in 1750 through 2017, the United States contributed 399 billion tons of carbon dioxide—almost twice the 200 billion tons emitted by China. Germany, the United Kingdom, and India contributed 91 billion, 77 billion, and 49 billion tons, respectively, while the entire continent of Africa contributed only 43 billion tons (see the convenient summary charts from Our World in Data, a project of the Global Change Data Lab).
In carbon dioxide emitted per capita, with the exception of oil-rich Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the United States also led the world in 2017, with 16.24 tons per person per year. Next in line were Japan with 9.45 tons, South Africa with 8.05 tons, and China with 6.98 tons. In contrast, most African countries, with the exception of major oil-producing countries, contributed less than half a ton per person per year.
Whether it falls under the label of Green New Deal or not, any major advance in the United States to curb use of fossil fuels and accelerate the transition to renewable energy will have significant impact worldwide. For U.S. climate activists, the highest imperative is making an impact on U.S. policy. Yet it is also essential from the start to put that campaign in global context and to acknowledge the initiatives being taken by activists around the world.
Part II of this essay will focus on grassroots climate actions and implications for global policy.
William Minter is the editor of AfricaFocus Bulletin. Imani Countess is an Open Society Fellow focusing on economic inequality. This essay is part of a multipart series that was launched on AfricaFocus Bulletin in January 2020. Thanks to Catherine Sunshine for her editing the series for AfricaFocus Bulletin.