Photo: Mark Hang Fung So (Licensed under Unsplash Free Use)

Rethinking Hong Kong climate justice in a global context

An interview with Community Climate Resilience Concern Group

Tell us more about the Community Climate Resilience Concern Group and how you all decided to form this group.

The “Community Climate Resilience Concern Group”(CCRCG) is a youth-led group dedicated to addressing climate justice issues in Hong Kong. Climate justice is a movement that recognizes that climate change can have different social, economic, and health impacts on underprivileged communities. It also recognizes that, without addressing the root causes that make certain communities underprivileged, climate change can exacerbate the inequities they experience. In Hong Kong, we are concerned about the impact of extreme weather, especially heatwaves, on vulnerable communities: those living in subdivided housing, homeless people, outdoor workers, and are working to assist them in better coping with the impacts of climate change. Through various policy advocacy, community projects, and activities, we are committed to enhancing the community’s climate resilience and building a climate-just community.

Our group was established during a youth training program focused on climate advocacy in 2022. Motivated by the concept of “climate justice” in Hong Kong, several of our current team members, who participated in this program, co-founded the Concern Group. Recognising the gaps in the provision and quality of adaptation facilities for the city’s most vulnerable populations, we were inspired to take action.

What are opportunities for political education amongst Hongkongers and other civil society organizations about how the climate crisis is connected to other local issues? What are some challenges that you’ve encountered?

Through our work in climate advocacy, we have gained a deep understanding of the interconnectedness between local livelihood issues and the pressing climate crisis. It is evident that factors such as extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and environmental degradation directly impact local communities, their resources, and their overall well-being.

The adverse consequences of the climate crisis extend far beyond environmental implications, encompassing a wide array of socio-economic aspects that affect communities. These encompass challenges such as limited access to crucial climate adaptation facilities (e.g. temporary shelters), escalating food insecurity due to rising costs, financial burdens incurred from property damages and other consequences of extreme weather events, and the mounting strain on vulnerable communities’ electricity bills as a result of climate change. It is these marginalised and impoverished communities that bear the brunt of these impacts, further exacerbating their existing vulnerabilities and hardships.

However, understanding climate as a livelihood issue as well is still a new concept for many people in Hong Kong. Though they may feel the climate’s impacts deeply, they may not connect what they have experienced with climate change. Our challenge and our efforts, therefore, lie in making legible and addressing the interconnections between people’s everyday lives and climate change. We engage with communities, conduct research, analyse policies, and advocate for equitable solutions that address the climate crisis, foster resilience, and address underlying livelihood issues. In particular, we believe that a path to political education and community empowerment can come through changing the material conditions upon which a person’s resilience is predicated. Therefore, in addition to policy advocacy, we have started to create a network of spaces that offer community members relief from extreme weather. We also set up a mutual support drive for heat-stress prevention items that gets redistributed to those who need it most. We believe that by doing so, we can create meaningful change and work towards a more just and sustainable future for all.

A historic hurricane in Hong Kong recently resulted in unprecedented flooding. Your group released a statement with some recommendations. How did this affect Hongkongers, especially working class and marginalized populations? How can Hongkongers and other allies help to amplify and mobilize around these demands?

Frequent and more severe typhoons and rainstorms can have compounding effects on our city, residents, and workers. As an immediate example, post-typhoon Saola debris and trees may have caused extra drainage blockages, which exacerbated the flash floods brought by the September 8th rainstorm. Such recurring disasters with increased frequency can have other indirect dangers and health concerns, such as infectious diseases, chemical hazards, fire, and pollution. Marginalised communities feel these direct and indirect dangers most acutely.  

