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Climate Change: Crisis and Challenge

How our movements can achieve both global justice and ecological balance

By Orin Langelle and Anne Petermann
From the newsletter: 
Climate Justice (May/June 2011)
Credit: 

"Face It" by Roger Peet, JustSeeds Artists' Cooperative

There is no better example of the interconnection of the root causes of social injustice, ecological destruction and economic domination than climate change. Climate change may well be humanity’s greatest challenge. It is a crisis that must be rapidly addressed if catastrophe is to be averted.

Already the impacts are being felt by millions in the world’s most vulnerable and marginalized communities. Climate change is at once a social and environmental justice issue, an ecological issue and an issue of economic and political domination. As such, it must be addressed through broad and visionary alliances.
To successfully address the climate crisis, we must also identify and address the deep root causes that link it to the myriad other crises we face—economic crises, militarism and war, as well as the intertwined crises of food, water and biodiversity loss. These crises are unified by their common roots in an economic system that encourages banks and corporations to ignore ethical and moral considerations and gamble with the Earth, peoples’ lives and our collective futures in the service of higher profits.

Successfully addressing climate change will require a fundamental restructuring of our society that, if thoughtfully done, can lay a new foundation that will simultaneously help us achieve both global justice and ecological balance.

What will the solutions to the climate crisis look like? They will be found in a model that is the opposite of the dominant economic model of incessant and unsustainable growth, oppression and injustice.

Solutions to climate change will not be controlled by corporations. There is no single “silver bullet” solution. Solutions will be small in scale, locally controlled, decentralized, bioregionally appropriate and socially just. Thousands of such solutions already exist. Opening space for dialogue in communities around the world to uncover, promote and launch these real solutions is key.

Climate justice must become a core part of all of our work. This will require broad alliances with diverse peoples and movements around the world, and it will require the fundamental transformation of society to one that is based on principles of justice and ecology.

Global warming = global war
Gross overproduction and overconsumption by and for industrialized countries has resulted in a severely shrinking resource base, as evidenced by pandemic ecological crises, the estimated loss of more than 300 species per day and climate change itself. The intensification of the impacts from climate change are further depleting resources such as water and soils.

In February 2004, a Pentagon report on global warming was leaked to the press. It predicted that abrupt climate change could bring the planet to the edge of anarchy as countries develop a nuclear threat to defend and secure dwindling food, water and energy supplies. The report went on to say that the threat to global security vastly eclipses that of terrorism.

“To me the question of the environment is more ominous than that of peace and war,” said Hans Blix, the former UN weapons inspector, in a 2003 interview. “I’m more worried about global warming than I am of any major military conflict.”

Wars for resources are nothing new. In 1980, Jimmy Carter pronounced the Carter Doctrine declaring that the US would take any actions necessary to ensure an uninterrupted supply of oil from the Middle East. Twenty years later that doctrine still rang true, as a 2000 report by the World Bank found that countries that produce oil are 40 times more likely to be involved in violent conflict.

The World Bank itself is one of the primary engines of global warming, despite the fact that at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the Bank was entrusted with promoting and developing renewable energies. According to the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, since the Rio Earth Summit the World Bank has spent well over $30 billion on fossil fuel exploitation (17 times what it spent on renewables). In contrast to the World Bank’s “mission” to help address poverty, over 80% of World Bank-funded fossil fuels are exported to G8 countries (the eight richest countries in the world).

The opportunism and irrationality of the climate capitalists cannot be underestimated. With the specter of climate catastrophe looming, oil companies are extracting oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada—a process that requires a massive and incredibly toxic strip mining process and includes the destruction of a tract of boreal forest the size of Florida. Extracting the oil from the tar sands is extremely energy intensive and puts out nearly three times the carbon emissions of conventional oil extraction. Not only are tar sands companies ignoring the fact that climate change means we need to be moving away from fossil fuels, not looking for new deposits; they are wantonly destroying vast stretches of intact native forests—which are considered critically important climate stabilizers and one of the keys of the planet eventually recovering from climate change.

Similarly, at the same time that scientists and Arctic peoples are raising increasingly urgent alarms about the melting of the Arctic regions due to global warming, oil  companies are competing to claim the vast oil reserves that lie beneath the melting Arctic, while at the same time celebrating that enough ice has melted to allow the opening of the Northwest Passage as a new trade route. There is no consideration paid even to the existing generation, much less future generations.

Global climate justice movement
The movement for climate justice grows out of the grassroots and community-based environmental justice movement. Climate change, though often regarded as strictly an environmental issue, has at its core important social justice concerns. Indigenous and rural peoples, women, people of color and the poor are already on the front lines of the climate struggle.

According to the UN’s Environment and Human Security Group, by 2005 there were already over 20 million environmental refugees—more than those from war and political repression combined. In 2007 Christian Aid suggested that nearly a billion people could be permanently displaced by 2050: 250 million by climate change-induced phenomena such as droughts, floods and hurricanes, and 645 million by dams and other development projects.

Some of the same people being threatened by impacts of climate change are also being threatened by proposed “solutions” to climate change. Because in many regions of the world indigenous peoples have been careful stewards of their ancestral lands, these biodiverse and rich lands are now coveted by the World Bank, corporations and governments. Massive land grabs are taking place to privatize vast expanses of land where legal ownership is unclear or has not been established. These lands are prized for the rich resources they contain, for the development of agrofuel feedstocks or monoculture tree plantations and for the important role they can play in offsetting carbon emissions.

Contrary to this environmental protection=human exclusion colonial model, however, one of the steps toward truly addressing climate change must be to give indigenous peoples autonomy and full control over their ancestral lands.

One challenge for the international climate change movement is effectively mobilizing to force international climate negotiations to take real, substantial, effective and just action to address global warming. Ensuring that these negotiations proceed from a climate justice, rather than a corporate capitalist perspective, however, will be a tall order indeed.

Mass action on climate change
The movement against climate change in the United States plays a pivotal role in the global effort to avoid climate catastrophe. This is because the US is historically responsible for the lion’s share of global greenhouse gas emissions; the US military is the largest single emitter of carbon on the planet; the US and the World Bank dominate the discussion of what to do about global warming; and the historic role of the US in climate negotiations has been to obstruct forward progress.

In much the same way that the 1999 Seattle protests bolstered the position of underdog countries in the WTO negotiations, ultimately derailing them, a US mobilization in support of countries fighting for real action on climate change at the international level could help neutralize the obstructive role of the US and its allies by demonstrating that even US citizens are demanding action.

While raising the militancy of the movement toward international climate negotiations is a crucial component of forward motion on climate change, we must also learn from social movements around the world that are already taking direct action on issues related to climate change. Indigenous peoples in Brazil are taking back their ancestral lands, cutting the non-native and invasive eucalyptus plantations and re-establishing villages. Social movements based on small island nations in the Pacific are struggling for the very survival of their peoples. The climate movement must project these voices and stand in solidarity with them.

Let’s be clear: we cannot buy our way out of this problem. The myriad solutions to global warming will come not from the top down, but from communities identifying bioregionally appropriate and truly sustainable solutions that are both decentralized and recognize the importance of local control and bioregional distinctions. You can join this process and stand with the growing legions of people around the world who are joining forces to find real and just solutions to the climate crisis.

Orin Langelle is the Co-Director & Strategist and Anne Petermann is the Executive Director of the Global Justice Ecology Project, a former RESIST grantee. This article is excertped from a GJEP booklet.

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