There is no doubt that affluent, mostly Western, societies have significantly contributed to greenhouse gas emissions since the First Industrial Revolution. Yet it is those living in low- and middle-income countries who are the first to bear the brunt of the consequences.

Increasing temperatures, successive droughts, and extreme weather events have affected, and continue to threaten entire livelihoods. Such events, becoming increasingly frequent with climate change or “breakdown”, exacerbate current inequalities determined by differences in accessibility of services and resources. Moreover, a healthy environment seems to become increasingly inaccessible to those fuelling the engines of other economies. For example, monoculture farming, a popular method to secure income, decreases the biodiversity of the soil, subsequently lowering the nutritional and economic value of harvests. This forms an additional risk to the livelihoods of rural communities, who depend on healthy ecosystems to thrive. Simultaneously, global companies use sustainability narratives as profit-generating avenues to compensate for their painstakingly flawed internal sustainability practices. Individuals across the planet feel stuck by their (perceived) limited capacity to drive organisational change and the need to meet immediate personal necessities (most of which are luxuries to others).

Though time is running out, and despite feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness, humanity – and each one of us – is still in a position to make radical choices. Will our priority be short-term economic growth that will benefit a small proportion of us a little while longer? Or will we wholeheartedly commit to promoting a healthy life on Earth that could last for generations to come? Though the temptation is to stick our heads in the sand, hard conversations need to be had, hard decisions have to be made and actions need to be aligned. Change is inevitable, but whoever said it is comfortable? Changing climates are surely not. A comforting thought, perhaps, is that we are all in this together and we can tackle this together. We can find power in our shared vulnerabilities and turn our interconnectedness into a strength. It is now more urgent than ever to reimagine how we think, act, and change systems. What is good for our health is good for our planet. We have to take responsibility for previous and future generations. For global justice, we need to choose fair partnerships that aim to stop the colonisation of the atmosphere in both the literal and figurative sense.

“What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
– Jane Goodall

Once emitted, we cannot eliminate greenhouse gases, but there are immediate things we can do to prevent further colonisation of our atmosphere. I hereby baptise them as the three O’s or “Oh!’s”.

Opportunities: whether you aspire to intersectoral, intersectional, holistic or participatory work – actively push the boundaries and break existing barriers. This applies to different types of work at any level:

  • Identify and facilitate opportunities to improve system interactions to optimally utilise present local resourcefulness and potential.
  • Identify and facilitate opportunities for accountability mechanisms to ensure that local resourcefulness and external sources (in transitioning) are utilised equitably and sustainably.

Operations: #thinktwice - take time to reflect, think creatively, and challenge the status quo. The current pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement has stimulated some progress on this front. It is critical that we sustain this momentum. Some examples:

  • What and who can we source locally? Align and integrate your work with local initiatives, networks and resources.
  • Stimulate incentives for climate positive action or limit reliance on individual behaviour change, e.g. by setting rules or goals around carbon footprint.
  • Choose quality over quantity. What meetings truly require face to face interaction? What meeting location comes with the lowest total carbon footprint?
    • There is no doubt that online meetings create a different experience than face to face ones. Experiment with structuring and planning them. For example, it may work better to have shorter online interactions for predefined discussions or to informally connect with individuals more often.
  • Support politicians in making tough decisions: the societies that contribute to harmful emissions the most, will have to change their operations the most. It is not going to be an easy ride and we need strong leadership! Help ensure that the health of our planet and people is a top priority in decision-making processes and actions.

Ownership: prevent tokenism - facilitate true local empowerment and independence. Here are some guiding questions:

  • Just. Listen. (Okay, not a question.)
  • What are the benefits and who is enjoying them? This can be anything from what people get paid to their employability and well-being.
  • Are resources and opportunities equitably shared?
    • For instance, are low-/middle-income country stakeholders gaining long-term capacity to act independently? In their own development, do high-income countries seek to invite and consult low-/middle-income countries?
  • Who are invited, who are not and for what purpose? Are those involved truly representative of whom it concerns? Who did not show up and why?
  • Is what we are doing equitable and does it promote the health of our future generations and planet? Could there be unintended consequences?

The choice is ours. We have the opportunity to move towards a future in which our atmosphere no longer continues to be colonised by preventable emissions of greenhouse gases. A future in which local communities flourish by having ownership of renewable energy sources and their livelihoods. The time to prevent further neo-colonialism of our atmosphere is now. Let’s play our part.

By Gimenne Zwama

Institute for Global Health and Development

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