During the September 8th rainstorm, cleaners and various blue-collar workers were dispatched to help put the city back in order, even before the worst of the storm was over. These workers often work in dangerous conditions, and get paid low wages. During the rainstorm, Wong Tai Sin station was badly flooded, and there were images of maintenance workers neck-deep in water trying to mitigate the situation. The MTR was criticised even by pro-establishment unions for not caring for workers’ safety. MTR cleaners, who are also amongst the frontline responders to extreme weather events (often working throughout rainstorm warnings or typhoon signal 8), get paid a minimum wage of $40/hr. Minimum wage and low prioritisation of worker’s safety, is considered unjust and inadequate to cope with the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather from climate change .

Of the people who died on September 8th, one person was an Indonesian maintenance worker, another was a 79-year-old security guard. In Hong Kong, frontline, essential work is often carried out by communities who are considered “not high-valued talent” who can contribute to the capitalist economy. These communities include the elderly, and ethnically diverse populations. The deaths of workers during the rainstorm brings to the fore intersecting injustices exacerbated by climate change. They demonstrate that racial inequality and the lack of adequate social protections for the ageing population in Hong Kong are critical issues that need to be urgently addressed alongside climate change.

Housing justice is also a pressing issue. The areas where homeless people stay are often high in flood risks, for example at underground pedestrian subways. Homeless people have limited to no access to information updates, and often are given very little warning before the floods hit. It is also difficult for them to know whether emergency temporary shelters are open and where they are located. This leaves them with little options for safety. 

Our Concern Group has issued a statement emphasising the recognition of climate change as a crisis that intersects with various issues, such as workers’ rights, housing, poverty, and ageing. We advocate for the following points: 

  1. Formulation of adaptation policies that address the urgent need for affordable and disaster-resilient housing;
  2. Enhanced protection and welfare for elderly and disadvantaged communities;
  3. Environmental safety education;
  4. Expansion of climate resilience projects and job opportunities; and
  5. Fair compensation for essential workers, ensuring a living wage.

While we addressed the government in our statement, community resilience must be built from the bottom up. The fact that climate intersects with many issues means that there are many entry points in which actors on different levels–from individuals to local communities to businesses–can mobilise around.

Are there other ways in which global allies can support Hongkongers’ fight against climate injustice?

There are several ways in which global allies can support Hongkongers’ fight against climate injustice:

  1. Knowledge sharing and exchange: Global allies can facilitate the sharing of knowledge, best practices, and experiences in addressing climate change and its impacts. This can include collaboration on research, hosting workshops or webinars, and promoting the exchange of ideas and solutions to common challenges.
  2. Connecting with other areas experiencing similar disasters: Within a few weeks of the September 8th rainstorm, New York and Libya also experienced unprecedented, devastating flooding. In all of these cases, climate impacts on communities were worsened by the lack of preparedness from the government. By establishing connections between Hong Kong and other regions facing similar climate-related disasters, global allies can foster solidarity and collective action. This can involve sharing resources, stories, and strategies, amplifying each other’s voices in the global climate discourse, and building alliances to advocate for stronger climate action at local, regional, and international levels. We see this when youth delegations and climate justice alliances at COP 28 share experiences and join voices to demand for meaningful change and justice from decision-makes. But these exchanges should be sustained to build a truly internationalist climate justice movement. 
  3. Calling for the Hong Kong government to declare a climate emergency: Global allies can support Hongkongers by advocating for the local government to officially declare a climate emergency, especially where countries have already made this declaration (including Canada, Austria, Japan, Australian, South Korea). This declaration can help raise awareness, mobilise resources, and prioritise climate action across various sectors. Global allies can amplify this call through petitions, public statements, and engagement with international organisations to exert pressure and encourage the government to take urgent action.

There have been discussions among climate justice scholars and activists about the historical and present-day responsibility of wealthy nations and other global institutions, like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in exacerbating the impacts of climate change. How can we understand Hong Kong’s role in the context of these global dynamics?

