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Towards A Climate Justice Movement

Max Uhlenbeck & Sasha Wright
Date Published: 
January 01, 0001
    The devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina has brought the issue of global warming into the public spotlight as never before. More recently, globally coordinated protests during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Montreal have challenged the role in the growing crisis of the largest industrialized nations, and of the US in particular. With each new set of climate data, the scientific community becomes increasingly unified in its call for a drastic response. Still, building a sustainable movement for Climate Justice continues to be among our greatest challenges.

Within the US environmental movement, a sober assessment of its failure to have a serious policy impact on climate issues has sparked broad debate over the identity and future of environmentalism in this country.

For activists who have not identified themselves as part of this movement in particular, on the other hand, Katrina provides a new opportunity to integrate into ongoing activism the global climate crisis that is surely upon all of us already. Living in a superpower producing fully a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel emissions, US activists in particular have a crucial role to play in challenging the greatest culprit in the global warming crisis.

The Bush Administration staunchly refuses to recognize global warming as a serious problem, at times even contradicting its own official reports. As early as June of 2001, for example, two months after Condoleezza Rice told ambassadors of several European nations that the proposed Kyoto Protocol would be “dead on arrival,” the National Academy of Sciences released a report commissioned by President Bush himself according to which “Global Warming is a real problem and is getting worse.”
Two years later, in June of 2003, the Bush Administration released its “The State of the Environment” report, commissioned in 2001 by the Environmental Protection Agency, only after excising important sections on global warming generally and references in particular to the health and environmental risks posed by rising global temperatures. In one instance, it went so far as to replace the findings of an earlier report, that global temperatures have risen dramatically in the last decade as compared to the last thousand years, with the competing opinion of the American Petroleum Institute.

In October of 2004, the Bush Administration joined the governments of eight other nations to release a new report on the impact of global warming on the Arctic. The report, the most comprehensive international assessment of Arctic climate change to date, concluded that the Arctic is experiencing unprecedented temperature increases, glacial melting, and weather pattern changes, attributing most such changes to artificial greenhouse gases. The administration’s second major report that year linking global warming to pollution, still it opposed mandatory curbs on carbon dioxide emissions, playing up instead its hackneyed talking point that such curbs would “cost too many American jobs.”

The Bush administration has refused to sign on to even the limited carbon reductions called for by the Kyoto Protocol. Yet again this December, at the UN conference in Montreal, the US delegation attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to sabotage any attempt to establish broader global agreement on reducing greenhouse emissions. While environmentalists from a wide range of backgrounds agree that the Kyoto Protocol is not an adequate basis for the type of drastic changes necessary to confront the ongoing crisis, it is nonetheless disturbing that the US continues to attempt to derail even these basic steps.

Ideologically, the strategy of downplaying the threat of global warming makes sound political sense for the Bush Administration. The longer people are focused on the question of “whether global warming is really even occurring, ” that is, the farther they are from asking the more important question of “who it is affecting disproportionately and what a real plan to combat it would actually look like.” Coming up with real strategies for combating global warming would inevitably have to address the role that global inequality plays in exacerbating the current crisis.

Proponents of Climate Justice call for measures addressing global warming that would place the burden primarily on the wealthy industrialized nations that have created the crisis in the first place, in part by having them finance the adoption by developing nations of energy technologies that are cleaner, but also more expensive than traditional ones.

Of course, to truly address the global warming crisis would also bring us head to head with its worst perpetrator —Big Oil. Oil consumption generates the bulk of fossil fuel emissions, the top five oil corporations alone generating no less than 10 percent of emissions annually. As large oil corporations shape the economy globally, and make up the fourth largest lobbying group domestically, they have effectively subverted the climate debate and stalled meaningful action. Their close ties to the neo-cons means that instead of investing in alternatives, the Bush Administration is focusing its efforts on fighting to ensure long-term control of diminishing oil resources in Iraq, as a way to maintain global hegemony over such competing economic superpowers as China and the European Union.

Far from a theoretical debate, global warming is already affecting the lives of millions across the globe. Hardest hit will be those most vulnerable because of poverty and racism, as we saw clearly in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. On November 17, 2005, the Washington Post reported that the “earth’s warming climate is estimated to contribute to more than 150,000 deaths and 5 million illnesses each year.” According to the World Health Organization, this figure could double by the year 2030. Data published in the journal Nature indicates that “climate change is driving up rates of malaria, malnutrition and diarrhea throughout the world.”

Some new projects look to investment into cleaner energy as the only timely and pragmatic solution, as the interests stacked against taking action to address climate change are so powerful that they may not cooperate unless their own economic interests are satisfied. We must not forget, however, that capitalists themselves are of the same frame of mind, and so profit-motivated solutions of this sort are not necessarily a sound basis for addressing the crisis.

For example, much of the support for the Kyoto Protocol among industrialized nations stems from the economic possibilities presented by “carbon trading.” Yet carbon trading is clearly one of the most dangerous loopholes of the agreement, which already fails to cut emissions adequately, and does so to the manifest economic and environmental disadvantage of poorer nations. Moreover, the current environmental crisis is surely one of the greatest failures of global capitalism and so an opportunity for anti-capitalists to press for real alternatives.

Environmental Justice groups fighting the effects of refineries on low income communities and communities of color have long been on the frontlines of the fight for Climate Justice. The Bus Riders Union, for example, a project of the Labor/Community Center in Los Angeles, rallied a day of action during recent global protests, reaching out to thousands across LA, demanding that the Bush Administration sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, and more locally that LA cut its fleet of eight million cars in half. Many other economic and racial justice organizations have taken similar leads in the fight for the rights of victims hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma.

Both in the US and internationally, partnerships between unions and environmental justice groups have done important work in the fight for a “Just Transition,” so that the burden of the transition to clean energy does not fall on workers in the oil industries, or rely on carbon trading that merely distributes pollution unequally among nations and communities. This campaign also belies the major strategy of oil corporations and the Bush Administration to create divisions between workers and advocates for environmental justice.

Much credit for the successes that were achieved at the recent climate negotiations must go to the large-scale protests in Montreal and globally. Such pressure from below domestically is the only hope we have of seriously affecting the role of the US in the undemocratic international negotiations process. Once again, as organizers at the center of the empire, we find ourselves in an important and challenging position to build sustained pressure on the government that is at the very center of the crisis.

The dire predictions about the future that awaits us if we fail to address the climate crisis have so far not inspired a large movement on the issue. What we need to communicate to a broad group of progressives and radicals is that it has to do with everything we are fighting for—economic justice, racial justice, an end to militarism, our cities, our communities, the possibility of a better world. Even if carbon emissions were to stop tomorrow, the effects of global warming will continue to make it one of the most serious issues we will face and fight in the next fifty years. It should not, and cannot be the ghettoized single-issue fight of the “environmental” movement alone.