Miya Yoshitani, Associate Director of Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN)
Miya Yoshitani, Associate Director of Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN)

“We will not stand idle. We will not allow the capitalist system to burn us all. We will take action and address the root causes of climate change by changing the system. The time has come to stop talking and to take action.”Climate Space Declaration, World Social Forum 2013, Tunisia

I’m trying to admit something here. I was wrong. Maybe not exactly in the way you might think, but it was still bad. Not Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck bad, but damaging in its own way, and after returning from the inspiring and eye-opening experience of participating in the Climate Space of the World Social Forum in Tunisia – the country that overthrew their entrenched dictator, Ben Ali, and sparked the “Arab Spring” – this past March as part of the delegation with Grassroots Global Justice (GGJ), I feel like I need to come clean.

I was a climate denier.

Not in the traditional sense. I have been in the environmental justice movement in the United States for well over 2 decades, and I was introduced to the facts of global warming when I was a student organizer in college, so I can’t say that I was uninformed. I knew it was serious when I was still a teenager. But as I became more and more focused on the deep inequities of environmental racism and on the local fights that low-income communities of color around the US and in the Global South are fighting everyday in their neighborhoods and communities to meet basic needs and protect their lives and livelihoods, I began to make certain assumptions about global warming. That is when it started.

In my defense, I was young and impressionable, and I wasn’t alone. Many of us held the assumption that the issues were too complex to integrate into local organizing, that impacts would not be felt anytime soon, and that the Big Greens would cover this one – this, after all, was the kind of problem that they exist to solve, right? If there was ever any justification for the huge, DC-based environmental and conservation groups getting the lion’s share of all the environmental giving in the United States, then that had to be it.

Like acid rain, or CFC’s and the ozone layer, they would push for regulations and international agreements, they would get some mediocre laws in place that advantage corporations, but at least they would get governments to act semi-rationally and turn this ship around. And for many years, as I turned my attention away from DC, away from the IPCC, UNFCCC, Kyoto Protocol, and all the rest, I convinced myself that this was someone else’s job.

Please don’t judge me. Denial is a disease.

And don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I wasn’t fighting climate change. As an organizer with the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) based in Oakland CA, I was organizing low-income immigrant and refugee API communities who were fighting big developers, manufacturers, and Chevron, one of the biggest corporations on the face of the earth and biggest contributors to greenhouse gases in California. In the environmental justice movement, our local fights have been the frontlines of the fossil fuel resistance in the United States. Period.

I am proud to have been part of that ongoing fight. We learned real and important lessons about explicitly developing the leadership and power of low-income immigrant and refugee communities and communities of color, about bringing the voices of impacted communities to the forefront of environmental health and economic justice fights, and about winning real policy solutions for the community across a range of climate related issues including transportation, land-use, affordable housing, food sovereignty, water rights, incineration and zero waste, and forcing multinational corporations to mitigate pollution that is devastating the health and well-being of countless low-income communities of color.

For all my pride, I did start to feel a nagging wariness about the comprehensive failure of international climate negotiations somewhere around 2001. But I had just had my second daughter, 9/11 happened, I moved out of the country, and admittedly, things got a little hazy there for a while.

Then, around the time that I returned to the US, to APEN and to the regular company of adults, in 2007, I had a moment of clarity – this s*** is crazy. Not only were international climate negotiations going backwards, like some kind of Al Pacino Dog Day Afternoon hostage situation, but national climate legislation was also going nowhere fast. Public opinion about climate change had gone backwards and the right wing media machine was in overdrive.

When I left, I really believed that we could leave the “easier” work of stopping the world from mass suicide by carbon to the paid lobbyists and meanwhile we would continue the hard work of organizing local communities for power and environmental justice. How difficult could it be to talk politicians off that ledge based upon their own self-interest? Very difficult, apparently.

But I was missing the point so thoroughly, so embarrassingly, I am only making my admission public in the hopes that others can learn from my mistake.

