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Climate Change Is the Tragedy of the Global Commons

Haiyan destruction

A neighborhood in the Philippines devastated by Typhoon Haiyan (Reuters/John Javellana)

I’m not watching Years of Living Dangerously, Showtime’s nine-part series on climate change. I’m not going to read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, despite its great reviews. When I see a long article in The New York Times about melting glaciers or flooded coastal plains or disappearing species or deforestation or desertification, I skip it. Why? Because I already know what’s happening and about to happen. Reading the fine print is just going to make me feel sadder than I already do, without giving me any action I can take that will do more than give me the illusion that I am making a difference.

At The Nation, we have to believe that knowledge is power, or why would we spend our lives bringing people the bad news? And sometimes information does indeed spark change: they called the war in Vietnam “the living-room war” because television brought its horrors into our homes, and eventually that constant flow of violence and lies brought ordinary people into the streets to join the students and the peaceniks. There are plenty of issues where educating and mobilizing the citizenry has begun to transform society: violence against women and children, for example. The shame that is our prison system may be next.

But climate change is different. It is not something we can vote against or refuse to pay our taxes to protest. Writing letters to our congressperson will not help, nor will recycling our bottles and cans. Individual action—even the individual actions of hundreds of thousands of people in concert—won’t be enough. Climate change has too many sources, involves too many interest groups, crosses too many borders, slices through too many political alliances to make possible the kind of united national and international effort required to stop it. Also, doing nothing is too profitable. Perhaps that last is indeed the main thing. Too many people are making money out of feeding the insatiable consumer demand for more.

Some scientists think it’s already too late, but let’s say they are wrong, and the scientists who give us ten years or even twenty are right. Let’s say that if every developed nation were to drastically cut its greenhouse emissions beginning today, our poor old earth would mostly muddle through. Overlooking the rather large fact that these measures would cause the world economy to collapse, think what would have to happen: everyone goes vegetarian, uses cars and planes only for emergencies, gets rid of air conditioning, ceases to cut down forests to build new houses. In short, we radically restrict individual consumption in every conceivable way, while governments force industry, especially the oil, coal and gas industries, to do whatever is necessary to… do whatever is necessary. Given our system, how could any of that happen on the necessary scale, let alone happen in time?

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Moreover, while we would be cutting back, India, China, Brazil, Indonesia and other formerly poor nations would still be surging forward. And how could we, who are vastly responsible for global warming in the first place, tell them, “Sorry, you got rich too late: no steak or family car or air conditioner for you? Go back to your villages and swelter.”

Climate change is the tragedy of the commons for the entire globe. For each individual, there is not enough motivation to alter our current behavior except around the edges to feel virtuous, if indeed behavior change were possible. (Americans may be driving a bit less, but how many Americans could do without their car?) For industry, the incentives are almost all the other way, and state and federal governments are largely industry’s captives. Among nations, there are too many competing interests and no sufficiently powerful international mechanism to lay out a course of action and enforce it. By the time the collective damage is done, it will be too late to undo it.

I hope I am wrong.

The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change

Earth Day Ad

An Earth Day ad from Californians for Population Stabilization links environmental degredation to immigration. (YouTube)

Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center found that just 29 percent of Americans think addressing climate change should be a top priority for Congress and the president. Desire to see new policies passed in this arena came in second to last among twenty other issues tested. It’s not that Americans are in denial: Two-thirds of those surveyed were convinced that the planet is warming. It’s just that most of them weren’t motivated to do much about it.

Not everyone is resigned to inaction, of course. And some people are less interested in reducing carbon emissions and investing in renewable energy than they are in attributing environmental degradation to immigration and births to immigrant women. That camp is busy this Earth Day. Last week, Californians for Population Stabilization launched a TV ad campaign blaming immigrants for a depleted water supply, air pollution from cars and the disappearance of the state’s green spaces. The ad, which has run in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, is in line with the group’s larger legislative agenda and its claims that the state’s fall from “pristine to imperiled” is the result of population growth caused by immigrants.

