Climate change and the Global South

Indigenous protesters at the COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

More than two weeks have passed since the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow closed. In the days leading up to the conference there was anticipation – maybe even hope – that in light of the disastrous weather events that hit the U.S. and Europe in 2021, real plans might be concretized, the rich capitalist countries might be held accountable for their assault on our planet’s atmosphere, and the vast riches they have stolen from the rest of the world through a century of military brutality and economic sabotage might be used to begin healing the planet. 

Instead, the deliberations were steered by Big Capital, voices from the Global South were largely absent and profits were favored. The World Petroleum Council and the World Coal Council, big bankers, insurance executives, pension funds, the head of NATO and other imperialist military brass, all worked to ensure that nothing would impede the flow of profits.

Outside the halls, amid the massive protests, the names of more than 1,000 environmental activists who have been murdered in recent years were projected on an outdoor screen. They included Berta Cáceres of the Lenca people in Honduras. 

Indigenous people from the Americas and other protesters from Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Brazil and the Philippines chanted, marched and held signs demanding climate action, and denouncing the racist exclusion of people from Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia.

In a Nov. 8 article in The Independent, Diane Abbott, the first Black woman to serve in the British Parliament, wrote about the COP26 conference: “… thousands who intended to travel from poorer countries were excluded. A hostile environment from the Home Office to those travelling from countries in the Global South (especially those from Africa), high costs of accommodation and a failure to deliver on a pledge to offer COVID vaccines to all delegates has excluded many of those who face the worst of the climate crisis every day.”

Dipti Bhatnagar from Mozambique, a co-coordinator of Friends of the Earth International, wasn’t able to attend because the “chaotic and last minute nature of plans to help support participation from overseas are too little and too late for many delegates from Global South countries.” Mozambique is listed as the seventh most affected by extreme weather on the Global Climate Risk Index for 2021.

Ita Mendoza of Futuros Indígenas, an environmental collective from Mexico that spent months crowdfunding to be able to attend COP26, was unable to successfully navigate the bureaucracy to be accredited for the full length of the conference.

Most affected, most excluded

The Global South being excluded from the discourse and from international negotiations isn’t new. Reports by climate change scientists from populations worst hit by global warming have been excluded from important science journals for years. 

A study by Carbon Brief, an environmental website, found that 90% of the most cited climate change research papers between 2016 and 2020 were from North America, Europe or Australia.

Rising sea levels threaten island nations and others whose low elevation and long coastal borders make them susceptible to flooding. 

In Bangladesh, farmers are trying different methods to deal with the problems of high salinity in streams and soil that is killing crops. The outlook is bleak, as scientists predict that 17% of their land will be submerged by 2050 and 20 million people will be uprooted. 

Senegal has lost up to a kilometer of shoreline. Villages have been washed away in minutes, huge swaths of farmland lost, many are homeless and thousands of coastal residents have had to be moved to temporary camps further inland. 

Together, the West African countries of Benin, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Togo lost $3.8 billion in 2017. Floods, air and water pollution have caused an average of 13,000 deaths a year for several years running. Many West Africans are risking everything to cross the English Channel into Europe.

It isn’t only geography that makes the Global South more vulnerable. The bigger factor is the deep and widespread poverty caused by more than a century of pillage by imperialism.

One of the promises made at an international climate conference in 2009 was that the rich capitalist countries would provide $100 billion per year to the Global South by 2020 to help them adapt and combat climate change. So far, the highest amount pledged was $80 billion in 2019, and the U.N. reported that funding for 2020 would fall far short of the goal. 

Oxfam has pointed out that much of what’s pledged is in the form of loans. Actual grants are far less than what is being reported. 

Shamefully, the per-capita worst polluter in the world — the U.S. — provided less than $8 billion of the total for 2018 and 2019.

Mitigation over adaptation

Further, the imperialist countries dictate what the money being provided will be used for, with little input from climate scientists in the recipient countries. The giant energy monopolies and the banks that invest in them favor what is called mitigation over adaptation. 

The immediate need in the Global South is adaptation – efforts to protect the population from cyclones, tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding and drought. These countries need funds to build seawalls, help relocate those displaced by disasters, transport food and water and develop alternative industries to deal with unemployment caused by climate change. 

But the banks and energy giants push what is called mitigation in global warming parlance. They want carbon capture devices, and wind, solar and nuclear power, in regions whose greenhouse gases are only a small portion of the global problem. 

At least half of the accumulated CO2 in the atmosphere is from the U.S. and Britain, where global manufacturing was centered for 150 years. The projects being pushed by the U.S. and others will be profitable enterprises for engineering firms in the Global North countries and do little to lower global greenhouse gas emissions.

Impoverished countries have been demanding more since the early 1990s, when small island nations first raised the demand for a mechanism to compensate them for destruction that was already evident from climate change. The U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia have resisted since that time. 

By the time of COP26, the demand became a proposal for a guaranteed fund for recovery and rebuilding as well as technical support. The proposal was intended to be in addition to the pledge of $100 billion per year, which many climatologists consider grossly inadequate even if it were lived up to. Many economists believe that by 2050, financial damage from climate change could be 20% of the gross domestic product for nations in the Global South. 

At COP26, Scotland offered the first ever commitment from an industrialized country. But the U.S. and Europe blocked the effort. Scotland’s gesture drew praise from Saleemul Huq of Bangladesh, an advisor to the Climate Vulnerable Forum group of 48 countries. He remarked “The U.S. is giving us zero dollars. Europe is giving us zero euros.”

Even in the U.S. and Europe, hundreds of lives have been lost to climate change just in the last few years. Entire towns and villages have been destroyed. Global warming is a huge crisis and an enormous challenge. But it can be solved. 

The obstacle isn’t a scientific one. The disappointing outcome of COP26 in Glasgow shows that the profit system has to be eliminated in order to end global warming and literally save the planet.