In 2019, two landscape architects from the University of Hong Kong led a “detour” in Central, stopping at Exchange Square, the HSBC building, and Cheung Kong Park, the ICBC Tower. The point of the “detour” was to show that Hong Kong is home to the headquarters of the largest financial firms that fund industries responsible for climate change and environmental destruction, and thus plays a significant role in the global dynamics of climate change and injustice. For example, Cheung Kong Park was built by CK Hutchinson. CK Hutchinson owned Husky Oil, which was deeply involved in the Canadian settler colonial government’s extraction of oil in the Alberta tar sands. Husky Oil has since merged with another oil company, Cenovus, and together they became the third largest oil company in Canada. CK Hutchinson still owns 27% of the stakes in this merger, making this Hong Kong firm a huge contributor to continued fossil fuel extraction and intensified climate change.

ICBC is linked to the Dakota Access Pipeline, a crude oil pipeline cutting across the lands of Native American communities in the area. The pipeline is a fossil fuel project, transporting 750,000 barrels of oil a day from North Dakota to Illinois. Investing in this pipeline means locking in oil as a fuel source for decades to come and contributing to emissions extensively. A spill from the pipeline could seriously contaminate the water sources of communities living on the land, and could have adverse impact on the ecosystems in the region. Chinese capital, routed through Hong Kong, is complicit in undermining Indigenous sovereignty and threatening their lands. 

Global institutions like the World Bank continue to fund fossil fuel projects and at the same time, prop up regimes to undermine people’s resistance against these projects. Hong Kong companies can sometimes benefit from them. The World Bank had committed to cease involvement with coal in 2013. Its private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), also announced its divestment just this year. However, just a few weeks ago, a report published by Inclusive Development International (IDI) showed that the World Bank, via the IFC, was bankrolling new coal infrastructure in Indonesia, Cambodia, and China by buying stakes in companies funding coal plant construction. One of these companies was the Postal Savings Bank of China, which funded China Huadian to develop the Jambi II coal plant in Indonesia. China Huadian’s Hong Kong subsidiary will be the company responsible for generating the energy. This is done at the expense of 3000 Indonesian villagers, whose land, water, and health are negatively impacted by the coal.

Some activists, like Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, have called for climate reparations from global institutions to marginalized communities particularly affected by these changes. Some demands include debt cancellation and other local measures that empower everyday people, instead of corporations, in decision-making over energy resources. 

During COP27, a landmark agreement was reached to set up a “loss and damage” fund, where nations who have historically contributed to climate change at the expense of other nations, will in theory pay for the losses incurred by the current climate crisis. Countries like Germany and the UAE began to make commitments to the fund at COP28. However, the loss and damage fund falls short of cancelling the debt developing countries owe to developed countries. Referring to Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s response regarding debt cancellation, we agree with his sentiments on “by-any-means-necessary approach.” This is because there is firstly the question of whether developing countries really owe developed countries anything at all, given that developed countries had already taken from developed countries so many resources, land, and labour via colonisation. And secondly, because debt cancellation can give formerly-colonised countries freedom to truly invest in climate resilient measures and infrastructure. Therefore, this is a form of reparations happening at the global scale that we agree with.

We would also like to emphasise our particular support for prioritising sustained measures that empower and improve the lives of everyday people in addition to reparations. While debt cancellation or similar measures may free up the government’s budget, the focus should be investing in long-term solutions that guarantee the wellbeing of citizens, especially the grassroots, under the context of climate change. 

In Hong Kong’s case, investing in the harnessing of solar or wind energy and ensuring that local communities are connected to these energy grids is important. In Hong Kong, tenants in subdivided flats often face unfairly high electricity bills because of poor ventilation and predatory landlords overcharging on utilities. This approach not only enables communities to divest from fossil fuels and access renewable energy during energy crises but also creates opportunities for them to generate income by selling excess energy back to the grid. This may be a better way for energy justice. 

By emphasising sustainable energy infrastructure and empowering local communities to become active participants in the renewable energy market, we can foster long-term resilience and economic empowerment. This approach not only addresses immediate energy needs but also lays the foundation for a more sustainable and self-sufficient energy system.