Its Time To Align Climate Finance and Social Justice, Says Youth Climate Activist

Joshua Amponsem, co-director of the Youth Climate Justice Fund, believes trusting those in the frontlines of climate change with agency and decision-making is pivotal for climate justice. Credit: Cecilia Russell/IPS
  • by Cecilia Russell (dubai)
  • Inter Press Service

During his childhood, Joshua Amponsem spent a lot of time in his dry rural community collecting water from the streams. “It was normal,” the co-director of the Youth Climate Justice Fund says in an interview on the sidelines of COP28. “We didn’t talk about climate change.”

Later, as a student at a university in Ghana, it was his love of the sea—this massive expanse of water he never experienced as a child—that led him to environmental youth activism. He would walk on the beach in awe of the sea but also notice the sand mining, plastic pollution, and mangrove deforestation.

In the classroom, Amponsem had been absorbing a lot of theory about coastal zone management and ecosystem management but saw little application of these concepts outside the university.

“So, for me, this was a dilemma,” he says, commenting to his professor, 'it seems that we have a lot of solutions. But yet, when I leave, when I look outside, the communities are really struggling, and there are all these issues'.”

The professor told me that it was his “responsibility as a tutor to give us the exposure, the insight, and the knowledge, and it is our role as students to then figure out all what to do with those insights and those pieces of information.”

For Amponsem, this was a turning point. That day, he mobilized a group of students and started the Green Africa Youth Organization.

Amponsem moved from grassroots activism to influencing policymaking in the climate change arena and acknowledges the difficulties.

“It’s difficult because, on one hand, I'm working with a population that needs jobs. They want their start-ups to thrive; they will need access to energy in abundance so they can do the things that they want to do,” he says, and again pointing to a dilemma, there is a need to get people access to energy quickly to break the cycle of poverty, yet sustainably, to not break the planet.

“If you look at the energy sector (you ask), do you go the efficient way in the short term, get people access to energy so they can run their company, their businesses get income, and get out of poverty, or do you go the sustainable route?" he says.

To take the sustainable route, he says he needs to go on the “international stage and really fight the good fight to get the funding that is needed to go to the sustainable route... I see it is trying to find that fine balance to the just transition.”

"For many communities, it is expensive to go the renewable, sustainable route. It’s expensive for some communities to even consider a solar rooftop, even when there are subsidies available. The community also may not benefit from the jobs in installing the systems; a foreign company may come in and install the systems.

“That’s not a just transition.”

Crucial Policy Conversation

“The policy conversation is really around trying to look at the long-term benefits of just transitioning. And how do we do it in a way that we can retain as much as possible benefit to our local communities, which means that it is not enough to just put solar on the roof of houses and have them have access to energy? It is not enough to just say, 'Oh! We've increased our energy mix to 20 percent renewables.

"We need to go the extra mile to ask the question of who is doing those projects and who is being contracted to do this work. Who is being trained to do the maintenance? Who has been trained to really do this on the ground? And have those local people, who have been paid directly to do this, been trained to take this forward and scale it? That is super essential.”

Amponsem admits it’s a hard sell.

“You don't necessarily have absolute control or the money to make a just transition. You have an agreement with a multilateral bank or development bank that sets conditions for how projects are supposed to roll out.”

On the other hand, as a developing country's government, you want the money to come in, and you know that it would be better to do the development sustainably, but the money often comes with strings.

“Sometimes you hear the word ‘technical’ and the phrase ‘we need to build technical capacity,’ and they need ‘technical assistance.’ And it ends up just bringing in a bunch of people from somewhere to do the work that, actually, local people could be trained to do.”

“I think, as the youth movement, being able to constantly remind policymakers of the role of equity and justice in developments in the green transition is super important.”

Amponsem says he also works with the Climate Justice Fund. Philanthropic entities also “constantly need reminding on issues of equity and justice when providing support directly to governments.”

It shouldn’t be solely focused on reducing emissions.

“Putting money in the hands of local communities is one of the most powerful things that you can do. It builds trust and confidence and allows local companies to realize that they have the agency to actually drive their own growth. And I think that when that is not done, and when it is external entities coming in, you really disempower communities.”

Weather-Resilient Housing

Amponsem refers back to remarks he made earlier in the conference during the Open Society Foundations-facilitated session on 'Financing for Resilience: Overcoming Hurdles to Catalyze Regional Action and Locally-led Adaptation and Loss and Damage Finance,' during which he questioned why weather-resilient housing in the Mozambican coastal region was not yet a reality.

Tropical cyclones have been battering this area with increasing ferocity, including Idai in 2019, which caused a humanitarian crisis in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi and left more than 1,500 people dead, and Cyclone Freddy more recently, which reportedly became the longest-lived tropical cyclone ever observed and made landfall three times.

He spent time interviewing people impacted by the cyclones in 2020, and the interviews were emotional.

“I was in tears. I spoke to teachers who had to take responsibility for the kids in their class. Trying to keep them keeping their energy up while their parents are lost and missing.”

There was one interviewee who built a classroom for the children after Cyclone Idai, and a year later it was destroyed again. Another person built a house, only to have it wrecked by flooding the next year. So, the question, says Amponsem, is: "How do we invest in “preparedness in a way that people do not have to suffer the losses?”

"We can’t stop the cycle (of climate change-induced weather) at the moment, but we can work on the exposure and the vulnerability that are attached to the hazard. But this is not being done!”

There are issues with accessibility—getting access to funding—and when it comes, it doesn’t flow to the grassroots level.

“That is what we try to do with the new Climate Justice Fund: work with micro-funders that can actually help those countries,” he says, explaining that in Mozambique, they’re very excited to work on adaptation projects dealing with building climate-resilient houses. The project is in its early stages, and they are consulting with architects and construction companies to ensure that once built, they can survive the storms.

Preparedness and Prevention

“We need to invest in preparedness and prevention because it does save lives,” he comments, saying that he admires the resilience of people.

“Every single year, the cyclone comes, and yet the community has hope that we can solve this crisis. They have hope that we can do this, and they are working with us to make sure that we really break those barriers of access to funding, access to decision-making spaces, and access to the required infrastructure that will allow them to be able to build the adaptive capacity and resilience towards these.”

Amponsem says he particularly admires the women in Africa.

“I always say that the real hustlers in this world are African women and mothers,” explaining the lengths his mother would go to ensure her family was fed and educated. Yet the funding for them isn’t there. Likewise with minorities and Indigenous people. He speaks about a disconnect in the climate debates and how, when we speak about climate finance, we often speak about climate indicators.

“This is where we have the challenge because we need to realize that we are living in a world where economics or social justice issues and environmental justice issues are just as important.”

Amponsem is clear; he says the climate conversation needs to include those feeling its impact.

“If we cannot trust the frontline communities with agency, with decision-making, and with resources, then I think we've gotten it wrong.”

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