Students & Campus
20 November 2020

Looking at Climate Crisis Solutions from Latin America

Two Graduate Institute student initiatives hosted a panel during Geneva Peace Week 2020, where Latin American activists took the virtual floor to discuss critical climate issues facing their region.  

On the closing day of Geneva Peace Week 2020, the Graduate Institute’s Environmental Committee and Latin American Network Initiative hosted a panel event focusing on “Peace and Climate Action: Challenges and Opportunities from Latin America”. Attracting over 550 registered attendees, the panel featured a trio of climate champions from Latin America: José Francisco Calí Tzay, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples; Yolanda Kakabadse, Former President of WWF International; and Astrid Puentes, Co-Executive Director of the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense. Drawing upon their storied careers and invaluable expertise, the panelists called attention to three pathways for successful climate action in Latin America and around the world.

Youth as Climate Champions

As a Maya Kaqchikel, José Francisco Calí Tzay grew up defending the rights of indigenous peoples and the environment in his home country of Guatemala. His climate career began as a youth working to defend the water supply and forest of his town, where he was viewed as a threat by the Guatemalan military, government, and private industries. “When you are working for the environment, you are going to touch economic interests and political interests,” Mr Calí Tzay pointed out. But by pushing for sweeping, structural change, he believes youth climate activists “will build peace and a hope for our survival as a species”.

Climate Conscious Language

“What does it mean to emit a ton of carbon? Do you know? I don’t!” said Yolanda Kakabadse, Former President of WWF International as she drew attention to the importance of words as tools for climate action. Ms Kakabadse’s experience promoting climate conscious language dates back to her participation in the 1982 Earth Summit, which mainstreamed the term “sustainable development.”  

“We need to use language that everybody can understand,” Ms Kakabadse noted. “Change is positive. Changing schools, countries, jobs, shoes – change is wonderful! Why should we expect global societies to think climate change is bad”? As an alternative to climate change, Ms Kakabadse argued that, “we need to express concern about this terrible threat as a climate crisis”.

Linking Climate Action and Justice

“We cannot continue talking about numbers”, said Astrid Puentes, whose experience shaping the Paris Agreement at COP21 brought a civil society perspective to the panel. “We have to link science and reports with people and the environment. […] Science reminds us that we are not on the good track. We have to change things, even with climate action.”  

She continued: “Latin America is one the most diverse regions in the world, and at the same time the most unequal.” Ms Puentes urged the global community to  take climate action with vulnerable groups, “who have been most impacted by the crisis, but hold the least responsibility. . .They have a lot of the solutions that are being ignored.”

Concluding with Climate Optimism

To reflect on the panelists’ words and share their own experiences, attendees participated in an interactive workshop to round out the event. Charts visualising the attendees’ survey responses suggest that climate action can be a strong tool for peacebuilding in Latin America. By addressing the lack of political will, conflicting interests, and corporate influence inhibiting change, attendees believe their communities will be able to generate sustainable climate action.

This article was co-authored by Iida Lehto, first-year master candidate in Development Studies, specialising in Environment, Resources and Sustainability; and Ryan Maia, first-year master candidate in International Affairs, specialising in Trade and Finance & Power, Conflict and Development.