“The Conference of the Profiteers” is how some Black, Brown, and Indigenous environmental justice activists have described the 26th Conference of the Parties, or COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference. The conference, which convened in Glasgow, Scotland, earlier this month, has an ambitious-sounding goal of achieving “net-zero” emissions by 2030.
In a Nov. 1 speech in Glasgow, President Joe Biden explicitly cited net-zero emissions as a centerpiece of his approach to climate change, saying, “Our administration has been hard at work unlocking clean energy breakthroughs to drive down the cost of technologies that will require us … to achieve net-zero emissions, and working with the private sector on the next generation of technologies that will power a clean economy of the future.”
But several Black, Brown, and Indigenous activists who attended COP26 say the net-zero framework—and other “market-based solutions” that rely on technological fixes—is no panacea for the disproportionate harm being done to mostly Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, known as front-line communities.
“What’s being negotiated at COP26 is the making of another carbon market,” says Ananda Lee Tan, strategy advisor to the Just Transition Alliance in San Diego, California.
“Grassroots movements and movements representing the voices of front-line communities have to take an oppositional stance to COP26 and its frameworks of net-zero emissions, its framework of carbon capture and storage, carbon trading and offsets, and the myriad subsidies they’re hoping to provide dirty energy,” Tan said frankly in a Zoom call from Glasgow.
Jonathan Alingu, co-director of Central Florida Jobs with Justice, who also attended COP26, agrees.
“Untested technologies brought up at COP26, they’re all going to be placed in these Black, Brown, [and] Indigenous communities,” says Alingu. “The picture looks really grand when you see it on TV, but the results of that will be at the expense of Black people’s health, Brown people’s health, Indigenous people’s health.”
Tan, Alingu, and their colleagues see racial justice as a central tenet of climate justice and offer solutions that are quite different from net-zero emissions, carbon capture, and other similar ideas championed by political and corporate elites at COP26. Those solutions include phasing out fossil fuels and following the lead of front-line communities.
Why Technological Fixes to Climate Change Could Harm People of Color
The idea behind net-zero is that if enough greenhouse-gas emissions are removed from the environment to balance out those emissions being generated to power the global economy, the net effect on the atmosphere will be effectively neutral.
But Alejandría Lyons, environmental justice organizer with the SouthWest Organizing Project, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, says, “It’s not a real solution, it’s a false solution, and it’s going to continue to affect our communities because we’re the ones that these offsets are always put towards.”
José Bravo, executive director of the Just Transition Alliance, concurs, and explains that “for communities of color in the United States and in the environmental justice movement, what ‘net-zero’ means is that in aggregate pollution, carbon emissions for much of the population will go down.” But for communities at the “fenceline” of these industries, “carbon emissions will go up.”
Such concerns are based on decades of disproportionately deadly impacts of extractive and polluting industries placed in low-income communities of color. A recent investigation on pollution in the U.S. by ProPublica concluded that areas “where the majority of residents are people of color experience about 40% more cancer-causing industrial air pollution on average than tracts where the residents are mostly white.” Additionally, “In predominantly Black census tracts, the estimated cancer risk from toxic air pollution is more than double that of majority-white tracts.”
If and when innovations such as carbon-capture plants become viable, there is a consensus among activists of color at COP26 that their communities will bear the disproportionate brunt of the technology’s potential negative impact, as stated above by Alingu, who marched in the streets of Glasgow alongside Lyons and Bravo.
“In our communities, there is much of the production of carbon emissions and little of the reductions, because companies can buy pollution credits,” says Bravo.
Conference of the Profiteers?
While offsetting greenhouse gases so the net result is zero emissions sounds like an elegant theoretical solution to climate change, the technology to achieve it—such as carbon capture—is, according to the BBC, “still emerging, very expensive and as yet unproven.” Climate scientists are increasingly skeptical of the viability of such an approach.
But the world’s largest private asset management firm, BlackRock, which climate activists have dubbed “the world’s top investor in climate destruction,” has backed the idea of net-zero emissions to address climate change, as have about 20% of the top multinational firms in the world. One reason may be that there are trillions of dollars in technology financing up for grabs.
Tan says a net-zero approach privileges “the industries that are most responsible for causing this crisis, the most carbon-intensive, the most polluting industries,” and provides them “loopholes and ways in which they can continue to profiteer off causing harm.”
A recent analysis of COP26 attendees by numerous watchdog groups concluded, “Fossil fuel lobbyists as a bloc outnumber the biggest country delegation.” Echoing what has become a common refrain among activists, Bravo said the Conference of the Parties really represents a “Conference of the Profiteers.”
What Would Real Climate Solutions Centered on Racial Justice Look Like?
Alingu, Bravo, Lyons, and Tan traveled to Glasgow for COP26 as part of It Takes Roots, a delegation of climate justice activists of color from the U.S. and Canada. Lyons says it is important for activists like her to be present at global climate meetings because historically the voices of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people have been “completely left out.”
“And our communities are always the last at the table,” Lyon says.
According to Tan, the COP26 negotiations are taking place within a “colonial framework,” meaning wealthy nations are exercising their privilege to protect their own interests.
In response, Indigenous activists led a series of actions over a period of five days in late October in Washington, D.C., in preparation for the Glasgow convening. They dubbed the protests “People vs. Fossil Fuels” and demanded President Biden “Build Back Fossil Free,” an obvious reference to the president’s landmark Build Back Better legislation.
Then, in Glasgow on Nov. 6, many of those same activists marched alongside an estimated 100,000 people denouncing net-zero as a “smoke screen,” and demanding that fossil fuels remain in the ground. Over the course of the global meeting, activists, including delegates from It Takes Roots, continued carrying out smaller-scale actions to bring attention to the false solutions of net-zero.
“We seek real solutions, not net-zero nonsense,” says Tan.
The baseline demand many climate justice activists are making is the elimination of fossil fuels altogether, which they say would directly address the source of the problem. The fact that the phasing out of a fossil fuel such as coal was explicitly mentioned in a draft agreement circulating at COP26 for the first time was, according to the Washington Post, “a welcome breakthrough for most activists,” and is likely the result of relentless pressure from grassroots groups that have demanded such language be inserted into COP agreements for years.
They posit that if industries continue to extract and burn fossil fuels, humanity will not survive, and no amount of technological fixes will suffice.
But even phasing out fossil fuels by keeping them in the ground is insufficient.
In order to not repeat the environmental racial injustices of the past, “There needs to be actual power for these communities to come to the table,” says Lyons, “[because] historically folks that come from traditional and Indigenous communities, they have solutions and have learned to work with the land.”
Tan agrees, saying that what is needed is a “just transition” away from fossil fuels. That transition must “center the voices of those most impacted,” he adds. “[And it must include] deepening democracy and … turning to the voices and the knowledge who have the longest living relationships with the land.”
Sonali Kolhatkar is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also the host and creator of Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women's Mission. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023). She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional path in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host.” She can be reached at sonalikolhatkar.com