As climate envoy of the US, John Kerry recently said he is not going to be “feeling guilty” about the loss and damage caused by increasing climate chaos. The US has stymied efforts to fund the most affected regions for the levels of loss and damage already being suffered. Instead, Kerry wants to channel funds into greater resilience and speculative technologies. That’s a confidence shared by many who descend on conferences where they have shipped in electric vehicles to give delegates a fantasyland experience of technology and enterprise fixing the climate. Unfortunately, there is nothing to suggest that the West will respond seriously to widening climate chaos other than exploiting power imbalances at international climate negotiations.
Not only do the elite delegates to climate conferences not want to feel any guilt but they think that we, the low-income and younger generations, are the ones who need our heads fixed. We are too negative, they say. Because we are seen to lack belief in the power of the West to save us from the mess created by their historic emissions. Well, forgive me for doubting that ‘tech bros’ and billionaires will save Africa from famines caused by the climate changes driven by a century of emissions and ecological damage. Is it a surprise that Western elites don’t focus on the past exploitation that sustained the privileges both they and their societies then benefited from during their lives?
My lack of confidence that the mainstream climate movement from the West will meaningfully address the climate crisis also stems from the way they ignore and then denigrate the critics within their own shores. The intellectuals and activists who call for a fair and organised shrinking of the richer countries’ consumption of the world’s resources are dismissed as marginal and unrealistic. If any of them become known, they are derided for seeming ‘too angry’ or attacked as bad people with bad ideas. The response to the scholars providing the basis for the film ‘Planet of the Humans’ is one example. They showed the flaws of the idea that technology will fix the problem, without economic transformation to allow a dramatic reduction in consumption. The response to the ‘deep adaptation’ movement by more mainstream greens is also instructive. That movement anticipates that the modern urban way of life will collapse due to the environmental changes now underway. They are condemned for giving up, despite many of them being activists. They are laughed at for being impractical, despite many of them already changing their careers and lives to need less of the world’s resources.
One of the leading figures in that movement, Professor Jem Bendell, believes that climate summits have now morphed into being “career fests and trade fairs at the end of the world as we know it.” At the very least, the summits appear to have become an unhelpful over-institutionalisation of the global intention to cut emissions: a distraction from keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Along with hundreds of other scholars, we signed a public letter condemning the corporate hijack of climate policy. A year on, that hijack has progressed to full merger, as governments direct huge sums towards venture capitalists for projects with environmentally dubious credentials. That comes on the back of the polluter-driven creation of carbon offset markets, which did little for the environment other than fund more ecological damage through the lavish lifestyles of enriched executives.
Activists across the Majority World are articulating a different agenda. Sometimes called an agenda for ‘climate justice,’ it is much more than that. Because it is a seedbed for political movements and struggles that will arise when hundreds of millions of the younger and financially poorer people of the world learn about climate reality. That includes them better understanding the reasons why their lives are being so disrupted and why their futures appear so tough.
Ours is not a climate justice agenda where the ideas of what is appropriate come from well-meaning people in the countries made powerful from past exploitation and emissions. Neither is it an agenda of woke-washing existing power relations by incorporating some more non-white people and issues into existing rich-world institutions and agendas. Instead, our aim is to empower the most affected persons in the Majority World to improve our chances as we enter an era of greater disruption. It must begin with greater expanded levels of outreach to millions of people to give them the facts of the situation, and what is to come. One of those facts is where most of the damage has originated from, and how that has powered the current inequalities of wealth and influence that today are skewing the necessary responses. Myriad political demands and coalitions, from local to global, will emerge from that greater awareness. The result will be a justice claimed, not a pseudo-justice ordained by those who have benefited the most from the past exploitation. It also means that more opportunities for true healing will arise, across borders and cultures.
I realise that most of the people reading this publication are environmentally concerned people in higher-income countries. If that is you, then please know that I am not shaming anyone or seeking to provoke feelings of shame. Recognising fault, guilt and the origin of current privileges is not the same as shame. For some readers, the idea of feeling some ‘guilt’ makes sense and can motivate climate activism. But for others, feelings of guilt might seem inappropriate, as individuals today aren’t personally responsible for previous decades of emissions. However, if you, my reader, are in a high-income country, you are benefiting from those historic emissions because you benefit from the systems they created. You could regard that historical basis for your current privilege as your invitation to do something about it from now on. I believe an aversion to feeling guilty has no place in a meaningful global climate movement. Because without any recognition of fault and how past injury shapes current power, there is little basis for moving towards either justice or healing. Similarly, seeking to avoid politics and regard climate change as only either a technical challenge or a therapeutic invitation, would reduce the potential for justice and healing. And without that, there will be greater suffering ahead.
John Kerry is certainly not unusual, and I do not anticipate much engagement on this by leaders from high-income countries. Therefore, there is something that the citizens of high-income countries could do to support the kind of climate justice agenda I have described. If that is you, then please consider campaigning for your leaders to fairly degrow your own economies, while supporting the environmental education of people across the Majority World so that political movements can grow, claim justice, and begin the healing.
One new initiative I am involved with relates directly to this agenda. The Mbura experiment will increase climate knowledge amongst rural sub-Saharan communities. The changing climate threatens their culture and the knowledge shared amongst their kin, so it is important they are made aware of the true causes of their difficulties. That means they will be better able to adapt as well as articulate their views to those who are benefiting most from the systems that cause the disruption to their lives. Supporting such initiatives is a practical way of not waiting (forever) on the power elites to come to the rescue of the most affected communities across the global South. And it is worth remembering that there are 700 million people in rural sub-Sahara Africa, 65% of whom are the youth, who can be partners in shaping future climate responses.
I know this is not the message that the high-flying delegates want to hear when they enthuse about how technology and enterprise will save the world. Which is why I must present these ideas at the COP27 climate conference in Egypt. It is also why I will be joining hundreds of other scholars in announcing a Scholars’ Oath to the Future, where we apologise for past mistakes and commit to helping younger people have the possibility of a less bad future.
Stella Nyambura Mbau, PhD, a native Kenyan, has studied climate resilience in the context of rural sub-Sahara Africa. Stella is a project coordinator at Abundant Earth Foundation, working on Agroforestry Regeneration Communities.
Article graphic originally created by Cevahir Ozruh, later modified to fit the content of this article.