The California ad is just the latest display in a decades-old push (witnessed at various points within the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations) to cloak anti-immigrant activism in concerns about the planet’s future. Academic and activist Betsy Hartmann has called this push the “greening of hate.” According to Hartmann:

In many ways, this focus on population control threw the American environmental movement off track. By shifting the blame elsewhere, to the proverbial dark-skinned Other, it prevented many Americans from taking a deeper look at their own role, and the role of the U.S. government and corporations, in causing environmental degradation at home and abroad. It distorted family planning policy as the provision of birth control became a coercive tool in the war on population growth, rather than a means to improve women’s health and choices. It alienated people of color and immigrants from the environmental movement and left the door wide open to the greening of hate.

Linking a devastated environment to migration and women’s reproductive choices is a case of blaming the victim, given reports that women— particularly poor women—are hardest hit when climate-related crises strike. In the first year after Hurricane Katrina, low-income families headed by single mothers in New Orleans fell from 18,000 to 3,000, according to a 2009 report on climate change and gender. Just over 80 percent of such families were displaced, and those who tried to return to the city faced a particularly steep set of obstacles. Industries dominated by women—healthcare, hospitality and education—struggled to right themselves while construction and clean-up jobs became plentiful. Four in five subsidized affordable housing units were damaged by the hurricane, and subsequent demolitions led to an affordable housing crisis. Four years after the storm, less than half the number of pre-Katrina childcare centers were open, leaving working mothers with few options.

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Shana Griffin, an organizer, long-time resident and co-founder of the New Orleans Women’s Health & Justice Initiative, commented on the challenges facing women in the months following the hurricane: “Not only has there been a huge racial shift in the city, there has also been a gender shift. This makes New Orleans a dangerous place for women, not only because there are more men than women, but because services for women are not in the city right now…. What will the post-Katrina organizing response be to ensure that it is safe for women to return to their community?”

Griffin’s question is just as relevant now—not just to New Orleans, but to all of the country’s vulnerable coastal cities—as it was in the months following Katrina. For those of us among the 70 percent of Americans who don’t view climate policy as a priority, we’re letting Griffin’s question go unanswered until the next crisis forces us to confront it. We’re letting anti-immigrant activists intent on promoting a xenophobic brand of population control shape debate. In short, we’re letting some women both take the blame for climate change and bear the brunt of it.

 

Read more of The Nation's special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Christopher Hayes: The New Abolitionism
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
Mychal Denzel Smith: Racial and Environmental Justice Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
Michelle Goldberg: Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dan Zegart: Want to Stop Climate Change? Take the Fossil Fuel Industry to Court
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
John Nichols: If Rick Weiland Can Say “No” to Keystone, So Can Barack Obama
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I'm Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels

Take Action: Stop Cove Point

Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?

Volunteers construct an environmentally friendly home for Central Valley

Volunteers construct an environmentally friendly home for Central Valley Habitat for Humanity (AP Photo/The Daily News-Record, Nikki Fox)

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is in, reminding us once again that time is running out for governments and industry to decarbonize the economy: within a generation, policymakers must tighten emissions regulations, shift to clean energy sources, promote greener manufacturing and adapt technologies to reverse climate trends and mitigate the ecological impacts. Yet, while the assessment focuses on policy solutions, it leaves open questions about the labor element of climate policy: At the end of the day, the work of transforming how we produce and consume takes human hands. Where are the workers?

Five years ago, “green jobs” were all the rage in Washington. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was rolled out with a win-win agenda aimed at fixing the economy and healing the environment at once. Candidate Obama touted a “blueprint” for a green economy, with plans to create 5 million green jobs.

Then the stimulus sparked hopes of a Green New Deal—direct job creation to transition the workforce to a low-carbon economy, plus industrial policy to drive investment in green infrastructure and solar and wind sectors.

