COP27’s Newest Headliner: Environmental Justice

Environmental justice must be at the forefront of every conversation about climate change.

Climate activists held demonstration in front of International Convention Center to protest the negative effects of climate change, as the UN climate summit COP27 continues in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt on November 18, 2022. (Photo by Mohamed Abdel Hamid/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

These past two weeks, I along with hundreds of other climate advocates and world leaders convened in the coastal town of Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt for the U.N.’s annual climate change conference—COP27. We gathered against the backdrop of an earth growing warmer by the second, on the heels of one of the most destructive and deadly weather years our world has ever seen. This summit provided an opportunity to harness the power of the world’s leading economies to more seriously reverse the trends of climate change and pollution, especially for communities from the Global South including our Gulf South at home.

Since the founding of the environmental justice community over 40 years ago, we have fought to raise the alarm about climate change and the harmful fossil fuels that destroy communities, lives and the promise of future generations. While we have been encouraged by recent efforts to center environmental justice and its impact on communities, there is no justice or equity in incentivizing new industrial sources of toxic pollution and hazards in Black and other communities of color.

At this year’s U.N. gathering, members of the global environmental justice movement pushed for bolder and more equitable solutions to tackle our world’s biggest problems.

Unlike years past, as serious thinkers and change-makers debate how to combat climate change, the communities who are most impacted were finally given a global megaphone to share their stories.

This year, as I traveled to COP for the 13th time, my organization, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in partnership with WE ACT for Environmental Justice (WE ACT), and the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University (BCECJ) hosted a Climate Justice Pavilion designed to foster environmental justice conversations between diplomats, policymakers, businesses and professional advocates.

This first-of-its-kind pavilion brought together people from the Global South, the U.S. environmental justice movement and Indigenous peoples to highlight the voices of communities disproportionately impacted by our climate crisis. The pavilion focused on historically overlooked sectors of climate policy, including the risk of carbon capture and storage technology to front-line communities and the need for just solutions to reduce carbon.

With policy proposals such as carbon capture and storage, or CCS, rising in popularity, it is important to raise awareness of the dangers of these false solutions. In reality, the expansion of carbon capture increases the risk of illness and injuries to the communities of color that typically live around these plants. It is a step backward in our fight to reverse the decades of damage done by the oil and gas industry.

As we wind down from COP27, we encourage decision-makers to shift their focus to equity-centered solutions such as local clean energy workforce development and training. This is a direct way governments and businesses can financially invest in local communities of color after years of colonialism and environmental racism. In this way, those most likely to be impacted will see financial benefits from climate policy. The same way corporations do.

Environmental justice must be at the forefront of every conversation about climate change and what our country and others will do to reverse the dangerous path we are on. From the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States to the significance of hosting a climate conference on the content of Africa, we welcome the opportunity to make bolder strides toward environmental and climate justice.

We have come a long way from my first COP in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1998, and it has been amazing to see climate and environmental justice take center stage at this year’s convening. Together, we will continue to work to undo centuries of attitudes that have led to injustice and disinvestment, to center policies that promote equity and the duty to protect vulnerable communities disproportionately endangered by climate change. Only by pursuing equitable policies and clean energy transition plans can we successfully tackle climate change and protect the world’s most vulnerable communities.

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Dr. Beverly Wright is founder and executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, and a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. Deep South Center for Environmental Justice is a partner of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Beyond Petrochemicals campaign.