The point is, that the climate justice fight here in the US and around the world is not just a fight against the ecological crisis of all time, it is the fight for a new economy, a new energy system, a new democracy, a new relationship to the planet and to each other, for land, water, and food sovereignty, for indigenous rights, for human rights and dignity for all people. When climate justice wins we win the world that we want.

We can’t sit this one out not because we have too much to lose, but because we have too much to gain.

“We are in the battle for a different world” was how Pablo Salon from Focus on the Global South, and former Bolivian ambassador to the United Nations under Evo Morales, began his summary of the week’s events at the Climate Space of the World Social Forum in Tunisia.

Listening to the incredible work and stories of grassroots social movements on the frontlines of climate change and fossil fuel resistance around the world, I felt this more strongly and deeply in the Climate Space than anywhere I have ever been. Mass organizations like La Via Campesina representing over two hundred million peasants and farmers, or the Alliance of Progressive Labor in the Philippines, or Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), and APEN and GGJ, we are bound together in this battle, not just for a reduction in the parts per million of CO2, but to transform our economies and rebuild a world that we want today.

As organization after organization representing peasant farmers, trade unions, faith groups, indigenous peoples, immigrants and refugees, and many more in the Climate Space got up and made presentations, facilitated discussions, and shared campaign stories and ideas, an amazing picture emerged that articulated clear, inspiring, and necessary alternatives to the system that is bringing us climate change today, as we speak.

For example, one workshop described the ‘one million climate jobs’ campaigns in multiple countries from South Africa to the UK, to the US and Canada. Responding to the convergence of mass unemployment and the climate crisis, these campaigns demand changing the prevailing economic model and transitioning to a low carbon economy to create new decent jobs in clean energy, transportation, construction, food and water systems, health care, waste management and other sectors of the economy that contribute both to the reduction of carbon emissions and the advancement of social equity at the same time.

The climate jobs campaigns that are developing around the world are what inspired the Climate Justice Alliance (CJA), a growing alliance representing grassroots leadership on climate change in the US, to develop our own approach to a just transition through our soon to be launched Our Power campaign, of which APEN is a co-lead organization with our local partner organization, Communities for a Better Environment. We have been organizing to show how a transition from a local economy dependent on the Richmond Chevron refinery, to an economy dependent on locally generated renewable energy and other local low-carbon economic strategies, will build the thriving and resilient communities we are fighting for.

Another workshop shared how peasants and small farmers, who are already suffering the worst of the climate crisis, are actually the ones who hold solutions derived from the real lessons on the ground. Agroecology, a system of farming that peasants and small farmers have been using and developing, has been proven by scientists to not only feed people better, healthier food but it also has the ability to cool down the planet. Food sovereignty, genuine agrarian reform, agroecology, respecting the rights of Mother Earth, defending peasant seeds varieties, slow food – these are all real solutions not only to the food crisis but to the climate crisis as well, at the same time stopping the harmful false solutions like genetically modified organisms, synthetic biology and “climate smart” agriculture.

This was the first time that the World Social Forum had an organized Climate Space, and I had the honor of helping to hammer out the Climate Space Declaration, a summary of the ideas being proposed through all of the workshops and discussions during the historic gathering. It was aptly titled “To Reclaim Our Future, We Must Change the Present. Our Proposal for Changing the System and not the Climate.”

Happily, I was able to bring the perspective of the CJA, mentioned above, which enabled us to integrate demands from communities at the frontlines of the climate and economic crisis in the US into this global declaration. It really struck me how much the demands and principles we have identified through CJA resonated and echoed the demands of these other global movements.

There was, of course, a need to articulate what the climate justice movement worldwide is saying no to, to prevent catastrophic levels of climate change, including the false solutions that are being promoted by industry and accepted as “reasonable” and “realistic” by most governments and even some powerful environmental groups. Ultimately, it is pretty simple: leave fossil fuels in the ground and stop burning them. As Nigerian environmental activist Nnimmo Bassey likes to say, “Leave the oil in the soil, and leave the coal in the hole.”

