Those who 'own little, live on little' carry highest burden of climate change

Photo credit: Alina Saba
Shobha Shukla, CNS Columnist
Climate change seems to be the new food for thought for world leaders to chew upon. Recently 122 heads of state gathered in New York City for the UN Climate Summit, organised by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, aimed to mobilize action to prevent looming climate disasters and garner political will for a new climate change treaty by the end of 2015.

But what astounded Alina Saba, a young indigenous woman participant from Limbu tribe of Nepal, was: "When I arrived in NYC, I was struck by the level of inequality that exists in this world. Just a few weeks ago I was in this remote community of Nepal who live on less than $1 a day. They do not have access to facilities like education, communication, healthcare and  transportation. They do not contribute to global warming but are losing their lands to climate change events, whereas a city like NYC consumes so much and pollutes the environment."

Alina was one of four civil society speakers at the UN Climate Summit and the only person from Asia selected from more than 500 candidates in an open, global nomination call by the United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Service.

For once, this representation from a young indigenous woman, brought to the fore the plight of thousands of  women who have never benefited from the so called economic development. They are the ones who wait expectantly for the fruits of globalization to trickle down to them, but what they get is the ‘toxic waste of globalization – climate disasters’.

While Ban Ki Moon is happy that “The Summit has shown that we can rise to the climate challenge,”  Alina is fearful that governments would not listen.

“I am fearful that governments listen only to the power and money of corporations who urge them to continue on the path of increased consumption, production and emissions. I am fearful that our Indigenous communities are destined to lose their lands to landslides, that our crops will continually fail, that women will continually feel forced to migrate as domestic workers,” she said.

These are very realistic fears which the poor women have to live with. Women comprise 70% of world’s poor. They consume the least, are paid the least, own the least, and yet pay the highest price of climate change and are 14 times more likely to die in disasters. This is the result of a growth model that allows unlimited extraction of natural resources and over consumption.

Across the Asia Pacific region, women’s lives and livelihoods are threatened by climate change events that directly impact their day to day existence. Women are always more at risk from natural disasters and extreme weather events, including during post-disaster response efforts. Whether it is floods and landslides in India and Indonesia; typhoons in the Philippines; losing lands to salinity and flooding in Bangladesh; droughts in Southeast Asia—rural and indigenous women are devastated more in the aftermath than anyone else.

Alina rightly feels that, “Climate change is, essentially, a social justice issue. Those who have caused the least harm to this planet, those who have nurtured and cared for the environment are the people being punished for excessive consumption and pollution of the obscenely rich. It is women from the remote mountainous and rural regions of countries like Nepal who live without power, without phones and now more frequently without crops, and have to walk miles to get healthcare and services, who are now threatened even more with the devastating long/short term effects of climate change.”

But despite the fears Alina has hope—“Climate change forces us to replace the global, inequitable system we have created, with a new, more equitable and locally driven, sustainable world. If wealthy countries honour their existing commitments to take responsibility for their historical debt to the world’s poor and compensate for their pollution and halt their emissions, we could finally deliver on the promises made 66 years ago through the Human Rights Declaration.”

Photo credit: Alina Saba
But then, as Kate Lappin, Regional Coordinator of Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development (APWLD) says,“That can only happen with community driven solutions. If women in the indigenous and rural communities can have access to their own renewable energy; if they can understand the changing weather patterns and plan for them; if their children can be provided proper education and health care as sustainable solutions, we may see a better future.”

Alina pleads for addressing the inequitable global development model that allows 85 people on this planet to own more and consume more resources than 3.5 billion people-- half the world’s population. Cuts in emissions, consumption and production will have to start with them. Countries like the US (where average carbon emission per person is 18.1 tonnes as compared to 0.1 tonnes in Nepal) will have to take the lead in reducing their carbon foot prints.

According to Alina, “If enough funds are committed for genuine solutions, they should be localized and owned by the community. Mega funds that produce hydro power in Nepal only to be sold off to neighbouring countries, with little impact on the marginalized in Nepal; or providing funds to multinational corporations to create more dangerous nuclear power in India; or giving climate loans to already indebted nations are not the answer. We-- the communities who have always cared for this earth yet have been punished for it—are the answer.”

“The answers lie in human rights and equality. The gargantuan threat of climate change should force us to re-think global systems that are disastrous for the planet and deeply inequitable. Our survival is dependent on governments making binding and drastic commitments to reduce emissions. But it is also dependent on a commitment to finally deliver on human rights promises and provide development justice to all.”

 While lauding the efforts of APWLD and other civil society organizations, in bringing people like her to the forefront, Alina wished that the panel on ‘voices from frontlines’ was attended by the state heads and stakeholders who are in the position to take action for preventing environmental degradation.

Alina has proved that given the opportunity, even the women from the grass roots community and developing countries like Nepal can influence policy making at the highest level. Bringing people from the ground is the best way to know about the situation on the ground rather than listening about them from someone who has not lived their lives. But their saga of trials and travails should not act as sympathy earners and tear jerkers at international platforms, like this summit. Instead, it should make people understand the stark poverty and inequality that plagues most part of the world, so that they are able to make sustained efforts for development, economic and environmental justice.

We have to understand that the issue is not just of climate change but of climate justice--how the past industrial activities of developed countries have contributed to cause the global warming, and how the current form of unequal ownership of wealth and resources is deteriorating the environment.

Kate agrees that, “Too often governments attend and applaud their own inaction and make rhetorical, non-binding commitments. That is why it is so important to have real civil society voices--voices from the frontlines that can testify about the impact of climate change, particularly on women, and remind governments that their inaction is the cause of deep trauma, injustice and destruction.”

Giving a voice to people from around the world has created the urgency to deal with climate issue without delay. Millions of people, from the streets of New York to the dusty paths of remote Asian villages are demanding a fairer approach to development and clamouring for a new, just and sustainable world.

Shobha Shukla, Citizen News Service (CNS)
2 October 2014
 (The author is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service - CNS. She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA and received her editing training in Singapore. She has earlier worked with State Planning Institute, UP and taught physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. She also co-authored and edited publications on gender justice, SRHR, childhood TB, childhood pneumonia, Hepatitis C Virus and HIV, and MDR-TB. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org) 

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