Southern Groups Find Common Cause with Poor Nations in Fighting Climate Change

At Paris climate talks, officials bring local stories to international stage.

Christopher Tabb, left, with the help of friend Frank Story, center, and nephew Anthony Tabb, right, uses a boat to recover items from his flooded home on Aug. 31, 2012, in Reserve, Louisiana after Hurricane Isaac struck.  (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The U.S. has positioned itself as a leader in the U.N. climate talks, and with good reason. As the world’s largest economy and the second-largest emitter, the country has to pledge to cut back significantly to make any deal worthwhile. In the binary view of the talks that splits countries between developing and developed, the U.S. is top dog in the advanced world.

But local and state officials are headed to the U.N. talks in Paris to remind the world—and even some U.S. officials—that the country isn’t a monolithic bloc and that some parts of the country are just as much at risk of climate change as the world’s poorest nations.

“Being a Southerner, the one thing you know for sure is we have become the sacrifice zone for the United States,” said Colette Pichon, a Louisiana-based attorney. “When you broaden your perspective, you see the global South bears that burden in respect to the global North."

"We are more in line with the marginalized peoples of the world,” she said.

Pichon is part of a 33-person delegation from the Gulf South in Paris to raise the region’s local issues to the international stage. The trip is the culmination of the yearlong Gulf South Rising campaign, organized around the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to draw attention to the environmental threats to the region, whether from oil activities or the global forces of climate change (among the group's major priorities is getting federal recognition for the United Houma Nation tribe to help its members deal with land erosion)

And as part of that, the delegation plans to meet with representatives from other coastal and low-income regions—already, members have met with representatives from countries as diverse as Costa Rica and Saudi Arabia, and have meetings planned with African groups—to share stories about climate impacts. There’s no agreement or request in the works, just an opportunity to tell a story that Pichon feared might be lost on the bigger stage.

“Our hope is that leaders of Gulf South recognize they have not only remedies within the U.S. legal system and justice system, but ... internationally,” said Pichon, executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy. “We’re part of a global South dealing with impacts of extraction. We need to broaden our viewpoint.”

The main event of the two-week U.N. talks is the lengthy negotiation to craft an agreement that will put countries on track to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions and bend the curve of climate change. That’s the promise that brought heads of state and officials from more than 150 countries to the opening ceremonies of the talks and that will keep high-level U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, busy until the final hours.

And key parts of those discussions also break down along the lines of the developed economies, which have had more time to burn fossil fuels and generate pollution, and the developing world, which wants the opportunity to grow their own economies and aid to deal with the effects of climate change.

The diversity at the talks ensures that all sides are heard, even while that can cause headaches in the negotiating room (one of the expected hang-ups, for example, will be over the amount of aid that developed nations will send to poorer countries to help them deal with climate change). Representatives from island nations have made headlines with emotional testimony about how their countries are at risk of sinking under a rising sea, and the need to go beyond what the U.N. seems prepared to do.

"I believe no leader around or in this room carries such a level of worry or responsibility,” said Enele Sopoaga, prime minister of Tuvalu, in his opening statement. “No leader here in this room can say a total of its territory and all its citizens will disappear if we were to allow temperature increase to anything more than 1.5 degrees."

President Obama met with leaders from Pacific islands this week when he arrived in Paris, telling them, “I’m an island boy” because of his upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia. And the U.S. has promised to fight for them in a final deal, although there’s some question about how to deal with “loss and damage” for communities already hit by climate change (U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern told reporters that the country doesn’t want liability and compensation to be a part of the discussions, even while developing countries push for more help from large economies).

But for local representatives from the U.S., those stories don't just come from abroad.

“People say we’re already going to lose the Florida Keys,” said Mary Gutierrez, who leads an environmental nonprofit in Pensacola and is joining the Gulf South delegation. “We know the impacts … Now the question is how we address it, especially from the larger countries.

Chris Coleman, the mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota, is heading up a team of mayors from along the Mississippi River to talk up river-basin issues. The group will meet with other mayors and officials from river communities next week, with the goal of producing an agreement on food- and water-security issues.

“Some places are seeing riverbeds dry up, others are seeing significant increases in rain that leads to polluted runoff and silt in the water,” said Coleman. “For a river like the Mississippi, additional pollution can have a serious impact in terms of drinking quality and irrigation for farmers.”

Deb Markowitz, Vermont's secretary of natural resources, is also traveling to the talks, where she said she’ll talk about her state’s response to Hurricane Irene in 2011. Out of 250 municipalities in the state, she said, 225 were hit by the storm, and some are still rebuilding damaged infrastructure.

“At a very high level, our leaders are thinking over the course of many years and it can feel as though it’s almost hypothetical,” she said. “Those of us running governments and providing services, we have to protect our citizens, respond to the storms, fix the damage. We’re where the rubber meets the road. And if we don’t get this right, it’s going to keep happening.”