Insight by Maddie Wolberg, in New York on 22 September 2023
It's Climate Week in NYC, which collides with the UN General Assembly's High-Level Week, which means … lots and lots of traffic across midtown Manhattan, diplomats being driven around in giant black cars with police escorts, and groups of New Yorkers casually crossing paths with heads of state at the stoplight (side note: that was me, standing next to Nobel Peace Laureate and former Colombian President Juan Manual Santos, at the intersection of 44th Street and 1st Avenue. He later gave a remarkable speech about the importance of protecting human rights defenders at the Global Witness panel we were both en route to.)
If there's one thing that always amazes me about New York, it's that it is a great equalizer. Bear with me, this is relevant to climate change. This week I've attended events and webinars with leaders and practitioners of all types from all over the world. I have heard hope-giving stories about innovative climate solutions, well-thought-out strategies by companies and investors to reduce their climate impact, and serious commitments from governments to hold those companies accountable. We are all there because we care about climate issues, but we’re also there because we ourselves--as individuals, as members of communities, as citizens--are ultimately susceptible to the challenges wrought by global warming. At one panel, a representative of the government of Argentina said it best: "If you don't protect nature, you don't protect yourself. This is what we mean by pachamama. If you fool with nature, you fool with your future."
So, back to the point about New York leveling the playing field. It's easy to feel that we're all on the same page and on the same team when we're together, talking about the issues, commiserating about the challenges and learning from one another. But what I found missing throughout the week was a focus on the people who are the most affected by climate change and part of climate action.
By this I mean the people living in the places most affected by floods, by droughts, by hurricanes, by wildfires. Or the people who rely on natural resources to make a basic living, like smallholder farmers, small-scale fishers, artisanal miners. These are the people who have no choice but to go with the tides of climate change. When companies emit greenhouse gas emissions, these people often suffer the most because of their vulnerable position, and have to adapt. When companies put in place renewable energy mitigation measures or carbon offsets that displace communities and use other resources, they have to adapt. For them, adapting is not a choice, it's a lifeline.
All of this came together for me sitting at the Global Witness panel, where a young climate activist from Uganda expressed her frustration of fighting to protect the earth from a fossil fuel project: "What will come of it? The profits and the oil will go to multinational companies who will use it to further environmental problems and climate change, only burdening African people further." Her words gave me a jolt: the people who are most vulnerable to climate change are also a lifeline for the rest of us. We rely on smallholder farmers to produce the raw materials and products that go into our sustainable food, miners to source the metals that go into our solar panels, harvesters to pick the organic cotton that goes into our sustainable clothing, and Indigenous land defenders to protect the forests that absorb CO2.
What is the upshot of all this? We cannot leave human beings out of conversations about climate change, biodiversity and nature. For companies, this means centering people in strategies to address climate change and other issues. For example, agriculture and food and beverage companies can provide funding to empower smallholder farmers to build climate resilience, which will help preserve their livelihoods while also creating a ripple effect across the many brands that source from these farmers. Apparel manufacturers can work with mills to measure and improve their energy efficiency, while also paying a premium to participating suppliers to ensure that millworkers are receiving a living wage. With free, prior and informed consent from Indigenous communities, renewable energy producers can preserve traditional farm and pastureland within solar or wind farms and share the financial benefits with the communities whose land they use. Many of these strategies point to companies needing to work together within their value chains to build leverage, make a bigger impact and punch above their weight on both climate change and human rights.
Planet + people = change with a multiplier effect.