Today, the green has begun to wilt. Although the green technology and energy sectors are still expanding, the administration has offered little beyond the short-lived stimulus package and short-term tax breaks for renewable-energy development and corporate-friendly “public-private partnerships.”The drop in political enthusiasm for green jobs is in part the result of sustained conservative attacks coupled with continuing economic stagnation. Yet the fading of the green agenda’s populist buzz also reflects more profound social challenges in the transition to a cleaner, more sustainable economy.

Though federal green initiatives have provided vital seed money for wind farms and solar-generation projects nationwide, the blue-collar workers who have the most to gain from the projected clean-tech boom are still struggling to find any job, much less a green one.

Of course, green jobs are not the boondoggle portrayed by right-wingers. Solar panel companies and green building firms are hiring people, just not fast enough to dent the unemployment figures. In 2012 and 2013, several hundred projects related to renewables and green infrastructure were announced, potentially generating more than 180,000 green job openings, according to the green-tech advocacy group Environmental Entrepreneurs. But new investments have waned recently, in part due to lags in government supports. For example, many freshly announced new wind projects were halted abruptly in late 2012 when Congress delayed the renewal of a critical wind-production tax credit (goaded by aggressive lobbying from the dirty fuels industry). And the investment climate remains unstable, as another batch of credits remains in limbo for 2014.

Such setbacks demonstrate not only the crucial role of government investment but also the endemic unreliability of capital as the driver of an eco-conscious economic transition.

Capital has failed even more dramatically to match the hype around “green-collar jobs” as an employment program. Overall, even with the expansion of green-oriented businesses in the manufacturing, construction and technology sectors, workers involved in “green goods and services” made up under 3 percent of total employment in 2011. So while green sectors are growing through both public and private investment, green jobs are just one piece of a long-term fight against climate change, and they won’t solve the current unemployment crisis.

Indeed, some environmentalists say that green jobs might have been a more sustainable political venture if they had been more realistically billed as part of a broader climate change policy, not a big jobs booster in a slumped economy.

Jeremy Brecher, co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability, an alliance of environmental and labor organizations, tells The Nation that the stimulus did significantly boost new green energy projects and opened some opportunities for decently paying jobs in sectors like home weatherization.

But after the stimulus ended, those initiatives waned, and the evaporation of the administration’s political and fiscal support, he says, has “left a very bitter taste in the mouth of organized labor, who thought that by cooperating with Obama and environmental movements they would be able to really create substantial jobs for American workers. I think that they feel hung out to dry.”

Still, Brecher attributes the waning of the green jobs push to the same austerity mentality that has hampered other social programs: “It’s not that government can’t do anything, but that certain sectors of our political world have spent thirty years hamstringing and destroying the capacity of government to do anything.”

One political roadblock for green economic development is that the Obama administration oversold green jobs as a social project. Amid the Great Recession, the initiatives were originally framed as a labor-market intervention for communities hard hit by unemployment, with grassroots backing from environmental justice groups like Green For All. These good intentions did not translate into economic revitalization.

Five years on, the workforce programs aimed at low-income and disadvantaged communities have not yet been scaled up to a level that would have an impact on racial disparities in joblessness. As for generating skilled labor, a recent study by the Government Accountability Office found that of the 60 percent of Recovery Act training programs that had run their course by the end of 2012—supported by some $500 million in stimulus funds—only about half of those trainees had been placed in jobs; many had received only limited skills training and had trouble breaking into recession-battered labor markets in construction and manufacturing.

More broadly, lawmakers have neglected the kinds of infrastructure investments the country needs to really ameliorate unemployment, including green development along with basic public works projects.

According to a 2012 industry analysis by Jobs for the Future, green jobs progress has also been impeded due to mismatching of labor capacity and employer needs. Training programs, researchers found, were sometimes ill-suited for skilled technical positions, and many job openings were concentrated in higher-level production and administrative positions, which were harder for entry-level workers to break into.

The disillusionment with the green jobs hype may have stoked political backlash from labor. The AFL-CIO building-trades department is now pressing for the government to move forward with plans to build the Keystone XL oil and gas pipeline—directly antagonizing the climate change movement’s central campaign. And resentment has emerged from traditional mining communities against newly proposed environmental regulations on the coal industry, forging awkward common ground with pro-business conservatives.

