Posted by: mariannedc | March 2, 2012

Thinking Globally, Acting Locally on Climate Change

By Marianne Comfort, Sisters of Mercy Institute Justice Team


When I went to a panel discussion about the United Nations climate summit in Durban, South Africa, I was prepared to hear discouragement that no firm agreement was reached for reducing greenhouse gasses and to hear some details about the Green Climate Fund set up to help poorer countries transition to cleaner energy

What surprised me was how much the panelists had moved beyond trying to prevent devastating climate change and were talking about how to adapt to climate change at the international, national and local levels.

Two of the three panelists, who were invited to speak at the Institute for Policy Studies a few weeks after returning from South Africa, didn’t even address the official outcomes of the summit. Instead, they talked about engaging local communities for eco-justice and promoting a “just transition” for workers who will lose their livelihoods due to climate change and efforts to limit climate change.

Kari Fulton, acting director of the Environmental Justice Climate Change Initiative, was the first to report that adaptation was a critical conversation in Durban. I was intrigued enough to visit the organization’s website, where I read about its 10 principles for just climate change policies in the United States. These include:

  • protecting and empowering low-income workers, people of color and Indigenous Peoples, who will suffer the most from climate change’s impact, and providing opportunities for them to adapt and thrive in a changing world;
  • ensuring a just transition for workers and communities in the movement away from a  fossil fuel-based economy to a renewable energy-based economy, through compensation for job loss, loss of tax base and other negative effects; and
  • Requiring decision-makers to involve communities in the policy process, including the U.S. federal and state governments working with tribes.

Bob Baugh, executive director of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council, talked at the IPS panel discussion about the importance of having workers participate in negotiations around technology transfer, adaptation and financing. He mentioned attempts to insert “just transition” language into federal legislation and international agreements to, among other things, promote modernizing of industries, train the workforce for new jobs and help workers who won’t find jobs in the “green economy.”

All of the panelists and some in the audience supported a financial transaction tax to fund adaptation efforts on a global scale.

Yet both Kari and Bob focused on the hope they find in locally based adaptations and sustainable practices. They cited trash pickers in impoverished countries finding a recycling market, and a “cultural shift” on the West Coast of the US where composting, urban gardens and energy conservation are becoming the norm.

All of the talk about community-based adaptation efforts mildly troubled me, because (1) I maintain hope that we can still hold off the worst effects of climate change and (2) successful adaptation requires policy changes at the national and international level. By its very definition, climate change is global, so local practice will only go so far.

I appreciate that Washington, DC, has a law aimed at limiting plastic bags distributed at supermarkets and grocery stores, but plastic bags can still float down the Anacostia River into D.C. from suburban Prince George’s County. San Francisco now requires that composting bins be put out on the curb with trash and recycling containers, and their contents are processed and sold to farms, vineyards and golf courses in the region, but not every city has the resources to pull that off.

Some of the questions after the presentations revealed that others had the same concerns. One earnest young woman stressed that we need to shift the conversation, from talking about preserving the current economic system to having a stable climate and from talking about jobs to helping people meet their needs.

Another woman expressed concern about the trend toward “commodifying nature,” in which water and biodiversity, for instance, are given economic value in the marketplace rather than seen as a critical resource for people and the planet that needs to be protected as part of the commons available to all.

I left with feeling that we’re on track with a balanced approach that echoes the old adage: “think globally, act locally.”


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