The Politics of Power in Global Climate Efforts: A Reflection

The 25th Conference of Parties (COP 25) was originally scheduled to be held in Santiago, Chile, but a national fight against structural injustices there led to a last-minute change of locale. Instead, the global climate change convening took place in Madrid, Spain. While I and the other U-M delegates were able to change our flights (generously funded by University grants) with relative ease, many representatives from the Global South were no longer able to attend due to the prohibitive cost and visa requirements for travel to Europe.

Yet those who were able to attend—like the group of indigenous leaders who led a protest inside the convention center—shared a powerful message about climate justice. Their communities are disproportionately affected by climate change and the resource extraction that fuels consumptive economies, yet they contribute a minuscule proportion of global carbon emissions. On the contrary, my home country (the U.S.) accounts for approximately 15% of global CO2 emissions, despite holding just 4.25% of the global population.

On my first day at COP 25, I was struck by a press conference held by a delegation of indigenous leaders from Peru and Ecuador. These leaders represented 25 nationalities and groups from an area known as the Sacred Headwaters—one of the most biodiverse terrestrial ecosystems on the planet, encompassing a large portion of the Amazon basin. The presenters described how their livelihoods continue to be threatened by oil, mining, and logging companies (by way of polluted waters, deforested lands, and physical and legislative assaults). Expansion of drilling in the Sacred Headwaters is being pursued by oil companies from around the world, fueling a form of economic growth largely shaped by leaders of global capitalism. In fact, demand in California accounts for more than 50% of Ecuador’s crude exports. A recent report by the Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative details the investments in and impacts of these oil developments.

At the press conference, the presenters reminded the audience that their message extends beyond self-preservation—it is a call for global preservation of the ecosystems that maintain the energy and nutrient balances that allow us all to sustain ourselves. Continued extraction in the Amazon is not only an affront to human rights and biodiversity, but also a major step back in efforts to curb climate change.

In a subsequent conversation with Sandra Tukup, Director of Territories for the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE), she spoke of the ways in which international investors are inadvertently fueling the destruction of her community. Linked below, she calls for universities to consider the consequences of their investments. Reflecting on her message, I was excited to see the U-M Board of Reagents announce that they will avoid new direct investments in fossil fuels; however, the reality remains that the University is a long way from ensuring that the entirety of its assets are not fueling industries that are threatening communities like Sandra’s.

At the end of the day, COP 25 failed to adequately address concerns of vulnerable groups or to incorporate indigenous leadership into decision-making processes. While their voices were heard in press conferences and hallway protests, these groups were largely excluded from the actual negotiation rooms. To many, the event seemed to embody the virtue signaling that has long kept systems of power in place—ostensibly pushing for climate action while making organizational decisions that exclude those who have been hurt the most. While action at the international policy level may remain stagnant (particularly with the postponement of COP 26 due to COVID-19), Sandra’s call for economic realignment with climate and human rights goals is a more immediate way for individuals, banks, and investors such as the University of Michigan to take action.

As a middle class American with a relatively huge ecological shoe size, I recognize that it will take a profound effort for me to contribute more to climate solutions than to problems. And while I will dedicate my professional life to the clean energy transition, any technological progress I contribute pales in comparison to the changes that could be accomplished by institutional powers listening more closely to voices of indigenous communities. I am grateful to have been able to hear voices such as Sandra’s at COP 25, and am eager to follow the lead of those who have been fighting for centuries for a symbiotic relationship between people and planet.

Author: Amanda Farthing, University of Michigan, School for Environment and Sustainability 2019 Delegate to COP 25.

Special thanks to Sandra Tukup for providing the interview.

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