But if you strip away the ideological polarization, you can start to see where social and environmental principles converge. People are profoundly worried about their futures, and across class and cultural lines, no one wants to see the health and safety of their communities pitted against their economic security. What if we started there: By changing social priorities, rather than twisting the concept of green transition around conventional frameworks of market-driven growth and profit?

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The basic idea that the earlier green jobs rhetoric got right was environmental justice. This concept braids social and ecological values into a whole. As Brecher says, “We have a crisis of jobs and inequality… And we have a crisis of the climate, and fortunately, they can both be solved through the same policies.”

Some of those policies are already underway on the community level: Some cities and states have launched long-term municipal bond funding for clean energy, or developed funding programs for energy-efficient building and transit. But a holistic development agenda would incorporate all interests within the social ecosystem for long-term resilience: Curbing air and water pollution, promoting healthier forms of industrial and food production, and using democratic advocacy to advance economic and environmental values in tandem. Instead of letting corporations relentlessly exploit workers and natural resources, expanding public control over land-use, energy sources and industrial policy can help ensure that the sanctity of the commons is prioritized over the predation of capital.

Rather than bean-counting with job statistics and return-on-investment figures, activists can start rethinking green within the context of social protection, and focus on building policies around social equity—from subsidizing green power for low-income households, to shifting jobs from coal plants to the solar panels. Environmentalism can be a populist movement—if the political framing of climate policy centers not on just cutting carbon but cultivating justice.

Read more of The Nation's special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Christopher Hayes: The New Abolitionism
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Mychal Denzel Smith: Racial and Environmental Justice Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
Michelle Goldberg: Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dan Zegart: Want to Stop Climate Change? Take the Fossil Fuel Industry to Court
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
John Nichols: If Rick Weiland Can Say “No” to Keystone, So Can Barack Obama
Peter Rothberg: Why I'm Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels

Take Action: Stop Cove Point

Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth

A view of newly-planted grass inside the Arena da Amazonas Stadium in the heart of Brazil's Amazon rainforest (Reuters/Bruno Kelly)

As Brazil prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, a topic that plagues the country is the impact hosting these games will have on the local environment and various ecosystems. Despite efforts by soccer’s ruling body, FIFA, to “greenwash” the games—by holding “green events” during the World Cup, putting out press releases about infrastructure construction with recycled materials and speaking rhapsodically about the ways in which the stadiums are designed to capture and recycle rainwater—the truth is not nearly so rank with patchouli oil.

No matter the country, the environmental footprint of these sporting mega-events looks like a stomping combat boot. The impact of air travel alone, with private planes crisscrossing Brazil, a country larger than the continental United States, will be staggering. According to FIFA’s own numbers, internal travel in Brazil during the World Cup will produce the equivalent of 2.72 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. That’s the equivalent of 560,000 passenger cars driving for one year.

Climate change, and advice from the Global North about how to treat the environment, is an extremely sensitive subject in Brazil. This is a country whose environmental concerns are of course global concerns, as it is home of the Amazon rainforest. Called the “lungs of the earth,” the Amazon rainforest creates 20 percent of the earth’s oxygen and 25 percent of its drinkable fresh water. It has also been razed and burned with shocking speed as Brazil’s economy has hummed, with double digit economic growth over much of the last decade.

It is, of course, not difficult to understand why the last thing people in Brasília want to hear is lectures about climate change from the Global North. The Amazon rainforest has been plundered by foreign adventurers as well as multinational corporations for decades. As the former President Lula once said, “What we cannot accept is that those who failed to take care of their own forests, who did not preserve what they had and deforested everything and are responsible for most of the gases poured into the air and for the greenhouse effect, they shouldn’t be sticking their noses into Brazil’s business and giving their two cents’ worth.” He certainly has a point, although it says something damning about our world that the logic of our system dictates Brazil’s sovereign right to destroy the “lungs of the world.”

