Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Juneteenth, Climate Diplomacy and Me

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Activists from the Bonn Climate Camp, a grassroots initiative on the sidelines of the pre-negotiation session (SB60) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP29) held last week in Bonn, Germany. Source: Ashlee Thomas

Juneteenth is a call to action that both honors the monumental day of the actual end of legal enslavement in the United States in 1895, and acts a reminder that for freedom, equality and justice, the call is continuous. Freedom is not just a feeling, it’s a praxis.

As we celebrate Juneteenth, we must remember that the freedom from enslavement evolved into the fight for social and economic justice against embedded systems of oppression, discrimination and inequality that continue to perpetuate harm. The quest for justice must address climate inequality. Climate justice, at all levels, is social justice, and is both local and global. It emanates, now and then, in all facets of life - especially as we work to address the climate crisis and its disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities here at home and around the world. Our commitment to the eradication of climate inequality must be both local and global.

As a Senior Policy Advisor at Oxfam, my work supports our Climate Justice workstreams, where I work on international climate finance and redressing climate change impacts. I’m also quite proudly, the first generation (first born and eldest daughter – hello!) child of immigrants from the Caribbean. My family moved here for a better life and for opportunities that would have otherwise not been available in their respective countries of origin. They also left their home countries ultimately due to the impacts of climate change.

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Pictured: Ashlee Thomas, St. Marks, Grenada Source: Carlene and George Thomas

The Caribbean, then, as well as now, is disproportionately impacted by climate change and climate variability. Caribbean Islands have some of the world's lowest greenhouse gas emissions, (estimated to be responsible for less than 10 percent of global CO2 emissions), but these tourism-dependent countries are among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, including rising sea levels, coastal erosion, and stronger and more frequent storms. Following severe storms, debt levels in Caribbean countries are 18% higher than what would be expected otherwise, according to research by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB).

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Source: https://www.americasquarterly.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/05/AQChart_CaribStorms-1371x1536.jpg Source: https://www.americasquarterly.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/05/AQChart_CaribStorms-1371x1536.jpg

Climate financing continues to be one of the region’s biggest challenges, with adaptation financing in particular remaining woefully underfunded. It is estimated that the Caribbean Basin will need an adaptation investment of more than $100 billion, equal to about one-third of its annual economic output, but Caribbean countries have only been approved for about $800 million from climate funds according to a 2023 IMF report .

The world’s 1% richest pollute the planet more than the remaining 99% of the population with their larger carbon footprint (think private jets, yachts, etc.) And for now, but not forever, the wealthiest can use their wealth to insulate themselves from the consequences of environmental changes.

Collective action is crucial in climate action. In the U.S., the Caribbean and other parts of the Diaspora, Freedom and Justice is a resilient thread, continuously woven throughout and connecting our collective history. While Juneteenth is an American Holiday, Black and brown communities around the world are connected and inspired by this celebration. We share a common cause, purpose and legacy.

This past week, I was a member of the Oxfam delegation to the 60th Sessions of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Subsidiary Body (SB) for Implementation (SBI) and Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA), commonly referred to as the "June Climate Meetings," held in Bonn, Germany. These meetings are the midpoint for climate negotiations in advance of the huge end of year Climate Summit, or COP, where countries announce their commitments and actions taken to address the climate crisis.

Alongside hundreds of diplomats, negotiators, climate change impact experts, civil society juggernauts, and media from around the world, we engaged in exhaustive negotiations to push forward an international agenda fit for purpose to attempt to redress the globally unjust cost and impacts of the climate crisis and plan pro-poor, feminist, intersectional action (and implementation of said actions) for people, the planet and prosperity.

Experts say that diversity makes for better diplomacy, and ultimately better policy. Yet, when many think of “diplomacy,” they likely imagine someone from the Global North, who is “male, pale and Yale.” Indeed, the United States’ diplomatic apparatus is still not representative of the country’s rich diversity. According to the New Republic:

“The [State] Department as a whole has 16 percent Black or African American staff, as compared to 13 percent of the U.S. labor force broadly. But once the data is broken down by specific bureaus or roles, the picture is less rosy; foreign service generalists and specialists fall below the nationwide baseline by several points. The Bureau of Legislative Affairs is among the most diverse, with 32 percent Black employees, while the Bureau of Intelligence and Research is 80 percent white, and the Office of the Legal Adviser is 79 percent white. The State Department’s overall workforce is seven percent Black women, three percent Hispanic women, and four percent Asian women. For the senior levels of the executive service and foreign service, the numbers are considerably lower.

Prominent Black and brown leaders - Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, Che Guevarra and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) - came together in the middle of the past century to push for freedom and liberty. Haitian – the only place in the Americas where enslaved Africans had fully eradicated slavery, ousted European colonialism, and established an independent nation – was a source of admiration and reverence for the likes of Frederick Douglass and other Black activists during the Southern Antebellum Era. As Leslie M. Alexander explained in a piece entitled “The U.S. Has Never Forgiven Haiti,” Haiti’s audacity for freedom had undoubted impact on the diaspora and its existence threatened the colonial power paradigms that claimed to uphold the principles of freedom and liberty.

The desire to speak truth to power still beats in the Caribbean. The Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, famously declared, “This world still looks too much like it did when it was part of an imperialistic power,” at the 2022 UN Climate Change Conference (COP27). Under her leadership, Barbados announced in November of that same year that it had developed a plan to phase out fossil fuels entirely by 2030, created a national strategy to boost climate resilience and is spearheading an initiative focused on reforming the global financial system to make climate finance affordable, accessible, reliable and transparent. Across the Caribbean, there have been standard-setting country wide programs that updated climate action plans, established agencies aimed at developing adaptive infrastructure, implemented community-based early warning systems, invested in climate-resilient infrastructure and championed consistent climate policy and advocacy action to build and harness momentum around climate action.

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Pictured: Ashlee Thomas, Ayan Harare, Jacobo Ocharan, Chiara Liguiori, Norman Martin Source: Ashlee Thomas

As part of Oxfam’s delegation to the SB 60, I participated in the Adaptation workstream – a space where the Caribbean nations have emerged as leaders, and where more and more young women of color than ever before who engage with the UNFCCC and the Subsidiary Body Process are technical and policy experts, climate negotiators and diplomats. It was, for me, a particularly poignant moment reflecting on my identity as a Black woman in Climate and as a member of the Caribbean diaspora with a shared commitment to shaking up the climate action space.

I am, like many, my ancestor’s wildest dreams.

I hope my contributions can honor the long legacy of Black women in the environmental justice space.

And with these steps, I hope I can help move us toward a place a little more fair, just and equal.