I had the opportunity to go to Paris as one of 30 delegates from the Gulf South Rising Movement. We went to Paris with the goal of networking with other frontline communities across the globe, particularly the Global South, and exchanging stories of our respective struggles and triumphs in the fight for climate justice. It was truly a life changing experience for me. Not only did I have the pleasure of meeting climate justice activists from all over the world, but I also spent a week with some of the most passionate, talented, and conscientious climate activists in the Gulf region.
For those of you who have been following the news about COP21 in Paris, you have likely heard of the international agreement that sets an aggressive global temperature limitation well below the 2 degrees that many scientists believe would bring about catastrophic climate chaos. You may have also read about the criticism of the agreement and of the real fear many front-line communities across the globe have because even though 195 countries agreed to limit emissions, the path toward reduction outlined in the agreement reflects the same business as usual and false-solution approach that thwarts any real progress and perpetuates inequalities between nations and within them.
During my trip one of the delegates asked me what brought me to this work. To my surprise the question was difficult to answer. I had not given much thought about what brought me to the climate justice movement. The stock answer is because it is, as I see it, the most important issue of our time, but as a babbled my way through an explanation, stories of my childhood began to emerge. I recalled feeling the shame and humiliation of growing up poor in South Mississippi. Though I did not come from an area with a lot of wealth, those who had less than everyone else were teased, and even as the teasing stopped as I grew older, the shame and feeling less valuable lingered in my very being and stirred within in me what I now understand as a spirit of resistance. I did not want to accept that my life circumstances were something I should be made to feel ashamed of or that my mother who raised six children with little help from anyone else should ever be made to feel that her struggle was only all of her own doing and hers alone to carry. I personally resisted being part of a world in which people judged each other for who they are or what they have and did not feel some level of responsibility to the health and wellbeing of another human being. It was this spirit of resistance and commitment to change the world as I saw it growing up that compelled me to pursue a degree in political science, to volunteer my time for many social justice causes, to work in non-profit, and to my involvement in the climate justice movement.
You may be wondering what does growing up poor in South Mississippi has to do with climate justice? The climate justice movement is more than stopping the climate chaos. It is also about challenging the current systems that create all forms of oppression. The cause of the climate crisis and the injustices throughout the world are interconnected. It is not just because CO2 levels are rising that we are on the brink of a premature 6th extinction. The knowledge and technology to move away from the fossil fuel industry exists. What we lack is the political will to do something about it and the reason for this is because, more often than not and throughout the world, profits and power are prioritized over people.
People of color, women and the poor are often treated as pawns in the pursuit of the concentration of wealth and power. In the United States, we are actually taught to believe that the current economic, political, and social systems create the kinds of opportunities any person needs to achieve the American dream. It is in part the widespread acceptance of this myth, the well funded interests protecting the status quo, and the inability for many to see the interrelatedness of all forms of oppression that often keeps the masses from cultivating the kind of spirit of resistance that would demand change and force our political leaders to act on behalf of the interests of all people instead of the corporate profiteers.
Even as I write this blog, anger and frustration stir inside of me because of the challenge I know that lies ahead, especially in a state like Mississippi, where many people and political leaders do not even believe that climate change is a problem much less fully grasp the threat that lies ahead. We are already seeing the impact of climate change in our state and country and have for many years been aware of the harm the extractive industries have had on our communities. Even though the commitment President Obama made is noteworthy as a step in the right direction, our current federal and state legislatures charged with implementing the needed changes within our own country are unlikely to do so. This coupled with the failure of the Global North to fully commit to the cost and actions our nations should bear and must take for creating the global climate crisis and the devastating impact our governments, international organizations, and multinational corporations have had on the oppression of people in the Global South leaves me to wonder if the agreement is something to celebrate.
It certainly seems hopeless to think that the biggest contributors to the problem will move quickly enough to stop the climate crisis, but yet, I am inspired by the climate activists that I met at the conference that continue to fight what more often than not seems like a loosing battle. Whatever their reason for being part of this movement, they too have a spirit of resistance within each of them. They fight even if the outcome looks grim because they too cannot accept the world as it is. As I listened to stories from indigenous and frontline people living in Suriname, Canada, Tibet, Zenhab, Nigeria, Korea, and Indonesia, a common theme emerged, preventing the climate crisis is not just about ensuring our survival but also about restoring our humanity.
COP21 was their platform to not only share the struggles of their communities but to bring forth a global paradigm shift that sees and acts on the belief that all life on Earth is connected and it is our collective responsibility to take care of one another. It was in what these activists see as the solution to the climate crisis that reignited the fire in my heart to cultivate that same spirit of resistance in my family and community. In the words of Angela Davis, the people I spent time with in Paris are “people who are not afraid to dream about the possibility of a better world. They say that a non-exploitative, non-racist, democratic economic order is possible. They say that new social relations are possible, ones that link human beings around the globe, not by commodities some produce and others consume, but rather by equality and solidarity and cooperation and respect.”
On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, we have heard over and over again how resilient we are, and though in many ways this is true, it is being resistant to the ideas and systems that perpetuate inequality and compromise the health, wellbeing and sustainability of our communities that we need to become if we are to protect our future on this planet. If you are reading this you are likely to be sympathetic to my rant, but I hope that you too are inspired to share your own story and to use it and the stories of others to build solidarity and help shift the narrative of resilience toward one of resistance.