10 Lessons From Copenhagen

Getty Images
Getty Images

COPENHAGEN—For the past 12 days, the NAACP’s Climate Justice Initiative has been blogging from the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. While the discourse on global climate change often focuses on the impacts on wildlife or faraway places, it also has a direct and profound impact on communities at home in the United States, particularly on communities of color. My goal for the conference was twofold: to bring the stories of these affected communities to the Copenhagen conference, and to help bring the lessons of Copenhagen back to our communities.


It has been 12 days of frustration, joy, freezing temperatures and heartwarming relationships. Between meetings, demonstrations, conversations and media interviews, we emerge with 10 lessons from the conference:

10. This is NOT what democracy looks like.

Danish texts,” back-door deals, walkouts, secondary passes and restricted access were the buzzwords over the course of convention. Early last week, we learned that wealthy nations had structured the conference to make sure that major decisions on resource allocation remained in their hands, a clear violation of the U.N. processes. At the same time, access to the convention for activists was cut by 66 percent at the beginning of the second week and by 99.5 percent by the end of the week while world leaders were in town. Social movement leaders from Africa and around the world, who had made unimaginable sacrifices to participate in the convention, were literally barred from its most important moments.

9. Two degrees of warming equals suffering and death.

Delegates from wealthy countries are floating the notion of “tolerable” levels of global warming—arguing that an average warming of two degrees is acceptable. But a two-degrees average could be disastrous for communities and countries of color—particularly because the average fails to confront the harmful effects to those living on the high side of the equation. Take Africa for instance; the two-degree global average translates into 3.75 degrees of annual warming, which leads to famine, drought, displacement, disease and death.

8. The “This is Africa” syndrome prevails.

Too often at global conferences, the suffering of communities and countries of color is deemed acceptable. There is an insidious devaluing of the lives of people in the global south. It seems to matter little that some communities and regions will be uninhabitable in the next generation, or at least it doesn’t matter enough to restrict SUVs, exotic fruit imports or the emissions of harmful toxins from power plants.


7. We can all use the same words, but mean very different things.

“Green economy,” “green jobs” and “clean energy” are things we all agree are good, right? The problem is that these phrases are vague—often deliberately so. For some, a discussion of “clean energy” includes the concept of “clean coal” which, of course, is an oxymoron. There is no such thing as coal mining and processing that isn’t hazardous to the environment and its inhabitants. Similarly, many other so-called solutions for climate change may be ineffective at best, and harmful at worst.


6. What seems “good” to some isn’t necessarily good for all.

On its face, the Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) sounds like a positive global-warming solution. The program aims to preserve forests and help economic development in developing nations with the financial support of wealthy nations. But according to indigenous communities globally, the REDD may result in a government land grab on long-held indigenous territory in countries such as Guyana, Indonesia, Suriname, Paraguay, etc., taking away rights to forests, traditional territories and medicines. For every proposed “solution,” there is an impact that must be considered.


5. Identity is related to level of oppression.

Whether it is the climate justice movement or the targets of our activism, we have all fallen short of recognizing and addressing intersectionality, or, put simply, the intersection of identity and oppression. For example, the disproportionate impact of climate change on women is well-documented—women experience increased work burdens during food shortages, for example, and are often the last to eat the worst portion in times of famine. And often we fail to mention the added burden on women when we’re talking about race, class, indigenous issues, etc.


4. Local community action is the key to real and lasting change.

In order to survive the coming transition and mitigate the impact of climate change, communities must focus on self-reliance, resistance and resilience. Across the globe, local communities are already engaged in emergency planning for climate-related disasters, and are beginning to look at ways to develop self-sustaining economies that minimize energy-dependent imports. Some have begun to fight back against those who would encroach on their rights.


3. President Obama may not be able to do it alone, but WE CAN do it together. And we must!

President Obama has the power to lead wealthy nations toward strong emissions-cutting targets. As communities of color, we listened to his campaign promises and mobilized the masses to put him in office. Now we need to support him in delivering on those promises by speaking with one voice, pushing for aggressive targets and ensuring that communities of color in the United States—and countries in the global south—are in leadership in determining adaptation funding allocation.


2. A people, united, will never be defeated.

Over the course of this convention, communities of color have come together to strategize, develop messaging that conveys what we want out of the negotiations, and act jointly to advance our demands and ensure that they are heard by those making decisions that impact us. Across borders and constituency groups, we have so much more that unites us than divides us. We must harness our power and advance collective positioning in the face of resistance and opposition by developed nations.


1. Another world is possible.

When I told a friend about the civil-society demand for total elimination of the use of fossil fuels her first question was, “Is that realistic?” My response is that the NAACP has always embraced the impossible. My mother remembers when she couldn’t drink from the same fountain as a white person. Today, a black man is the president of the United States. Our opponents have always been stronger than us, and the odds have been against us, but through it all we have always managed to redefine the possible.


So yes, with technology and innovation, I do believe it is realistic, and it only takes the will and mobilization of the people to make it happen. The saying goes, “when the U.S. sneezes, the world gets a cold.” America’s influence in these climate talks has been evident throughout. Communities of color in the United States have a role to play in making sure that we do the right thing in this pivotal moment.

A luta continua! (The struggle continues!)

Jacqui Patterson is a member of NAACP Climate Justice Initiative.