Those on the front lines of climate change should be empowered to be central to its solution

·5 min read

Now that world leaders and teams of negotiators have left Glasgow, Scotland from the 26th annual Conference of Parties (COP 26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, we return to our individual nations with a collective and existential task: mobilizing our own legislative bodies, activists, businesses, and civil society to stop global warming from pushing past the breaking point. Having attended the historic Conference - meeting with renowned climate leaders like Special Climate Envoy John Kerry, President Obama, and climate activists - I still couldn't help leaving disappointed by the lack of progress made, particularly when it comes to addressing the significant struggles developing nations and their people face in adapting to climate change.

While the responsibility to act is a necessary burden shared by all nations, the consequences for inaction won't be uniformly felt. During COP26, we heard developing nations make the plea that they're being tasked with solving the problem richer nations have created for them. Those arguments are not without merit; China and the U.S. are the first and second largest emitters of greenhouse gasses. However, we've also seen developing nations on the forefront of calls for action, understanding they are among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate inaction, and least able to absorb the exorbitant cost of disasters.

Here in the United States, we need look no further than our immediate neighbors in our hemisphere, who are already suffering the brunt of natural disasters increased and exacerbated by climate change.

In the years ahead, heat waves, severe drought, wildfires, coral reef depletion and sea events are expected to grow in frequency and intensity in Latin America and the Caribbean. Hurricanes like IOTA and ETA for example ravaged marine-coastal communities from Central America, Colombia and the Caribbean. In their wake, Hurricanes ETA and IOTA left economic losses of $770 million in Guatemala and $1.9 billion in Honduras, further depressing these countries' economies. The storms impacted seven million people in Guatemala and Honduras alone-with damages to 964,000 hectares of crops and disruptions to agricultural livelihoods. Thousands of homes destroyed and nearly 600,000 people displaced. Up to 70 percent of Honduras' agricultural sector, which accounts for one-third of the country's job market, was devastated.

Between 1998 and 2020, climate-related and geophysical events in Latin America and the Caribbean resulted in the loss of 312,000 lives and directly affected more than 277 million people. These trends are causing a growing humanitarian crisis among those already wracked by poverty, inequality, violence, political instability, and racial, ethnic and gender discrimination.

African descendant and indigenous communities in the region play a powerful role in responding to the interconnected crises of biodiversity loss, inequity and socioeconomic exclusion, drug trafficking, migration, and violence. Some of these communities inhabit areas of strategic environmental importance. For example, the peoples of the Amazon Basin and other important bio-diversity zones have the potential to provide over one-third of carbon mitigation necessary for the 2 and 1.5-degree global warming target in the Paris Agreement.

Throughout my career in Congress, I have championed regional and bilateral initiatives to promote access and prosperity for African descendants and indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere, encouraging an open space for new voices to be heard in dialogue where regional and global power meet. I was inspired by the launch of the Afro-Interamerican Forum on Climate Change during COP26, with leaders and scientists of African descent from 12 countries in the Western Hemisphere. The Forum, launched by former Minister of Environment Luis Gilberto Murillo of Colombia, and Vice President of Costa Rica, Epsy Campbell, with scholars from MIT, introduced the concept of an Afro Descendant Natural Belt of the Americas and developed a Strategy for Environmental Equity and Racial Justice in the Amazon inclusive of the unique perspectives and culturally sourced solutions from African descent communities and advocates. Without the participatory contributions of the African descendant communities of Latin America and the Caribbean, it is unlikely we will meet our goals.

Indigenous women and girls are often the most affected by its harmful impacts. In Glasgow, I heard from Quechua activist and leader Tarcila Rivera Zea, who passionately advocated for indigenous women needing to be "an integral part of the conversation" on climate change. Zea said, "we don't want a donation, we want investment in the development of our skills, women and girls, and young people in indigenous populations." We must immediately recognize the power of these words, these women, and our role in ensuring that Indigenous communities are intentionally prioritized in dialogue and policymaking going forward.

An important tool in the international community's toolbox, particularly wealthier nations, is providing adequate assistance to developing nations to ensure a green energy transition and mitigate the effects of the changing environment. Right now, those wealthier nations have fallen short of earlier pledges to fully fund these initiatives, let alone scale up to the tremendous need. The Global Climate Fund (GCF) will be integral to not only shoring up resilience in these developing countries but helping prevent them from becoming major emitters of greenhouse gasses in their industrialization. A well-funded GCF would allow wealthy nations to lead by example and help developing nations take advantage of the emerging green revolution, priming those developing nations to take advantage of the growing green economy. Moreover, GCF can target projects and communities, like those indigenous groups who are simultaneously best situated to benefit from these investments, and most vulnerable to suffer from a changing climate.

While the people who have historically inhabited the Western Hemisphere - and native communities around the world - are among the most vulnerable to the climate crisis, they are also the key to its survival. It is the responsibility of those in power - including myself as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee - to make systemic change that empowers those at the forefront of climate change to be at the core of its solution.

Meeks is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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