There were a few other big ones in the Declaration as well:

  • Stop and reverse corporate driven free trade and investments agreements that promote trade for profit and destroy the labor force, nature and the capacity of nations to define their own policies.
  • Stop the corporate capture of the economy and natural resources for the profit of Transnational Corporations.
  • Stop building mega and unnecessary infrastructure projects that do not benefit the population and are net contributors to greenhouse gasses like, mega dams, excessive huge highways, large-scale centralized energy projects, and superfluous massive airports.
  • Stop land grabbing and end the dominance of export-based industrial forms of food production.

But what the Declaration and the Climate Space were brilliant at was naming specific strategies for “changing the system” that cool the planet as well as create the thriving, healthy and just communities around the world we want to see. Climate justice means saying yes to:

  • Support for a just transition for workers and communities away from the extreme energy economy and into resilient local economies based on social, economic and environmental justice.
  • Develop economic strategies that create new kinds of ‘climate jobs’ – decent paying jobs that directly contribute to carbon reductions – in such sectors as renewable energy, agriculture, public transportation and building retrofits.
  • Decentralize the generation and ownership of energy under local community control using renewable sources of energy. Invest in community based, small-scale, local energy infrastructure.
  • Adopt Zero Waste approaches through promoting comprehensive recycling and composting programs that end the use of greenhouse gas emitting incinerators – including new generation hi-tech incinerators – and landfills.
  • Recover the control of the public sources to finance projects for people and nature like health, education, food, employment, housing, restoration of water sheds, conservation and restoration of forest and other ecosystems and others and stop the subsidies to dirty industries, agribusiness and military industry.
  • Take cars off the roads by building clean public transport infrastructure that is adaptive to local, non-combustion energy sources, and make it accessible and affordable to everyone.
  • Promote local production and consumption of durable goods to satisfy the fundamental needs of the people and avoid the transport of goods that can be produced locally.
  • Promote small-scale and ecologically sound farming and an agriculture system that ensures food sovereignty, and that locally grown crops meet the nutritional and cultural needs of the local community.
  • Respect the rights of small farmers, peasants and women. Recognize the collective rights of indigenous and tribal peoples consistent with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including their rights to their lands and territories.
  • Dismantle the war industry and military infrastructure in order to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of warfare, and divert war budgets to promote genuine peace.

If climate change is an expression of an utterly failed and immoral economic system, or as my friends at Movement Generation here in the Bay Area say, a complete “mismanagement of home,” then we need to know what a well managed home looks like. The Climate Declaration helped us all get closer to that vision.

For me and my recovery from denial, one of the most important messages coming out of the Climate Space was that the main battleground for climate justice is not the United Nations at the UNFCCC. Instead, “We must nurture, support, strengthen and increase the scale of grassroots organizing in all places, but in particular in frontline battlegrounds where the stakes are the highest.” That is to me, that is to all of us.

We can’t afford to cede the design of the shift out of the carbon based economy, we have too much to gain from forcing our nations down the path of a just transition, and we have everything to lose if we don’t. That’s why we see so much incredible engagement of grassroots efforts all over the world starting to coordinate more effectively around a climate justice agenda, and why APEN and Communities for a Better Environment are helping build the Climate Justice Alliance’s Our Power Campaign through our struggle to stop Chevron’s dirty energy and instead implement clean energy strategies in Richmond, CA.

And finally, to me, the Climate Space in the World Social Forum was an expression of how far we’ve come in building international solidarity and the connective tissue between global movements, between environmental and social struggles, between rural and urban communities, between the many diverse and beautiful forms of resistance, and we’ve set out sights higher than just surviving.

What I heard was this.

Climate is not the property of the UN, or any government or corporation. It is the life and the hope of the people. We have all long hoped for the possibility of another world. Today, we take that hope and turn it into courage, strength and action – that together, we can change the system and win back our world for the people.

I’m in.

EPA-tourMiya Yoshitani has served as the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, APEN’s, Associate Director for the past five years and has been proudly supporting APEN to be a leading force for transforming the energy economy in CA and for climate justice for all communities.