Today civil rights and environmental justice leaders joined African leaders for a press conference at the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen. Their message was targeted at President Barack Obama who they urged to ensure “climate security for all people of African descent.”
Among those in the coalition, which included the Pan-African Parliamentarian Network on Climate Change and the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance, was Michele Roberts representing the Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a legal non-profit based in New Orleans. The inclusion of AEHR was a signal that those who suffered from Hurricane Katrina are in solidarity with their counterparts across the Atlantic who live with the extreme weather conditions exacerbated by global warming. While it’s true that the worst suffering in New Orleans came from poor policies and flawed levee protection from federal agencies responsible for safeguarding residents from disaster, the actual hurricanes, Katrina and Rita, were arguably driven by a fury of heat and wind made possible by climate change.
This morning’s press conference was not the first of appeals to President Obama, particularly with regard to Katrina. In October, 18 environmental organizations, including AEHR, pleaded in a letter with the president to incorporate human rights frameworks into whatever climate policy he pushed for in Copenhagen. Reads the letter: “Those most affected [by Katrina] were low-income communities and people of color who already lacked a voice in the policies that shape their lives.”
Obviously these specific appeals to Obama to guard civil and human rights go beyond the fact that he is the U.S. President, the leader best positioned to secure these rights. Much of it is because Obama self-identifies as black, and his historic presidency was made possible by those who fought and died to make civil and human rights essential elements of U.S. policy.
There is a belief that because Obama is black and of African descent, he will be more sensitive to these special interests. Here’s what’s known about climate change with respect to race and ethnicity: in the southeast states, black Americans, particularly the poor and elderly, have a high level of social vulnerability to the impact of global warming seen not only in storms like Katrina, but also in drought, extreme heat, and looming floods as sea levels rise. In Africa, some 250 million people will be at risk in terms of water scarcity by 2020.
Developing nations in Africa, Asia and South America will need financial assistance from developed, fully industrialized nations, most especially the U.S. – which is most responsible for the bulk of climate change – in order to adapt. These poor nations are the least responsible for global warming agents, but will suffer the worst.
A leak of negotiating documents from Copenhagen disappointed leaders from the G77, an assembly of impoverished countries, where it was noted that only $10 billion was planned for underdeveloped nations – a sum so paltry, it wouldn’t cover the coffins of those who’ll die from climate change, claims Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, the Sudanese chairman of the G77.
If Obama is supposed to be more sympathetic because of his skin tone and ancestry, he’s not showing any signs. Just last week he rebuffed the Congressional Black Caucus who sent him a letter asking that he pay more attention to the black unemployment rate, which is almost double the national rate.
But if Obama is not willing to be his African brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, he should be cognizant of the costs of one-size-fits-all policies that may keep the southeast states, which have the largest concentration of legacy poverty households and African-Americans, vulnerable. The costs of Katrina were covered by all of Congress, not just southern members. With over $150 billion worth of damages from Hurricane Katrina and Rita, Congress doled out roughly $120 billion. Poverty and poor health care were already huge problems in these states before the storms, and as Obama himself points out, rising health care costs are the biggest drain on the nation’s economic growth.
And if Obama can’t appreciate the unique climate struggles of the native land of his father, then he must appreciate that neglecting to adequately sustain Africa will lead to wars over water and resources that can wreck the global economy. On the other hand, investing generously in African nations now so that they can stave off the worst of global warming and still grow economically would be propitious to U.S. enrichment. America is developing clean energy technology for future export to foreign countries — but Africa needs to be financially stabilized and protected now to make for a good customer later.
This is why Obama must take special notice. As Fulton told me from Copenhagen, “Shell [Oil] is not owned by black people, but the smart grids, wind and solar farms can be.” Climate justice at Copenhagen can “allow for an expanded vision of creating black wealth and green jobs on both continents.”