This post is adapted from remarks I delivered at a recent U.S. Climate Action Network press conference responding to President Obama’s speech at the opening session of the U. N. Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties 21.
As representatives of communities of color on the frontlines of climate change, we appreciate the sentiments of hope, ambition, accountability, and commitment in President Obama’s remarks at the Paris climate talks. We also appreciate the president’s current and proposed actions: increasing energy efficiency; keeping fossil fuels in the ground; transitioning to clean energy; eradicating poverty; and preserving the planet for future generations.
However, in this case, the devil is most certainly in the details. As we move through the negotiations over these two weeks and return home to implement our commitments, we need to focus on definitions, processes, urgency, ambition, and stringency.
For us, this is personal. Here at the COP, we have NAACP delegates who face impacts from both the causes and effects of climate change. One comes from from Indiana, where there are more than a dozen toxic coal plants. Another is from California, which is experiencing record drought, record wildfires, and the threat of sea level rise. From Mississippi we have a delegate who is a Katrina survivor who had to flee for her life with her family. Our delegates come from New York, where they are still in post–Superstorm Sandy recovery mode and are threatened with more such disasters as sea levels rise. And, finally, we have a representative from Houston, Texas, where they face a double threat: pollution from an unregulated petrochemical corridor and this year’s record flooding.
Personally, I come from Chicago, where record heat killed hundreds some years ago and where we hosted four of the most lethal coal plants in our city limits. Those plants have been blamed for 40 asthma deaths and 1,000 hospitalizations per year.
Here in Paris, we are linking arms with comrades, including the Indigenous Environmental Network, Gulf South Rising, the It Takes Roots Delegation representing frontline communities in the U.S., and with our global south comrades including the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, the Third World Network, and others.
We stand here to speak in solidarity with people who can’t be here. We are here for the 1,800-plus people who died in Hurricane Katrina and their families, the four people who died in flooding in South Carolina, and the 76,000 coal miners who have died of black lung disease since 1976. We are here for all of the other people who are impacted by the causes and effects of climate change. And we are here for the communities who stayed home to continue to work on solutions while we are here carrying forth their stories with honor and reverence.
As President Obama stated, the climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it. As such, we need to work harder and we need to work smarter.
On behalf of the communities living next to the nuclear reactors spewing radiation, the biomass facilities spewing carcinogens and other toxins, and the residents who are being shaken by earthquakes or whose water supplies are being contaminated by fracking for natural gas, we need stringent definitions of clean energy that focus on solar, wind, geothermal, and ocean energy.
On behalf of communities in the shadow of coal plants, oil refineries, and other polluting industries, we need to ensure that trading that will make pollution hotspots even hotter is eliminated from our carbon reduction plan.
On behalf of the frontline communities experiencing loss and damage in the U.S. and abroad — communities ravaged by storms, threatened with displacement from sea level rise, facing hunger due to shifts in agricultural needs — we need aggressive action on emissions reduction. We need commitments to the Green Climate Fund, which helps developing countries reduce emissions and adapt to climate change. And we need domestic mechanisms to ensure that countries and communities have the resources to invest in climate-smart development and disaster risk reduction.
President Obama stated that the biggest enemy here is cynicism. I would add corporate greed to that list, as it is reckless development without regard for people and the planet that got us where we are today, with record loss of life and degraded ecosystems.
What it will take to turn this around is new leadership of frontline communities and global south nations whose voices are too often suppressed and whose power is often stripped by the very corporations that are polluting the planet. As frontline groups, we are already leading — on building resilience, establishing energy efficiency and clean energy projects, local food, recycling, storm water management, and more.
Now we are pushing to ensure that our governments make the transition to 100 percent clean energy, with economic justice measures to ensure shared wealth building. We are pushing for a much more aggressive timetable for emissions reduction. And, finally, we are pushing the U.S. — which has just 4 percent of the global population but is responsible for 25 percent of climate-changing emissions — to contribute $5 billion to the Green Climate Fund.
Jacqueline Patterson is the director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program.