With statements that make destroying rainforests sound like a bold act of Global South defiance, Lula also disregarded the powerful history of Brazil’s own environmental community, which was one of the crucial forces in the founding of his own Workers’ Party and has been fighting for decades to preserve the Amazon. As legendary Brazilian environmentalist Chico Mendes put it, “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees; then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”

There’s no question the World Cup will put greater stress on Brazil’s critical ecosystem. This can be seen most clearly in the efforts to build a “FIFA-quality stadium” in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Brazil will be spending $325 million, almost $40 million more than the original estimates, while uprooting acres of the most ecologically delicate region on the planet. The project has been a disaster since the first plant life was destroyed, before the cement was even poured. Building a new stadium doesn’t just ignore environmental concerns, it defies logic—the Amazon is already home to a stadium that draws far less than its capacity. And all of this to house a mere four World Cup matches.

Even those in Brazil who believe fiercely in the national autonomy of the rainforest region, without interference from international environmental bodies, are crying foul. Romário, the soccer star-turned-politician, called the project “absurd”. He said, “There will be a couple games there, and then what? Who will go? It is an absolute waste of time and money.” Since this particular white elephant seems to be uniting opposition of both the “wasteful spending” crowd and the “pro-breathing” crowd, the government is looking for options for the stadium after the World Cup that seem fiscally sound. One idea is to turn the entire stadium into a massive open-air prison—a use with a notoriously bloody echo in Latin American history, and not lost on those protesting the priorities of both FIFA and the Brazilian government. “Profits first, Brazil’s environment last,” is not a very peppy slogan but it would be more than fitting for the 2014 World Cup.

Read more of The Nation's special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Christopher Hayes: The New Abolitionism
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Mychal Denzel Smith: Racial and Environmental Justice Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
Michelle Goldberg: Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dan Zegart: Want to Stop Climate Change? Take the Fossil Fuel Industry to Court
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
John Nichols: If Rick Weiland Can Say “No” to Keystone, So Can Barack Obama
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I'm Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels

Take Action: Stop Cove Point

People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change

Midwest Generation's Fisk Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Sixty-eight percent of African-Americans live within thirty miles of a coal-fired power plant, the zone of maximum exposure to pollutants that cause an array of ailments, from heart disease to birth defects. Communities of color breathe in nearly 40 percent more polluted air than whites. African-American children are three times as likely to suffer an asthma attack.

The NAACP launched its Climate Justice Initiative address the stark numbers head on. Working in conjunction with Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and Indigenous Environmental Network, the Initiative published “Coal-Blooded: Putting Profits Before People” in 2012, which evaluated the impact of 378 coal-fired power plants on communities along racial and economic lines. “Just Energy Policies: Reducing Pollution and Creating Jobs,” released in December, looked at the energy policies of all fifty states through a civil rights lens.

We spoke with Jacqueline Patterson, executive director of the NAACP’s Climate Justice Initiative, about her organization’s work. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Why did the NAACP launch the Climate Justice Initiative?

The NAACP launched the CJI because of a recognition of the impact both of climate change itself and how it disproportionately impacts marginalized communities, low-income communities and communities of color. We looked at how climate change violates the civil rights of those communities, whether it’s because of pre-existing vulnerabilities in the impact of disasters or whether its the redevelopment process and how lots of time and resource allocation is cut along political lines and folks are already disenfranchised. The actual drivers of climate change, whether its roadway pollution or traffic vehicles or if its polluted facilities like coal plants, are disproportionately affecting communities of color and low-income communities.

As your organization reports, 68 percent of African-Americans live within thirty miles of a coal-fired power plant. That’s pretty stark. How did we get here?

There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation here. In some cases, the facilities were already there before the communities. The communities are-low income or low-wealth, and they moved into an area where property values are on average 15 percent lower because that’s what they can afford. That’s one dynamic. You also have companies choosing to build facilities where property values are lower and property values are lower in low-income communities, so we’ll see disproportionate placement in those communities. They’ll also choose communities where they won’t get political push back. You’ll see that kind of pattern everywhere. It’s tied to voter disenfranchisement and the lack of political power that communities of color have.

