I am witnessing the devastating impacts of the climate crisis play out in real-time. In my country, the Gambia, in West Africa, farmers’ crops are failing due to drought. In coastal areas, communities are extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels. As livelihoods are destroyed, people are being displaced from their homes.
While the focus of Cop26 has been on reducing emissions, this is only part of the equation. Poorer countries, which contribute least to global emissions, must be supported so they can adapt to the growing consequences of a warming world.
Leaders are failing to grasp the urgency of the climate crisis before us, which can no longer be seen as an abstract threat. It is already happening now. And as the recent IPCC report unequivocally laid out, the impacts will worsen.
As global warming threatens to spiral out of control, bringing with it increasingly extreme weather and climate shocks, the future for people living in poorer countries has become increasingly precarious.
A deeply unfair situation exists today where people living in fragile states and poorer countries are set to suffer the most. The evidence is there. The International Rescue Committee has found that the climate crisis is already a major driver of hunger around the world. Thirty-four million people are currently experiencing emergency levels of acute food insecurity. This is likely to rise.
Where resources become increasingly scarce, conflict will worsen. Seven of the 10 countries that are most vulnerable to the climate crisis are already experiencing conflict and fragility.
It is women and girls who will shoulder this burden. Cultural expectations on women to care for their families will not fall, even when livelihoods are destroyed as a result of the climate crisis. We already know that economic downturns lead to increased levels of gender-based violence.
Women’s livelihoods are also on the line. In the Gambia, women constitute about 70 per cent of the agricultural workforce, yet face inadequate access to basic natural resources needed for farming, which land degradation will further exacerbate.
There is a great injustice at the heart of all of this. All too often, underrepresented groups, such as women living in fragile states, understand most about what is at stake and, therefore, the solutions needed to tackle the climate crisis.
Yet women, in particular, have been systematically excluded from the decision-making table. At the last Climate Summit, Cop25, in Chile, only one-third of negotiating bodies had female representation of more than 38 per cent.
The UK, as host of Cop26 this year, had an opportunity to lead change, by championing the participation of women across all levels of negotiation. But the UK has not done enough to create equal representation.
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Climate justice must be at the heart of the UK’s leadership at Cop26. A climate justice approach is about recognising the unequal impact of the climate crisis both between and within countries, empowering those most at risk to act, and ensuring marginalised groups are represented.
Leading a youth-led NGO in the Gambia which works on gender, climate change, conservation and action for climate empowerment, I have seen first-hand how the disproportionate impact of the climate crisis continues to persist in vulnerable communities. As such, for the UK to put climate justice at the heart of Cop26, here are three priorities.
Firstly, the UK must push for equal representation of women, as well as youth and other marginalised groups. These underrepresented groups must be included at all levels, from the highest echelons of global decision-making at Cop, to the design and implementation of national action plans. Justice is about having your voice heard and being included in the process.
Secondly, the UK should support vulnerable countries to deliver the national climate action plans they have devised. This means UK aid can support locally driven climate programmes that empower people on the frontline of the climate crisis. In turn, the UK could use its diplomatic channels to encourage greater inclusion of women and other less-represented groups in the plans.
Finally, climate finance is not flowing to lower-income countries at the rate required. Oxfam found that in 2017-18, only 20.5 per cent of bilateral climate finance went to the least-developed countries. Furthermore, the majority of this finance was in the form of loans, burdening lower-income countries even further. The UK must push donors to increase climate funding to low-income countries and ensure that this funding is in the form of grants.
Last month, when Boris Johnson addressed the UN in New York, he said that Cop26 will be the “turning point for humanity”. Yet as long as large swathes of humanity remain underrepresented and unsupported, action at Cop will have little meaning.
The fight cannot be won through well-meaning words, one-off programmes or snappy press releases. It requires a strategic, systematic approach that builds alliances of the willing and drives catalytic change. A climate justice approach is the single-best hope the world has.
Fatou Jeng is the founder of Clean Earth Gambia, a NGO focused on gender, climate change, conservation and environmental awareness. Fatou is writing an essay, as part of a series with the Royal United Services Institute and the International Rescue Committee, which will be published later this year
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