Why Americans Must Pay Attention to Copenhagen

Rinku Sen

Negotiations have resumed in Copenhagen after a walkout by the African delegation on Monday. African governments were concerned with the lack of commitment by rich country governments to reducing their own emissions. This follows on the heels of last week’s leaked Danish text” controversy; the text contained proposals that have the world’s poorest countries carrying the largest share of the environmental burden. 

Wealthy countries have done the most environmental damage—the top 10 contribute nearly 70 percent of all carbon emissions.

How the Obama Administration deals with fairness questions in Copenhagen will signal what we can expect domestically as we respond to the recession by building a green economy.

Wealthy countries have done the most environmental damage – the top 10 contribute nearly 70 percent of all carbon emissions. Yet the Danish draft ignores these numbers, requiring the poor to reduce twice as much as the wealthy. This is expensive - it’s cheaper and faster to use existing energy sources to produce plastic, say, rather than to develop new energy for new products that don’t hurt the environment. The great irony, of course, is that poor countries have already paid for the damage caused by rich ones. I can’t recall the last time a drought or tsunami killed hundreds of thousands of Danes.

The same divisions have played out in our own economy. Communities of color, who experience the highest rates of joblessness and poverty, have also been hardest hit by environmental injustices. According to J. Andrew Hoerner and Nia Robinson of Redefining Progress, African Americans suffer a number of losses from environmental degradation. Remember the heat waves of recent summers? They caused black people to die almost twice as often as whites. Racism itself fuels the climate crisis by generating inefficient overdevelopment. White flight” and racial segregation in earlier decades meant growing white suburbs while rural and urban neighborhoods populated by people of color fell prey to the discriminatory placement of toxic incinerators, power plants, factories, and other big polluters.

These inequities have been thrown into high relief by the current recession. Officially, unemployment among blacks and Latinos runs almost 50 percent higher than it does for whites. The California jobless rate for whites was 10.7; for blacks and Latinos over 14 percent. Among young blacks and Latinos, the rate is over 50 percent.

Green jobs could save our economy. Hoerner and Robinson note that renewable electricity schemes generate three to five times more jobs than similar efforts based on fossil fuels. Great models for jobs programs are emerging at the local level, like the building retrofit program with local hiring and other equity requirements that the City of Los Angeles established under pressure from the Apollo Alliance. San Francisco and Oakland have released new plans to green their buildings, neighborhoods and industries in coming years.

Yet, it would be all too easy to build a green economy as unfair as the industrial age has been. People of color hold less than 30% of green jobs. Moreover, we’re concentrated in low-skill jobs such as weatherization and urban horticulture, which are seasonal or otherwise temporary. By contrast, white men occupy ninety percent of executive jobs in green sectors. The gendered picture is even worse. A study by the Women of Color Policy Network shows that black women occupy 1.5 percent, Latinas 1 percent and Asian women, 0.7 percent of energy-related jobs.

To ensure real change, local communities have begun to use an equity impact analysis tool to push for higher standards and more resources to historically disadvantaged communities. The tool measures the actual outcomes of emerging green economic programs to help us see if they’re eliminating barriers to employment, such as lack of public transportation; achieving racial and gender parity in contracting and employment; and creating good jobs with livable wages, benefits and career paths. Those outcomes are key to overall economic growth. Economies marked by large inequities have a tendency to stagnate or crash.

The Obama Administration has taken a lift all boats” approach to the domestic economy. The great failure of this approach is that it leaves in place the gap between rich and poor. Equity doesn’t mean that everyone gets the same resources, but rather that each person (or country) gets what it needs according to both responsibility and capacity. In equitable situations, well-off communities and countries make more sacrifices than poor ones because the system accounts for the fact that they’ve benefited or suffered respectively from the reverse.

Thousands of people from the global South have converged on Copenhagen this month, fearing that a plan controlled by a handful of wealthy countries will set the parameters for fighting climate change. They’re educating each other, protesting bad action, pushing for equitable solutions, and generally setting their own standards for solving the climate crisis. As the climate debate hits home, Americans should lobby our own government for a fair domestic plan, one that includes all the people who have been left out in the heat for too long.

This article was originally published at Alter​net​.org

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Rinku Sen is the president and executive director of the Applied Research Center and the publisher of ColorLines magazine. She is the author of Stir it Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy and The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization.
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