As the world looks forward from COP27, the next steps in global climate change action must center on the urgent needs of the global South. Climate change is a global emergency, and in times of emergency, careful consideration must be given to the historical actions that have forged the path to the present. Examining our shared global past is invaluable to establishing a framework in which the international community may justly respond to the climate crises threatening the present and future.

For a vast portion of humanity, the impending threats issued by climate change are already tangible rather than looming potentials. As the sea levels rise, biodiversity rapidly declines, and poverty and displacement ensue, it is worth reiterating that those least responsible for climate change are the worst affected by its cataclysms. This fact is emphasized by an article from Generation Climate Europe, which found the “top 10% of global emitters (771 million individuals) were responsible for about 48% of global CO2 emissions, while the bottom 50% (3.8 billion individuals) were responsible for almost 12% of all emissions” in 2019. Climate change is an all-encompassing issue, yet its impacts and suffering are distributed unevenly and without proportion to culpability. Climate justice in the global South is a pressing matter and one that should not be discarded to the “backburner” of our global priorities. While climate justice was taken at least somewhat seriously at the United Nations COP27 conference, little effort seems to have been made to change the business-as-usual approach to addressing climate change, which inherently furthers climate injustice in the global South.

Inequalities of the Past and Plight of the Global South

The climate crisis is an inevitable consequence of the Western development model: actions governed by a social order that has historically prioritized a growth paradigm. Climate change, and the uncertainty it entails, is the challenge of our time. Yet, its origins can be traced back through the centuries, expressing it as a problem of patterns. Within this context, even actions during colonialism sowed the seeds of the climate crisis, which have noticeably bloomed over the past 50 to 60 years. Important regional and adaptive practices were disregarded and scrubbed from westernized history as colonialism established extractivist relationships and dependence on the global South. During this era, colonial powers effectively reorganized the world’s social order, predicating it on southern subservience to the global North, thereby transforming the flow of energy and resources through an unsustainable and unequal global system. 

In the wake of the globalization project in the 1980s, predatory lending by the global North left global South countries spending significant portions of their GDPs on loan servicing rather than crucial infrastructure, public health, and social services investments that could have increased climate resilience (see Fantu Cheru’s analysis in the African context). Relatedly, neoliberal measures, as Adrian Parr argues, are ineffective responses to the challenges climate change presents. Instead, in this era, western export manufacturing was relocated to global South countries as a means to avoid higher expenses and environmental regulations. Global financial institutions and corporations used their extraordinary powers to manipulate the rules of the game, privileging corporate control and shrinking the power of Southern states. The adverse long-term effects of this world order, including extreme inequality, are numerous, impacting the health, economies, and environments of many marginalized communities. Current approaches to climate change are unjust and disproportionately harm the global South, mirroring the same inequalities of the past. 

Many countries in the global South are already suffering the impacts of climate change, especially those located near tropical areas and associated worsening tropical storms. For example, India suffered historic heat waves this past spring, and Pakistan suffered historic flooding. Pakistan, to be noted, contributes less than one percent of greenhouse gas emissions while being one of the countries most affected by climate change.

Similarly, northern Kenya is facing prolonged droughts, which leave rural areas with greater chances of starvation, and parts of Bangladesh are now underwater due to extreme rain, destroying many homes. Bangladesh’s southwest region is home to more than 18 million people and is no more than seven feet above sea level. Bangladesh is thus described as “ground zero” for climate change. Bangladesh and other countries in similar geographical locations urgently need a climate response, as their coastal position makes them increasingly vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Although some of the increased vulnerability of global South countries is due to their geographic location, the legacy of colonialism and the structural adjustment policies (SAPs) of the globalization project have also greatly contributed to their current vulnerability. The push for climate justice is therefore intertwined with a push for social justice in the global South. Put differently, climate justice is needed to address the disparity between global South and North nations.

