Social Justice at the Front Lines of Climate Change


By Andrew Rodriguez, Donna Morton, and Hunter Lovins

The tiny green gavel that closed COP21 in Paris delivered a historic agreement. While reducing emissions was at the top of the agenda, powerful voices from women and indigenous communities put a spotlight on the social justice issues related to climate change. An agreement to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), while aiming for 1.5 degrees Celsius, is only the first step in a global reckoning of who will be hurt most in the years to come.

Many stories emerged from the Paris climate agreement. First and foremost, there is an agreement. Many of us have fought for decades to achieve this. The Paris Agreement marks the coming of age of both the renewable energy era and the divestment movement as it rings out the fossil fuel era.

Investors who had already sold out of fossil fuels and bought into companies leading the way in renewable energy saw sizable gains in their portfolios as countries discussed big targets during the Paris talks and ultimately reached an agreement. These investors saw even larger gains when the US Congress then extended tax credits for solar- and wind-power projects as one of its last acts in 2015.

All of this is tremendous news, and yet arguably the most essential commitment made in Paris was the agreement to hold global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius. Clearly, less climate change is better than more. Yet it is those who have the most to lose in the half-degree difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius who make this a story about justice.

Paris became a flashpoint for global justice as women and indigenous communities reiterated the fact that the global poor have more to lose than those of us in developed, post- industrial economies. Consider the Marshall Islands, a group of 29 coral atolls and five single coral islands in Micronesia. The Marshall Islands sit just 2 meters (6.6 feet) above sea level, and are home to more than 70,000 people. The difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius would mean the guaranteed destruction of their homes by the relentless sea, rendering all the islands’ inhabitants environmental refugees.

Yields of the crops that the global poor rely on for subsistence will decline due to climate change, leading to food shortages in regions with little capacity for additional hardship. A half-degree Celsius is likely the difference between life and death for many, and displacement due to environmental factors for many more. The more warming we allow, the more severe and chaotic the weather systems will become. Those with insecure access to shelter and food stand to lose the most from the extreme weather that is becoming the new normal.

Many faiths believe that justice is a divine promise to the powerless that  their cause will be taken up by those with the power to fight on their behalf. In Paris, women and indigenous communities called for help. Stories of loss from communities directly impacted by a changing climate and the fossil fuel industry widened the focus of the climate talks to the brutal injustices that can come with climate change.

The powerful voices of women at COP21 became some of the most memorable. Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the negotiations, landed a milestone agreement kicked into play by the visionary Connie Hedegaard, who oversaw the climate negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009. Mindy Luber, president of Ceres, brought business to the table in unprecedented ways. Canada’s Catherine McKenna, the newly minted Minister of Environment and Climate Change, rallied nations to support 1.5 degrees. Laurence Tubiana, a mere two weeks after abdominal surgery, labored tirelessly to bring the best of French diplomacy to the proceedings.

Grassroots women from the front lines spoke with pain and passion about the impacts of climate change. Osprey Orielle Lake of the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network said, “Women are impacted first, and worst, and they are essential to the solutions.” She cited a series of UN studies demonstrating that better solutions are crafted for water, food, and peace when women are at the table. Obviously, this is now also true of climate solutions.

In the final days, the push for a 1.5-degree cap on global warming took center stage. Even the US joined the aptly named High Ambition Coalition to push for 1.5 degrees. Now, with the agreement in the rearview, the world must take stock of what it all means. We agreed to a cap while making commitments that are only sufficient to reduce anticipated warming to 3 degrees Celsius. Every move toward less climate change is exponentially harder than the last. A 1.5-degree cap is twice as hard to achieve as a 2-degree cap, and will require the world to be carbon neutral by 2050.

As sobering as that is, the world must embrace the responsibility of a 1.5-degree cap. Many lives depend on it — indeed, entire nations. In a context rife with the desperate need of so many, the global community must pick up their cause, for it is a worthy one.

The financial system will be essential to the solution. Investors stand to make significant potential gains if they participate in the coming clean economy. They risk losing out if they ignore it.

Divesting from fossil fuels is a key signal to the market that an old era is dying. Investing in renewable energy technologies is the sign that a new one is arriving. Those still holding coal stocks know what it means to hold onto the old era too long. As coal companies such as Patriot Coal and Walter Energy face bankruptcy, those stocks are worth little. Renewable energy is filling that gap, and it is increasingly filling the gaps left by oil and natural gas as well.

The clean energy economy will also mean that those who have been excluded from prosperity by the present system can have a shot at it in the new one. This is why the women of Paris joined hands with indigenous communities from around the world and stood for justice.

The Divest-Invest movement now needs to make it clear that “fossil fuel–free” means no fossil fuels. It is not enough to divest from the worst polluters — those on the Carbon Underground 200 list— and call it a day. We know what is at stake. Investors who believed they were avoiding the risks associated with fossil fuel companies are still exposed, and their efforts to arrest climate change on behalf of those who have the most to lose are softened.

The global community’s new agreement to hold well below 2 degrees will only mean as much as the actions we all take to enact it. What stands between our intentions and reality is what we do next. Let us be conscious with our consumerism by buying items with lower carbon footprints and avoiding those that lobby against climate change legislation. Let us consciously vote to elect leaders who not only admit that climate change is real, but courageously fight to address it. Let us be conscious investors by being proud of what we own and having fossil fuels be no part of that story.

Join us — for those who have the most to lose.

 

Disclaimer: This article is not an offer or recommendation to buy or sell any security. Donna, Andrew, Hunter, or clients of Principium Investments, LLC may own securities of companies discussed, so don’t make investment decisions based solely on what you read here. Investing is your responsibility, so do your own research and/or consult with a qualified investment adviser whom you trust.

This article appeared in Issue 6 | March/April 2016

To read more inspiring articles from Issue 6 including stories about Greyston Bakery, Dave's Killer Bread, Rising Tide Car wash, and our cover story featuring Leila Janah, Founder of Samasource, purchase a copy of Issue 6 online or on newsstands!

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