openDemocracyUK: Opinion

It’s time to issue climate reparations to working-class people around the world

Shared struggles, shared solutions: connecting communities from east London to Ogoniland in search of justice

Shaira Begum Harpreet Kaur Paul
28 October 2021, 4.13pm
In the UK, working-class people, who are often brown and Black, are exposed to higher air pollution levels
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Robert Clayton / Alamy Stock Photo

A group of tenants fighting for decent housing rights might not automatically be who comes to mind when you think of resistance to the climate crisis. But in a corner of east London, it’s exactly these campaigners who are making connections between their struggle and those of communities in the Global South. “The financial system which turns our homes, markets and social spaces into investment opportunities, is the same system funding fossil fuel infrastructure which displaces communities close to sites of extraction – like in Nigeria,” says Kieran from the London Renters Union Hackney branch.

People in the UK increasingly understand the global impacts of the climate crisis. In part, this is because they now see what’s been playing out around the world for years happening at home: people’s houses flooding year on year and average temperatures soaring across the country. What’s talked about less, though, is that it’s not just the effects of the climate crisis that connect us, but the causes too.

If you want to understand the way the fates of working-class people from Newham to Ogoniland are intertwined, look at one of the main players at the centre of that connection: Britain’s banks. Barclays, for example, continues to fund global fossil fuel infrastructure – essentially accelerating the climate crisis that is wreaking havoc in parts of the Global South. At the same time, several local councils claim that the bank’s manipulation of interest rates through the LIBOR scandal led to them paying millions more than they should have done, though their efforts to sue Barclays were thrown out by a High Court judge earlier this year.

Working-class people in the UK, who are often brown and Black, are exposed to higher air pollution than the rest of the population and are hit harder as the public services they rely on to live are decimated by austerity. At the same time, swathes of people in the Global South are living in countries so indebted to banks in the Global North that they can’t invest in some of the mechanisms they desperately need in order to respond to the climate crisis – such as health, care, flood defences, housing and community-owned renewable energy. Meanwhile, the biggest polluters – the fossil fuel and agribusiness industries – have, during the COVID pandemic, essentially been paid to pollute through UK government subsidies. This is money that could be supporting the fuel and housing poor, investing in retrofitting infrastructure that addresses precarity and climate breakdown. Instead, those most complicit in driving emissions are being supported and upheld as part of the solution.

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The ties between people who are exposed to poverty and the climate crisis are complex but they are very real. In many ways, they are at the heart of the grossly unjust results of environmental degradation. Many people in east London have far more in common with communities whole continents away than they do with the politicians just nine miles down the road in Westminster. These connections show an often hidden element of what we mean when we say the climate crisis is a global crisis.

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But recognising that doesn’t mean glossing over the different ways people are impacted. The poorest countries, for instance, are often the least responsible for the climate crisis but have to bear the brunt of flash floods, raging fires, drought and crop failure. People around the world are being subjected to the climate crisis in distinct ways, to varying degrees, some immediately and some slowly but still insidiously. But when it comes down to it, they ultimately have a common fight.

That’s why on 6 November, as the UK hosts the UN’s global climate summit, COP26, we’re co-leading a climate reparations bloc in London, as part of COP26 Coalition’s global day of action: a march starting at the Bank of England and ending with a rally at Trafalgar Square. The coalition brings together groups and individuals who are calling for climate justice. The reparations bloc demands centre justice for working-class people in the UK and around the world.

But for that to happen, countries such as the UK , which have played the biggest role in driving the climate crisis, must accept they now need to also take on the biggest role in solving it. After hundreds of years of exploiting the Global South, it is only right and fair that the government takes responsibility for its actions. That responsibility must include regulating banks that are funding climate breakdown and making the fossil fuel and agribusiness industries that are disproportionately responsible for emissions pay for a green and fair transition to renewable energy sources.

This is also why many of us will be coming out on 29 October, in the days before COP26 begins, with calls for banks to defund climate chaos. We’ll be standing with frontline communities from Argentina, Bangladesh, Philippines, Nigeria and the Pacific, starting our day of actions at Lloyd’s of London (an institution that profited from slavery and continues to insure fossil fuel pipeline projects through indigenous territories) and ending with a climate memorial outside the Bank of England at 5.30pm. Joseph Sikulu from Pacific Climate Warriors, who will be helping to lead rituals of resistance, said: “Financial institutions that continue to invest in dirty fossil fuel projects are also investing in the destruction of our islands and our homes. It’s time for corporations who have caused this crisis to be held accountable.” We’ll also be calling for our government to stop handing money over to the biggest polluters and instead start investing in insulating our homes, and in transitioning to green public transport, and in community food and renewable energy cooperatives.

Our current climate plans rely on extracting and exploiting land across the Global South

We have to keep global heating to no more than 1.5°C temperature increase and that can only be achieved by hitting zero carbon emissions by 2030 – 2050 is too late. The current climate plans – like much of the UK’s green transition agenda – would still rely on extracting and exploiting land across the Global South, displacing thousands of people in the process. As climate impacts accelerate, those who cannot afford insurance and who live in places where states have failed to invest in flood defences or prevent coastal erosion – from Yorkshire and London to the Bay of Bengal and Lagos – are being hit the hardest. To be truly green means justice for everyone, not just continuing down the path of exploitation and plunder. There is an alternative. From cultivating nutritious local food that ensures soil health and crop diversity through to democratising solar and wind energy generation and universalising green, accessible transport for everyone.

But so far, law, policy and politicians have failed to deliver. So taking to the streets is the only option. Because this is a matter of life and death. If we take action now we could prevent 153 million people worldwide from dying prematurely of the effects of air pollution by 2100 – about 40% of those deaths are set to happen over the next 40 years – and we could protect two billion people from food, water and heat stress, severe drought, and displacement.

Our struggles are all connected, and so are the solutions. We have the money, and the technology – now we just need the action.

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