Civil rights isn’t usually one of the first things that come up in discussions about climate change. Why is that?

Clearly, traditional environmental analysis and messaging around climate change has dominated the airwaves. There are more resources for the Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation, not to mention folks like Al Gore. With those groups, their focus is on glaciers, flora, fauna and wildlife. That has been the focus of climate change, historically.

When you’re marginalized in one way, you’re marginalized in many ways. The voices of frontline communities, the ones that are most impacted, usually don’t make it to the airwaves. That’s starting to change. Showtime is doing that series, Years of Living Dangerously. When I watch the news, all these different folks were talking about climate change and they were talking about it from a human impact angle. Whether it’s the polar vortex or these storms or wildfires or droughts or flooding or the landslide, all these events are impacting real people, so we’re seeing real dialogue around it.

What has been the significance of environmental disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, in elevating the climate justice angle?

What’s significant about disasters like Hurricane Katrina or even the flooding and tornadoes in Alabama and Mississippi a couple years ago is you start to see the differential impact and the differential response on communities of color. With Hurricane Katrina, it was more a story about the differential response, not as much of a story about climate change. It was before the wave of recognizing where we are in terms of the increase in extreme weather events. As these disasters become more frequent, we’ll see start to see more of an analysis around the differential impact through the lens of climate change.

Your research deals a lot with how climate policy impacts the health of communities of color. Want to talk a little about that?

I will say that the lack of climate policy is affecting health in communities of color. We are making some progress with the rules that are going to be introduced in June for existing coal-fired power plants and the carbon rules that were introduced last year for proposed coal-fired power plants. Just lessening the carbon in the atmosphere will save lives and prevent people from being harmed or sickened by the various impacts of climate change. There’s also the mercury and air toxics rule, which came out years ago, but is just now coming into enforcement. It’s a rule that addresses co-pollutants that come from these facilities, not just carbon dioxide. The same facilities that are driving climate change are also sickening communities with mercury, arsenic, lead and other things being emitted. So, policies that are comprehensive that look at all the ways these facilities are harming communities are important as well.

What we need to be looking at now is being much more aggressive around our emissions targets. We need to face the fact that climate change is here now and we need to pour public money into strengthening community resilience to the impact of climate change. There needs to be more funding for FEMA to do advanced forecasting and planning. Resources need to go to frontline communities so they’re in control of designing and implementing their own resilience plans. We need to think seriously, not just about disasters, which tend to get the most visibility, but also sea level rise and how we’re going to make sure communities are prepared for the waters that are going to overtaking land in parts of Louisiana, Alaska and places in between. But also, before that water overtakes the land and forces people to move, we need to deal with the fact that even right now, as we saw with Superstorm Sandy, storm surges resulting from sea-level rise is making any regular storm seem more intense. We need to be taking all of this into account in our local planning and our resources need to follow that.

We need to make sure that we are building a political system that is more inclusive. Currently, whether its Congress or the courts or the zoning board or the rural electric co-ops or the public utilities commissions, there is underrepresentation for communities that are most impacted by the decisions all of these decision-making bodies make. From litigation to adaptation, we need to make sure we have inclusive bodies that represent the voices of the people as these decisions are being made.

Your work explores the importance of making sure benefits from clean energy are equitable and reach communities of color. Could you talk a little bit about that?

We talked earlier about how 68 percent of African-Americans live within thirty miles of a coal-fired power plant and other frontline communities, such as indigenous Native American communities and Latino communities, are also right in the smog zones of these facilities. Just transitioning to a more energy-efficient economy and clean energy economy would benefit those communities in terms of having clean air to breathe, clean water to drink and clean land to live on. In addition to that, we also want to make sure that those communities are in decision-making spaces as we develop this economy, as well as revenue-generating positions. African-Americans spent $41 million on energy in 2009, but only 1 percent of African-Americans were in energy jobs and less than 1 percent of revenue in the energy sector was earned by African-Americans. Whatever room there is for estimation on either side of those statistics, they’re still fairly stark in saying not only are we being negatively impacted by the current fossil-fuel dominated portfolio, we’re also not even benefiting from the revenue or jobs in that sector, nor are we in positions of being able to have input in how those sectors advance and roll out.

