Environmental justice leader Mustafa Santiago Ali joined other advocates from around the world at the first-ever Climate Justice Pavilion at this year’s COP. (Courtesy of Kiara Worth via UN Climate Change)
Environmental justice leader Mustafa Santiago Ali joined other advocates from around the world at the first-ever Climate Justice Pavilion at this year’s COP. (Courtesy of Kiara Worth via UN Climate Change)

This year’s United Nations climate conference produced a historic agreement creating a fund to support developing countries facing climate disasters. However, it failed to make progress on commitments to reduce emissions. 

After marathon negotiations that ran more than 36 hours over the deadline, the United Nations climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, came out with a breakthrough deal creating a fund for “loss and damage.” That’s U.N.-speak for the irreversible harms caused by climate change, especially those felt in developing nations. 

Rich countries have contributed to most of the world’s emissions while poor countries suffer most of the impacts, so climate justice advocates can see the loss and damage deal as a win. On the other hand, the negotiations failed to produce much progress on another crucial goal: strengthening global commitments to reducing emissions. 

As it stands, the world does not seem likely to limit warming to 1.5 Celsius above pre-Industrial Revolution levels—a point beyond which scientists warn climate catastrophes will become far more drastic. This year’s official COP decision did little to address that problem. 

“The fact that there was a fund set up that will ensure that countries impacted by our fossil fuel energy economy will have resources to draw from is a big thing,” said Dana Johnson, Senior Director of Strategy and Federal Policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice. 

“But getting to the emission reductions and having another year of not meeting our goals, is quite concerning because of how the climate crisis is centered in communities of color and areas of low income in the U.S. and around the world,” Johnson, who attended the conference along with other leaders from WE ACT, continued. 

This was the 27th annual Conference of Parties, but it was the first time loss and damage even made it onto the official agenda. Outside the negotiating room, DMV-based environmental justice advocates like Johnson joined activists from around the country and the globe in pushing for that shift in the international climate conversation.

“Folks are really getting focused and saying basically, ‘you, the developed nations, played a big role in what’s currently going on. And you broke it, so now it’s time to fix it,’” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, a D.C.-based environmental justice leader and executive vice president for the National Wildlife Federation. 

At this year’s conference, Ali spent much of his time listening to conversations held at the first-ever “Climate Justice Pavilion,” which was founded by three U.S. environmental justice organizations, including WE ACT. Major political leaders, including U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and EPA Administrator Michael Regan, made appearances there. The pavilion hosted dozens of programs and created space for people from all over the globe to engage in climate justice conversations. 

“These have been some of the most attended and better panels that we’ve seen because there’s been such a panoply of excellent voices, not only from the United States, but also from Africa and indigenous people from around the world,” said Anthony Rogers-Wright, a District resident and Director of Environmental Justice with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

Importantly, the sponsoring organizations sited the pavilion in the conference’s “Blue Zone,” where the majority of diplomats, policymakers, business, and professional advocates convene— instead of the “Green Zone,” which is typically reserved for grassroots groups and activists. 

“We’re going to have to have a COP28, 29, and 30 unless these fenceline communities, the advocates that fly in from all over the world, get into the rooms with the policymakers that are closed off,” said Shamyra Levigne, an activist with Rise St. James, an environmental justice organization based in Louisiana. “Delegates should have to sit here and listen to the people that are being impacted by their choices.”

Despite the progress on loss and damage discussions, the final deal remained vague. Nations committed to creating a new fund and established a “transitional committee” tasked with hammering out details for nations to discuss at next year’s COP28 in Dubai. 

But no countries had to make actual monetary commitments under the deal. Further, no new commitments to phase out coal or other fossil fuels emerged from this year’s talks despite increasingly dire scientific reports about the consequences of continuing to warm up the planet. More frequent and more severe heat waves, storms, droughts, floods, wildfires, and other climate impacts will continue to hit developing nations and communities of color hardest. 

“The can was kicked down a road we have no time to pave,” Rogers-Wright said in a text following the conference. “We simply aren’t being serious enough to dismantle the global crisis.”

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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