Business as Usual and Agricultural Injustice

The COP27 conference has included the unprecedented yet long-overdue creation of a fund to address climate justice in the face of increasing climate-driven catastrophes. This fund, despite issues, could signal an important shift in global perception of the fight against climate change. Although world leaders at COP27 once again emphasized collective actions to achieve climate goals, their reliance mainly on a business-as-usual approach contradicts their commitment to climate justice issues. To be specific, fossil fuels still comprise around 85 percent of global energy. Even so, Philip McMichael and Heloise Weber note that the fossil fuel industry receives up to $1 trillion in annual subsidies, which is over $100 trillion of unburned carbon, and over $10 trillion for the fossil fuel sector’s infrastructure. On the other hand, in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, one million square kilometers of forest have been cut down or burned since 1978 at a rate of almost 10,000 acres a day.  Forests in Brazil, Africa, and Indonesia are destroyed for resources, contributing to carbon emissions, as well as degrading fundamental ecosystems that play a critical role in reducing the level of atmospheric carbon.

Additionally, the impact of the business-as-usual approach is reflected in the most dominant institutional adaptation activities in the global South. For context, the global South depends heavily on farming and agriculture, and climate change is causing many different native crops to yield a much lower number than they normally would. Rising heat is also an issue for a great variety of crops, and has wiped out many yields over the past decade because of the horrific droughts and minimal water. 

In addition to the ill effects of the climate crisis, the ways in which dominant institutions develop strategies to adapt exacerbate food and water scarcity. Kasia Paprocki (2021) in her Threatening Dystopias: The Global Politics of Climate Change Adaptation in Bangladesh discusses how elites and rich countries use the rural poor of the global South, particularly in Bangladesh, as pawns to experiment with adaptations to climate change. One such example is the development of the shrimp aquaculture sector. In the face of threats posed by climate change in Bangladesh, the invention of the shrimp exports industry “is seen as critical to the expansion of ‘non-crop agriculture,’ which the World Bank regards as a more productive sector and therefore necessary to the growth of Bangladesh’s economy.” Yet, vast communities of farmers and other rural inhabitants have historically depended on rice agriculture. As certain actors within the development regime intervene and push the transition to shrimp aquaculture, the livelihoods that rely on rice agriculture are threatened and ultimately dispossessed.

Furthermore, increased soil salinity is a major consequence of the shrimp aquaculture industry, which compounds the environmental degradation brought forth by climate change. Industrial agriculture, which uses 80 percent of arable land while feeding only 30 percent of the population, serves the affluent global minority with huge purchasing power, not the population in dire need. Thus, agricultural justice should be a characteristic of climate justice to provide security for the majority of Earth’s inhabitants.

Effective Climate Action Is Just

Effective climate action is and should center on the voices of the historically marginalized people, including indigenous peoples, who best know the land they have lived on for countless generations. For example, an International Institute for Environment and Development report shows that public participatory monitoring in Semarang, Indonesia, has emphasized a “localized understanding of needs.” Such a localized understanding of vulnerability has proven to be successful in improving the adaptive capacity of local communities facing threats posed by climate change. This understanding is necessary worldwide, and climate justice can amplify the voices teaching this worldview. Top-down adaptation in the name of assisting local communities seems to only inflame their problems, as evident in Bangladesh’s shrimp industry, for there is a clear lack of understanding of the community itself or its needs. 

The global South faces a multitude of social injustices that are further exposed and exacerbated by climate change. Major carbon emitters should take accountability for their actions and the harm they have done to the planet. If measures are taken to tend to the global South countries, lessening the injustices they experience, then not only will the people of the global South and the global North reap the benefits, but planetary health will improve too. Moreover, if the conference in Egypt was held to build on previous accomplishments and lay the groundwork for future ambition to address the global challenge of climate change successfully, then global leaders must act swiftly and justly. While the fund created at COP27 is commendable, it will not address all of these issues or accomplish all of these possibilities, but it is a vital part of the nascent movement for climate justice. Actions taken in accordance with the current global order will most likely result in the same outcomes: environmental decay and humanitarian crises. Climate justice will not occur overnight, but it requires a reexamination of the global order to effectively deal with the crisis and injustice unleashed by climate change worldwide.

IMAGE: In this picture taken on September 27, 2022, internally displaced flood-affected people wade through a flooded area in Dadu district of Sindh province. (Photo by RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP via Getty Images)