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Climate Change and Environmental Justice Across Borders

By Alexander Kearns and Judy Tsegaye

This blog post was written as part of a new spring course and public seminar series, “Topics in International Justice, Rights and the Environment” (ENVRES 215A/HUMRTS 118) taught at Stanford University in Spring Quarter 2021. This class was designed and offered in response to a growing demand for environmental justice education at Stanford, specifically on the international scale.

Over the past few decades, REDD+ carbon offset cap-and-trade programs have become increasingly used internationally as a means to help limit carbon emissions and create a global framework to fight climate change. Cap-and-trade initiatives revolve around the designation of foreign forested lands as carbon sinks to offset the emissions of highly polluting companies largely across the global North. Many countries have started to use these programs, and the state of California has become the first local jurisdiction to create a regulatory framework for climate change through its cap-and-trade program, which is the third largest in the world after the EU and China. However, the creation and implementation of these programs often occurs without the consultation of many Indigenous communities which reside in many of the forests being used for carbon offsets. REDD+ offset trades can ignore or harm a range of Indigenous needs including land tenure, small-scale economic activities, and a variety of cultural practices as well as potentially lead to the eviction of Indigenous peoples from their lands.

A recent seminar in Topics in International Justice, Rights, And The Environment, featuring guest speaker Dr. Michael Méndez, discussed international climate change policy and governance using the case studies of mostly Indigenous communities in the global South. Méndez principally emphasized how REDD+ programs have entitled climate policies in states like California to enable domestic companies to continue emitting at the expense of the livelihoods of foreign forest-reliant populations. Dr. Michael Méndez, an Assistant Professor of Environmental Planning and Policy at the University of California, Irvine, has extensively researched and worked in environmental policy, especially climate change policymaking. He has also served as the inaugural James and Mary Pinchot Faculty Fellow in Sustainability Studies and Associate Research Scientist at the Yale School of the Environment and has over a decade of experience in consulting and actively engaging in the policymaking process from both the public and private sectors.

In his presentation, Méndez discussed several case studies of how REDD+ has affected indigenous communities in the regions of Chiapas, Mexico and Acre, Brazil and how the impact of carbon offsets has led to new translocal activism (which describes the interconnectedness of climate advocacy across geographies and across scales). Méndez showed how carbon cap-and-trade policies from industrialized states and regions such as California connect offset programs in the Global South with carbon markets, such as in Chiapas and Acre, which planned to supplement their climate change efforts with the adoption of various REDD-type land readiness programs, anticipating a connection with California’s cap-and-trade program. These types of preparation efforts have provoked discontent from both Indigenous rights leaders in the Global South and California environmental justice advocates, as these efforts have often led to very detrimental impacts on these communities including, but not limited to, aiding in evictions by (often corrupt) governments in these regions in the global South.

Consequently, Indigenous groups across the global South (and some in the global North) started to coordinate, building links between local struggles, international organizations, and global climate change regimes. Networked communication and collaborative actions have helped amplify these groups’ voices, enabling them to influence climate change policy within and beyond the nation-state and aiding the emergence of a new translocal advocacy network. Méndez also discusses the development of this phenomena in the “Climate Beyond Borders” section in his book, “Climate Change from the Streets: How Conflict and Collaboration Strengthen the Environmental Justice Movement” , describing how low-income people of color contribute to environmental activism in California and beyond. This translocal coalition against offsets presents a new model of engagement with climate change and offers alternative paradigms of what forests are and what global environmental protection should be, which has challenged the perspectives and scales of analysis and action that have been long considered valid within California’s decision-making on climate change.

As we have seen in this seminar and countless others, Indigenous peoples and other communities are frequently either actively or passively left out of the discussion. In “Climate Beyond Borders”, Mendez demonstrates the necessity of involvement of marginalized and diverse voices in policy decisions. He also describes exactly how activists were able to assert their right to be a part of this decision by organizing a campaign that involved both horizontal and vertical activism. The horizontal collaboration resulted in Indigenous communities across Brazil and Mexico sharing information and coming together with the underlying common goal of environmental justice. These now unified communities then engage in vertical activism by applying pressure to their respective local governments and organizations. Communities in the Global North that have greater freedom of action and stronger civil societies can use this privilege to help their partners in the Global South. This type of activism has been effective in resisting the implementation of programs like REDD without incorporating the views of local and Indigenous communities.

While progress is being made in the inclusion of marginalized voices in decisions made by organizations like the UN as well as by local governments, Indigenous human rights groups and Californian environmental justice groups continue to resist and push for even more change. This year, the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) will be meeting in Glasgow and countries will communicate their updated and increasingly ambitious emissions targets and goals. COP26 remains infamous for prioritizing the goals of global powers such as the US above developing nations and Indigenous communities that may be impacted by policies such as cap and trade. As global climate talks and deforestation policy negotiations continue over the coming years, it will be crucial that the UN upholds and honors Indigenous people as “the best guardians of forests” and follows their lead while also guaranteeing their safety and inclusion.

You can view Dr. Méndez’s seminar here.

Works Cited
Note: * = required readings/watching for ENVRES 215A/HUMRTS 118 students

*Méndez, Michael. (2020) Climate Beyond Borders. In Climate Change from the Streets: How Conflict and Collaboration Strengthen the Environmental Justice Movement. (147–184). Yale University Press.

Alexander Kearns is a current sophomore at Stanford pursuing a degree in Management Science and Engineering and a minor in International Relations with interests in applying ESG principles to combat climate change in the private and public sectors through his work at the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation and in venture capital.

Judy is currently a senior majoring in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity with a concentration in Environmental Justice and is particularly interested in how environmental racism affects BIPOC access to the outdoors.



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