As we transition to a new-energy economy, we need frontline communities, not just communities of color but also low-income communities, to be working in decision-making and revenue-generating positions within the industry.

Obviously your organization is part of this, but how do we get people of color excited and engaged in discussions about climate change?

Communities across the country are already organizing themselves to talk about this—whether its the Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council in Detroit or the Asia Pacific Environmental Network in the Bay Area—they’re really coming together to talk about, not just the direct impact of climate change but how we need a holistic approach to how we organize our communities and political and economic systems. So we are having, at a local level, conversations about what we want for our communities and how this connects to a bigger picture. We’re talking about how we can be agents of change for our communities and how to connect to the greater landscape.

For example, when we talk about climate change, solutions to climate change, we are talking about green schools, which are more energy efficient, but also make people feel valued through education, retrofitting their school and making it the type of environment they want to work and learn in. We talk about local food movements, which both mitigate climate change, because we’re growing our own food and aren’t relying on trucks for transport, and provide education about climate change. We’re looking at comprehensive, holistic ways of both mitigating climate change and adapting to climate change that helps provide economic, social and cultural benefits to our communities.

Read more of The Nation’s special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Christopher Hayes: The New Abolitionism
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Mychal Denzel Smith: Racial and Environmental Justice Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
Michelle Goldberg: Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dan Zegart: Want to Stop Climate Change? Take the Fossil Fuel Industry to Court
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
John Nichols: If Rick Weiland Can Say “No” to Keystone, So Can Barack Obama
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I’m Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels

Take Action: Stop Cove Point

We’re the Asteroid: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change

Great Barrier Reef

Coral around Lady Elliot Island, Great Barrier Reef (Courtesy: Underwater Earth / Catlin Seaview Survey, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Elizabeth Kolbert is a New Yorker staff writer; her new book is The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jon Wiener: Your work on species extinction began with a report on a poisonous frog in Panama.

Elizabeth Kolbert: Yes, the Panamanian golden frog. It’s New York taxicab yellow, with very dark eyes and thin limbs and long fingers. A decade ago, a fungal disease moved through Central America attacking frogs. That fungus is now all around the world, imported everywhere by people moving amphibians around. The Panamanian golden frog is now extinct in the wild—although some have been saved in a sterile facility in Panama.

How many species right now are headed for extinction?

Amphibians have the dubious distinction of being the most threatened class of animals—40 percent are classified as threatened with extinction, and very high numbers have already gone extinct. They are probably followed by mammals: one-quarter of all mammals are classified as endangered. As many as a third of all reef-building corals are endangered. Plus one-fifth of all reptiles, and one-sixth of all birds are endangered and facing extinction. And we have statistics only on a few groups; with most species of living things we don’t even know what’s out there.

The last wave of extinctions came when an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs and their world. What’s different about the species extinction that threatens now?

Scientists say now we’re the asteroid. This extinction event is unique because it’s being caused by a living thing.

You got to go on many trips to exciting places to do your research. I loved your trip to One Tree Island on the Great Barrier Reef.

That was a wonderful experience. One Tree Island is made completely of dead coral, with some dirt on top of it. Scientists there were doing an experiment that required walking across the reef at low tide. We went out in the middle of the night. It was spectacular: the stars were so bright, and on the reef waiting for high tide were enormous loggerhead turtles, huge giant clams in amazing colors, bright blue starfish and ruddy octopuses in tide pools—the fantastic array of life that lives on a reef.

You quote Darwin saying, “Coral reefs rank high amongst the wonderful objects in the world.”

Yes, and scientists say it is likely that the reefs will be the first entire ecosystem in the modern era to become extinct.

