Frontline Fury: Inequity in the Climate Battle

Article In The Thread
Forest fire of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui.
Fernando Astasio Avila /
Oct. 12, 2023

“Humanity has opened the gates of hell.” With those words, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres set the scene at last month’s Climate Ambition Summit in New York. And in this new era of our planetary climate emergency, he is not wrong. What he and other leaders do not seem to understand is the fury, and power of those communities scorned: the frontline families who are, at this moment, the most exposed to the most devastating impacts of climate change. And by 2070, that will be over three billion of us.

In the scorching fire that ravaged Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui earlier this year, the extreme intensity of the blaze incinerated almost everything in its path, reducing the bodies of its victims to unrecognizable ash. On the other side of the planet, people in eastern Libya are still reckoning with the aftermath of last month’s floodwaters that washed out to sea the heart of the city of Derna, and killed an estimated 11,300 people, with thousands more still missing.

These are not isolated incidents. The devastating events in Maui and Libya vividly illustrate the harsh and often deadly impacts of the climate crisis on frontline communities. Most importantly, the increased frequency of climate-induced disasters underscores the imperative to ensure that those most vulnerable — caught in the crossfire between government inertia and extreme weather events — are central players in shaping the solutions to respond and adapt to this new era.

However, the communities who are disproportionately hit by the first and worst impacts of climate change — especially marginalized groups and those from the Global South — remain the most neglected voices in the broader global discourse on climate action. What’s more unsettling: The countries and communities least responsible for global carbon emissions are also the most vulnerable to climate catastrophe. But they are starting to stand up to say they will not be silenced anymore.

Yes, Africa Is on Fire. No, McKinsey Is Not a Fire Extinguisher.

The vast majority of climate-vulnerable countries are in sub-Saharan Africa, where temperatures are climbing faster than the global average. But as we learned from the recent devastation, from flooding in Libya and the earthquake in Morocco, climate vulnerability is no less impacted by the lack of government urgency about the need to adapt to increased climate risk. Discontent with government responses is growing, and whether it is at the proverbial table or in the streets, the climate vulnerable will continue to demand to be heard.

In a letter to Kenya’s President William Ruto and the organizers of the Africa Climate Summit, over 500 civil society organizations expressed their deep concerns about the summit’s new direction under the influence of Western institutions. Instead of advancing Africa's interests, the letter claimed, the summit has begun to put forward artificial solutions to the climate crisis, like carbon markets that allow wealthier countries to continue to pollute the region. It took the U.S. to task in particular for going the usual route of relying on big-name consultants like McKinsey and Company to gin up solutions without taking into account the wide experience and perspectives on offer in Africa first.

A powerful testament to the grassroots movements that have already taken root in Africa, the letter and the activists behind it are just one example of what Africans are doing to fight for a seat at the table. While the energy and drive are there, financing the climate revolution on the African continent leaves much to be desired. Africa attracts only 3.19 percent of global climate finance and the pledges to accelerate adaptation and mitigation financing of $100 billion by 2020 in developing countries are still far from being realized. Passion alone will not solve this crisis, frontline communities in Africa and other parts of the Global South will need for the rest of the world to walk the talk and finally fill the financing gaps.

Facing the Heat at Home in the U.S.

In the United States, the impact of climate change on communities of color is stark and deeply rooted in historical injustices. Many low-income communities and people of color residing in urban and agriculturally rich areas face the force of scorching heat. Take for example, Texas, where the state legislators have just outlawed mandated water breaks, despite the state having some of the largest numbers of laborers who earn their living from working outdoors. Or, look at Atlanta, where heat has never been higher, but clean alternatives to commuting by fossil fuel-burning cars are in short supply.

It is no surprise then that African Americans and Hispanic Americans consistently show stronger support for climate policies and U.S. leadership in global climate action. And yet the risk of these communities getting left behind in the shift to clean energy is never more apparent. Clean energy jobs are transforming the nation’s economy, but they are predominantly filled by white men, with Hispanic American workers mostly stuck in entry-level positions and African American workers underrepresented in the industry overall.

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) — the Biden-Harris administration’s historic legislative package aimed at reducing energy costs and creating jobs — contains some programs supporting communities of color to confront the climate crisis, but at a cost. While the IRA is one of the largest sources of funding for programs under the Justice40 Initiative, which directs 40 percent of the overall benefits to Disadvantaged Communities, it also allows for expanded offshore drilling, even in regions like the Gulf of Mexico where it was largely halted after the BP Deepwater Horizons oil spill in 2010. Onshore drilling, including on federal lands, is also permitted, alongside mandatory oil and gas lease auctions preceding approvals for renewable energy projects. And as evidenced by the recent tug-of-war over Lease 261, a 73-million acre tract of water in the Gulf of Mexico that is slated to be leased to oil companies next month. Even if President Biden were to halt the leases, there are limits to executive powers.

While the aim is to reduce domestic fuel costs and allocate funds for emissions reduction in fossil fuel operations, these drilling activities continue to affect frontline communities. Entering the second year of the IRA, the time for rectifying those concessions may be past. There is still opportunity, though, to drive efforts to ensure the benefits of the legislation are felt by those communities hit by the worst effects of climate change.

Amid the flurry of global climate gatherings and the surge towards cleaner energy, one stark truth emerges: Those at the forefront of the climate crisis are often the ones left behind. But they will not stand by silently. They are demanding not just a seat at the table but a central spot in the discussions. Those at the helm of global climate discussions are taking notice but are still slow to change. Failure to take this inclusive path means that, sooner or later, we will all find ourselves on the frontlines of climate impacts, with nowhere to hide.

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