Climate Justice in Latin America: Direct Lessons from On-the-ground Activists

This Earth Day, every newspaper was reporting on President Biden’s bold statement that the U.S. would achieve 50% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. While it’s a relief to finally see climate change being brought to the forefront in public policy, young environmentalists across the Global North need to be reflecting on two very important questions in response to this announcement.

First, whose voices are most necessary to listen to on decisions regarding climate policy and action?

And second, how can we ensure that the U.S. and other responsible parties are prioritizing the right solutions in the face of so many options?

Foto: Friend of the Earth

As a young environmentalist from the U.S. myself, I was thankful for the opportunity to intern remotely with La Ruta del Clima and have these questions answered directly. With help from the intern team, I Zoomed with several Latin American activists about some of the transformative work they’ve been doing on climate justice at their respective civil society organizations over the years. Even through a laptop screen, I could clearly hear the passion in their voices as they conveyed the universality of their experiences in the Global South.

And while there’s always room for greater understanding, the most important thing I took away from these activists is that principles of human rights and justice are the lifeblood of effective, equitable, and comprehensive climate action. This offers a lesson for Americans and other residents in the Global North–that our economic-driven approach to policy-making on climate change and other issues bears witness to the historical inequities and social injustices we’ve inflicted on the Global South. 

So what are the roots of climate injustice in Latin America and the Global South, how has the concept advanced over time and space, and who is ultimately responsible for mending the damages caused by climate change?

Each activist I interviewed traced the history of climate injustice back to exploitation of the Global South and industrialization in Global North. In the words of Jhoanna Cifuentes, Director of Public Relations at ClimaLab, “Those who are responsible are the countries and corporations that have more emissions and have inflicted more costs… They should be compensating for the effects of climate change”.

Carmen Gonzalez supports these claims in her research on “Racial Capitalism, Climate Justice, and Climate Displacement”. She argues that the Global North has always prioritized profits over people and the planet. Counter to the American viewpoint that we’ve significantly progressed, the world has simply transferred over from an exploitive system of colonization and slavery to an exploitive system of modern global capitalism.

In her other research, Gonzalez zeros in on the neoliberal economic and political reforms imposed on Latin America by the Global North, primarily the U.S., in the 1980s and 90s. Rather than promote sustainable development, these reforms promoted an economic model of export-led growth and foreign economic interference. Anaid Velasco from CEMDA, an NGO that defends natural resources in Mexico, says that while the reforms’ effects look different across different productive industries today, they all contribute to social and environmental injustice in Latin America.

Countries and corporations from the Global North are thus seen as power-hungry trespassers by Latin American activists. Santiago Rivera, a member of an alternative communication space led and managed by youth called Agencia Joven de Noticias, builds on Velasco’s comments: “The Global North is looking for our natural resources and wants to take them… this is why we need to fight against globalization and defend our resources”. 

To worsen the situation, Latin America is also much more geographically vulnerable to the effects of climate change than many countries in the Global North. Cifuentes says that, together, these variations in geographic vulnerability and development make for an interesting relationship because while “the Global South is least responsible for climate change, it also has the least capacity for responding to it due to uneven economic development…The Global North is most responsible yet has more capacity to adapt due to their economic resources”. “Easier mechanisms to participate and better organizations” in the Global North have also led to better adaptation measures according to Rivera. 

Put into context, these sustained social, political, and economic inequalities show us how climate change is experienced more violently by countries in the Global South, like in the Latin American region, versus countries in the Global North, like the U.S.. It therefore only makes sense that perceptions of climate justice also differ between the two regions.

Then how do these historical injustices come to bear on perceptions of climate justice in the Global South? And how do these perceptions differ from those held in the Global North? 

For one, the activists I interviewed see that there’s a more immediate need for climate justice in Latin America because it can mean life or death in many circumstances. It is undeniable that climate change acts as a “threat multiplier”, intensifying or instigating other issues of human security and wellbeing. 

Velasco illustrated how the consequences of climate change compound other social injustices during our interview: “If I find myself in a situation of poverty where I do not have access to drinking water, the impacts of climate change deepen this lack of access to drinking water if derived from a drought”. She says it may also worsen other welfare factors like “access to education, decent housing, the right to work, and displacement”.

This contradicts the Global North’s more detached attitude towards climate change. Instead of seeing “climate change as a crisis that we need to fight against”, like Rivera, many see it as a distant issue that affects distant countries. And because of this, there is less urgency surrounding climate justice in the Global North.  

According to Cifuentes, it is also useful for Latin American activists “to talk about human rights” when addressing climate change. Javier Gonzalez, a senior attorney at the environmental advocacy organization AIDA, said that “the Global South has more indigenous communities living in ecosystems we need to preserve [to mitigate] climate change. In the North, there’s few cases of this besides the pipeline. In the South, this isn’t the exception but the rule.”

