This column is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration cofounded by Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
The science tells us this is the decade to take action to avert the irreversible impacts of climate change. That’s the urgency behind the United Nations’ climate conferences, which bring together 197 members each year to make a commitment to emission reductions, provide funding to developing nations for mitigation and adaptation, and find other ways to address the crisis. Since the first climate conference in 1992, activists have been frustrated by the slow pace of the negotiations. This year’s conference in Glasgow, Scotland, which ended on November 13, was no exception. Yet there is no doubt that the strides made by the resulting agreement reflect, in part, the growing power of climate activism worldwide.
Over the past decade, climate activism has changed and grown, often reflecting shifts brought about by other movements, such as #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and Standing Rock. As those movements brought demands for gender, race, and class equity to the fore, the climate movement responded, with many groups embracing an intersectional approach and with new organizations and initiatives foregrounding 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 together Indigenous tribes in one of the largest mobilizations to occur within Turtle Island—as a number of Indigenous people refer to North America—in decades. Environmental organizations and settler allies showed up in solidarity. And actions took place across the United States in a solid sign of support.
Young people, too, have become a vital force. Fridays for Future, the solitary school strike started by Greta Thunberg, has grown into a global movement with actions and solidarity among youth worldwide. In the US, 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 Act engages people over 60 in climate activism.
Watching the negotiations at COP26 unfold, it was obvious that the work of people of color, especially women, from the Global South made a significant impact. Powerful opening speeches by Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, and youth activists Elizabeth Wathuti of Kenya and Brianna Fruean of Samoa immediately brought 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 the chair 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 lead negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States, stood out. Together with Ahmadou Sebory Toure, representing Guinea and the lead negotiator of G77 and China, an alliance of 134 developing nations, they pushed hard for much-needed funding, both for adaptation (actions taken to respond to the effects of climate change, such as moving infrastructure and people inland) and compensation (funding for loss and damage caused by the unforeseeable impacts of climate crisis events such as hurricanes).
While narratives about the UN climate talks often contrast the activists outside the halls and the negotiators inside, this erases the real alliances between activists and nongovernmental organizations and negotiators from the Global South. Groups like Action Aid, Climate Action Network–International, and Power Shift Africa, among many others, were at the forefront of calls for more funding. Those negotiators and activists notched a major win when Global North nations agreed to double the funding for adaptation starting in 2025. But trust is brittle, as the Global North has yet to pay the full $100 billion per year that was to begin in 2020 and run through 2025. The final agreement also includes acknowledgment of loss and damage, another win for the Global South, albeit with no funding to address it. The Global North nations, especially the United States, have consistently pushed back on funding for loss and damage, worrying that it will expose them to liabilities.
Similarly, while the announcement that 23 countries planned to phase out coal created a stir, activists pointed out that of the five major coal producers—China, India, the US, Australia, and Indonesia—only Indonesia signed on. They also pointed out that the uproar over the last-minute change that India requested (and was excoriated for)—changing a “phase-out” of coal to a “phase-down”—deflects attention from the US, the world’s largest producer of oil and gas.
Still, these synergies, combined with the new focus on equity in the climate movement, will keep the pressure on the Global North to recognize and address its responsibility for historical emissions. Thus far, of the G20 nations responsible for 80 percent of emissions, only the European Union has made the cuts necessary to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Though some activists celebrated that negotiators have to return to the table in a year (rather than in five years, as the Paris agreement called for) with higher reduction targets, that’s still a year away.
It speaks volumes about the situation in many nations of the Global South that their focus is on funding. Funding is, as Stege put it, a “lifeline” to her country. Nations formed by low-lying atolls as well as the countries in sub-Saharan Africa do not have the luxury of time. The crisis is at their doorsteps, daily.
That’s why activists don’t confine themselves to climate conferences. When activists address inequities in their own communities, they are also engaging and addressing global inequities. Climate activism in the US and other developed nations—a gas pipeline prevented, a power plant shut down, fossil fuel subsidies reduced—has direct results in both local communities and the Global South. For example, an Indigenous-women-led activist movement has been putting pressure on both Enbridge Line 3, the 1,097-mile-long pipeline that carries crude oil from Alberta to Wisconsin, and Line 5, which carries the oil from northern Wisconsin to northern Michigan and on to Ontario. On the heels 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 been calling for greater monitoring of the fossil fuel industry in the region. (It was the first time an EPA official had visited the area.) Soon after COP26 concluded, climate activists blocked the Port of Newcastle in Australia, stopping exports from the world’s largest coal port and protesting the theft of the unceded lands of the Worimi and Awabakal people. The movement to divest from fossil fuels continues to hit the industry’s bottom line. Each of these steps adds to the total, and each one is vital, as time runs out.