Tokenism wins at the global Climate Summit in Egypt

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Wikipedia defines tokenism as ‘the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to be inclusive often to minority groups and says this social concept became popular during the racial segregation in the United States of America in the 1950s when a few black students would be admitted to predominately ‘white schools’ in an effort to show integration progress.

This would lead to American civil rights icon, Malcolm X, famously stating; “Tokenism is hypocrisy. One little student in the University of Mississippi, that’s hypocrisy. A handful of students in Little Rock, Arkansas, is hypocrisy. A couple of students going to school in Georgia is hypocrisy. Integration in America is hypocrisy in the rawest form. And the whole world can see it. All this little tokenism that is dangled in front of the Negro and then he’s told, ‘See what we’re doing for you, Tom.’ Why the whole world can see that this is nothing but hypocrisy. All you do is make your image worse; you don’t make it better.”

Tokenism, I’m afraid, is what happened in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, during the 27th Conference of the Parties organized by The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

At the Conference of the Parties, it was agreed to establish a fund to deal with climate-crisis-instigated losses and damages in the vulnerable countries, most of which are in the Global South. This fund, first advocated for on behalf of low-lying countries in the Pacific by Vanuatu around 1991, gained momentum in 2021 in Glasgow at COP26, in part due to the recent relentless work of civil society and activists, and African countries who also joined the push. The activists have been using the term ‘Climate Justice’ to advance this goal with some of their methods being quite incendiary.

One of these activist movements is the UK headquartered Extinction Rebellion which argues, ‘Climate and ecological justice movements, therefore, demand that rich industrialized countries now acknowledge their role in the emergency. In doing so, countries in the Minority World must look again at the principles of reparative justice and climate/ecological debt.’

Protesters at a Climate Justice event. Photo by Vincent M.A. Janssen

Climate Justice movements are based on one tenet – since developing countries have contributed little to climate change through emissions, the rich countries must compensate the poor countries.

In Egypt, discussions on the Loss and Damage fund were initially resisted from getting onto the agenda by rich countries, and when this was allowed, negotiations on this issue consumed most of the time, with more work on other critical agendas such as phasing out of all fossils and reduction of methane emissions, which are really the cause of the losses and damage, taking a back seat. In the end, proponents managed to get a fund set up in talks that were extended for a day, and into the night.

Of this, a visibly upset Germany’s Climate Secretary Jennifer Morgan was quoted by Reuters as saying, “we went with what the agreement was here because we want to stand with the most vulnerable.”

European Union Climate Chief, Frans Timmermans, also added, “Too many parties are not ready to make more progress today in the fight against the climate crisis. What we have in front of us is not enough of a step forward for people and planet.”

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, on his part released a video stating that while he welcomed the decision, this was not enough in solving what he had previously referred to as humanity on ‘a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.’ He later added, “A fund for loss and damage is essential – but it’s not an answer if the climate crisis washes a small island state off the map – or turns an entire African country to desert. The world still needs a giant leap on climate ambition.”

There have been no responses so far from the United States, reported to have vehemently resisted any attempts to set up this fund at previous summits and also in Egypt, fearing the country would be subjected to endless liability given that the country has historically contributed the most to the climate crisis through emissions.

There were however some celebrations from some activists and civil societies, particularly from Africa for whom the setting up of the fund is seen as a success despite there being no clarity of how the facility would be operationalized. Of this, the Minister for South Africa for Forestry, Fisheries and Environment, Barbra Creecy, has observed that there has been some progress of course but there is still the question of the 100 billion USD that was promised by rich countries to the developing countries every year as part of previous climate agreements that has not been honoured.

On setting up the loss and damage fund, a transitional committee will be formed to look into the sources of the finance as well as the modalities of how the fund will be operated and under what circumstances a country would benefit. This means it will take a few COPs before any country sees any Loss and Damage money in their accounts.

While we welcome this new fund, we consider this simply as tokenism and what we saw in Egypt was the use of Loss and Damage as a Trojan horse for the parties to abdicate their roles to the planet by not making groundbreaking pronouncements on fossil fuels and methane which have brought us where we are today.

The demand for a Loss and Damage fund shows that climate finance is fundamentally flawed and needs to be reformed. Already we have the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which was established in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit and principally does projects in developing countries. While this facility continues to do incredible work, its impact is minimal because of its size. GEF spends around 1 billion USD annually on projects. On the other hand, a study by the Climate Change Group of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) shows while Least Developed Countries have not budgeted for Loss and Damage in their NDCs, these losses may add up to 500 billion USD a year currently and reach 1 trillion USD by 2050. Given these numbers, then, what GEF provides simply looks like climate tokenism.

On the other hand, almost all African countries will be unable to meet their NDCs goals without incurring external debt. Barbra Creecy, the Minister from South Africa says the continent is spending 5-12 percent of their GDPs on climate transitions. A Loss and Damage facility would therefore not solve developing world climate finance needs unless the funds are significant.

In conclusion, most of the developed world now agrees that Climate Change is an existential threat to humanity, the question is why aren’t they doing more? Juan Pablo Gutierrez, who describes herself as a human rights extremist, aptly describes why: ‘Climate Crisis is not a weather crisis. It is a colonial crisis. It’s the consequence of the way of life of a few countries that are making humanity pay for their brutality.’

To however move forward, here is a suggestion that will be ignored. How about UNFCCC prepare a 10-year global Climate Action budget with every country contributing proportionately to their GDP and emissions and funds deployed globally against priority areas with corporations also paying similarly. END


Betterman Simidi Musasia

Founder & Patron, Former CEO, Clean Up Kenya

Betterman is a sustainable public sanitation advocate and a pollution control evangelist. In 2015, after becoming extremely tired of seeing all the trash in Kenyan neighborhoods and hearing the authorities fake promises to clear the mess, he sold his trucking business to establish Clean Up Kenya. Today, the organization is a leading national sustainable public sanitation advocacy brand. In September 2020, he stepped down as Clean Up Kenya Chief Executive Officer and currently serves as Founder and Patron.


Clean Up Kenya was established in 2015 to advocate for and promote sustainable public sanitation in Kenya. Since then we have become the de-facto national public sanitation advocacy brand. We are also experts in community mobilizing for cleanups. We have done numerous cleanups over the years, some of which have been attended by over 1000 volunteers on singular sites. These cleanups are meant to increase visibility on the problem of waste and it is therefore common to see our volunteers in bibs with one message, ‘Clean Up Kenya’. At the core of our work is honest and actual engagement in communities – not PR events. We also run advocacy campaigns holding duty bodies, consumer brands, green-washing NGOs, and other stakeholders to account for unsustainable public sanitation in Kenya and the global South. We receive no funding for our work but collaborate with others on projects.