Gonzalez and Cifuentes argue that because the Global North contains fewer  indigenous groups and valuable biodiverse regions than the Global South, there is generally less of a focus on human rights and justice within the Northern environmental movement. The Global South has a “broader view of climate justice overall”, says Cifuentes, because conflicts over indigenous land are so prevalent. 

“If in the North they talk about climate justice in terms of youth and the next generations, the South talks about climate justice to fight against violence toward indigenous people, women, and hunger” says Rivera. We see from this that social justice movements in Latin America—including the climate justice movement—actively build off of each other’s messaging. This is because Latin American activists more easily recognize the interconnections between their demands and the urgent need for collective action than perhaps activists in the U.S. and other Northern countries do.

These overlaps between indigenous justice, climate justice, and other forms of justice in Latin America teach us that combating climate change involves taking the technical solutions paraded around by the Global North and transforming them into human-centered solutions. Like Gonzalez stresses, “Climate justice tries to find justice for every type of person in all countries”. If our climate solutions aren’t recognizing the dignity and value of all human beings, then they’re also a part of the problem. 

With these principles in mind, how can we work together to achieve climate justice at the international level?

One way to achieve climate justice according to the activists I interviewed is expanding participation in decision-making processes on climate policy. Rivera notes that having “ways to participate to create a strategy to fight against climate change” is vital to achieving climate justice. This open channel of communication between activists and policymakers helps to transform grassroots ideas “into laws or documents that can then be turned into actions that do something real”, says Cifuentes.

It’s oftentimes difficult, however, for groups experiencing the worst effects of climate change to even access the global stage to communicate their experiences, visions, and goals for climate action. Velasco believes that NGOs can be a part of the solution by acting as bridges that “help make visible the affectations that certain populations face and bringing them to international negotiations”. Cifuentes agrees that this is a viable pathway if NGOs avoid the trap of tokenism.

A second way of working towards climate justice is for responsible countries to recognize their contributions to climate change, and, just as importantly, their moral obligation in mitigating emissions and social injustices. For example, the U.S. should compensate countries in the Global South for historical emissions in addition to helping fund climate mitigation and adaptation projects that go beyond emergency aid for climate-related disasters.

Even then, though, “The compensation is not sufficient because nothing can compare to what was lost”, says Cifuentes. Velasco illustrates the “intangible aspects” of this loss by referencing the effects of internal displacement on groups in Latin America. “Losing the place where you were born for indigenous and non-indigenous communities is a very important connection”, she says, “…because it signifies a loss of roots”.

A third strategy for achieving climate justice is replacing the current “one-size-fits-all” approach to international climate action with local, place-based solutions. This stands in contrast to the dominant approach of carbon markets and trading that countries in the Global North have chosen to adopt with permission from the Paris Climate Agreement. Carbon markets and trading are not only insufficient for reaching the 1.5-2 degrees Celsius marker, but they’ve also been found to displace indigenous groups in the Global South who rely on these carbon sinks as part of their livelihoods. As Julia Dehm contends in her article on “Carbon Colonialism or Climate Justice?”, carbon markets and trading may just be exploitation manifesting itself again under the guise “international cooperation”.

Climate action is even difficult to implement on the regional level because the productive activities that drive each nation and region are vastly different according to Velasco. For climate action to actually work, “climate justice mechanisms must be inserted into each country’s productive sectors”, she says.

Cifuentes enlarges this perspective, saying that “it is vital to strengthen local, subnational, and national governments first” and “reconnect them with their citizens”. Doing so will center human rights in the discussion on climate change, providing “a common language among the different nations” that will lead us towards “effective and fair international climate governance”. Like Rivera says, “Change capacities should work for the communities they’re supposed to help”. So why not start with the needs and wants of those communities first?

In hindsight of my conversations with Santiago Rivera, Jhoanna Cifuentes, Javier Gonzalez, and Anaid Velasco, I am taking Biden’s Earth Day announcement with a grain of salt. Yes, while a 50% reduction below 2005 levels is certainly news to be celebrated, this latest commitment to climate action must look at climate change solutions from a globally-conscious social justice perspective for it to be effective and ethical. Solely focusing on technology and market-oriented solutions that are good for the economy are half measures that will ultimately not get us to where we need to be. 

What will get us started on the path there is, first, actually acknowledging the injustices we’ve exacted and continue to exact on countries in Latin America and the rest of the Global South. And second, following up with collective support and advocacy of solutions that center the most marginalized voices in our societies and address their demands for social justice across the spectrum. 

Like the activists I interviewed emphasized, compensation, justice, and urgency are the key missing ingredients from the Global North’s current approach to climate change. It’s only when we begin to advance grassroots proposals that combat economic imbalances, social inequities, and violence alongside climate change, that we can then consider ourselves as contributing to truly bold climate action that reflects the dignity of human and non-human beings alike. 

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