Live in Copenhagen: Protecting vulnerable communities

This blog was written by Jennifer Rennicks, former Senior Director of Policy & Communications at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and was co-authored by Seandra Rawls.

Guest Blog | December 15, 2009 | Climate Change

During my visit to Copenhagen, I have been privileged to see first-hand the culmination of many months of efforts by nations to address what is the single most important issue facing our planet today. Global warming may very well impact every individual’s way of being, especially those who are in poverty stricken communities and may be the most vulnerable to global climate change.  It frustrated me, however, to learn Monday that global warming talks were suspended for hours because of a walkout by developing countries who accused the United States and other developed countries of balking on setting meaningful emission limits. Participants in the walkout questioned whether rich nations are doing enough to compensate for their historical contribution to global warming and their decided lack of leadership at the present. A conversation I had today with a delegate (and Member of Parliament) from Kenya indicated they were disappointed in a concerted lack of leadership from the industrialized nations such as the U.S. that can best afford to lead and are most obligated to lead.

Studies have shown that climate change will hit the poor and disadvantaged the hardest, not just in developing countries abroad but also here at home.  While it is true that social status such as income and age don’t determine who will be hit by a natural disaster, it does determine a person or population’s ability to prepare, respond, and recover when disaster does strike.  Unfortunately, we were witness to this fact during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina where thousands, especially low-income residents, lost their lives and/or were displaced as a result of the disaster.

Across the Southeast, the four main risk factors associated with climate change include drought, flooding, hurricane force winds, and sea-level rise. Those of us who advocate for better energy policy, and those who actually make energy policy, are well aware that such risk factors have always been a threat to vulnerable communities.  Being in Copenhagen while these critical talks build to what we hope is a successful conclustion reminds me that we must not just “exchange the same rhetoric” and be steadfast in political ideology, but that our leaders must move forward on a global climate agreement in the international community while also passing meaningful climate policies to tackle the effects that global warming at home, as well.

For example, if the United States Congress passed a comprehensive climate and energy bill, such as the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act proposed by Sens. Kerry and Boxer, it could create millions of new, good-paying jobs, protect our air and water from dangerous pollution, and secure our children’s future by making America more energy independent.  Additionally, according to analysis, the bill will ensure equitable treatment of low-income consumers and marginalized communities through targeted rebates, worker training funds, energy efficiency programs, and community development assistance.  This is the type of forward thinking leadership and policy we need as a solution towards assisting vulnerable communities that will suffer the most from climate change.

Unfortunately, when Hurricane Katrina took place in 2005, we were forced as a world community to be reactive. There was little information or forewarning to allow us to properly prepare for such a disaster. On the other hand, we now have a great opportunity coupled with scientific data that is readily accessible, which should allow us to be proactive while in Copenhagen.  We can negotiate a meaningful climate agreement that will head us on the path to global warming actions and lend leadership and guidance to those communities that contribute the least to global warming, but who will be impacted the most.

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