Is that because of global warming?

It’s because we are changing the chemistry of the oceans. When we pour CO2 into the air we are in effect also pouring it into the water. And when you dissolve CO2 in water it forms an acid. We’re acidifying the oceans. As a result the corals are having a hard time.

You didn’t have to go to the Australia or Panama to find devastating evidence of species extinction—you went to a bat cave near your home in western Massachusetts.

Almost anywhere you go these days you’re going to find tremendous upheaval in the natural world. Our bats in New England hibernate for the winter. It turns out they now have a fungus that irritates them and wakes them up. They don’t have the fat reserves to get through the winter if they wake up. They need to stay in a deep state of hibernation. But they wake up, they fly around, and they drop dead. This fungus is spreading rapidly—it’s in at least twenty-two states now, and a lot of Canada. It’s also transported by people. As a result bat populations in the northeastern US have been plummeting.

You found another way we are changing the planet, and something new to worry about: ballast water!

We’re moving a lot of species around every day. When you bring species together that have been living on separate continents or in separate oceans, bad things can happen. Our huge supertankers take on ballast water that has many small animals. Then they dump that water, often in an entirely different ocean. So we are moving species around the world—estimates are 10,000 species are moved every day in ballast water. That doesn’t count species moved in planes, and in our luggage.

We have the endangered species protection act in America—it was passed a long time ago, in 1974, and is often ridiculed for protecting obscure fish or birds in places slated for real estate development. How successful has it been?

There have been some iconic successes: the California condor. For many species it has staved off extinction—absolutely. But to get a species listed has become very difficult. Many species are stacked up waiting for their listing. When you’re officially designated an endangered species there has to be a recovery plan. That’s good. But the problem now is that the kinds of threats that are emerging—climate change—make it very hard to come up with a rescue plan. We’re getting into complicated territory.

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It’s easy to feel hopeless about species extinction. Do you have an answer to the question “What is to be done?” Do you have a six-point plan? Do you have hope at this point?

I wrote the book to bring this issue into awareness. I didn’t write it because I have a six-point plan. Unfortunately I don’t think anyone has a plan. But an obvious first step is that we’ve got to agree to start minimizing our impact on the planet. To be honest, right now we seem to be moving in the opposite direction.

Read more of The Nation’s special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Christopher Hayes: The New Abolitionism
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Mychal Denzel Smith: Racial and Environmental Justice Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
Michelle Goldberg: Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dan Zegart: Want to Stop Climate Change? Take the Fossil Fuel Industry to Court
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
John Nichols: If Rick Weiland Can Say “No” to Keystone, So Can Barack Obama
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I’m Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels

Take Action: Stop Cove Point

Let This Earth Day Be The Last

Earth Day 1970

Over 20,000 people attended the first Earth Day observance in Philadelphia, April, 1970. (AP Photo/Bill Ingraham)

“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle.”
   —Frederick Douglass, 1857

Fuck Earth Day.

No, really. Fuck Earth Day. Not the first one, forty-four years ago, the one of sepia-hued nostalgia, but everything the day has since come to be: the darkest, cruelest, most brutally self-satirizing spectacle of the year.

Fuck it. Let it end here.

End the dishonesty, the deception. Stop lying to yourselves, and to your children. Stop pretending that the crisis can be “solved,” that the planet can be “saved,” that business more-or-less as usual—what progressives and environmentalists have been doing for forty-odd years and more—is morally or intellectually tenable. Let go of the pretense that “environmentalism” as we know it—virtuous green consumerism, affluent low-carbon localism, head-in-the-sand conservationism, feel-good greenwashed capitalism—comes anywhere near the radical response our situation requires.

So, yeah, I’ve had it with Earth Day—and the culture of progressive green denial it represents.

* * *

But why Frederick Douglass? Why bring him into this? And who am I to invoke him—a man who was born a slave and who freed himself from slavery, who knew something about struggle, whose words were among the most radical ever spoken on American soil? Who the hell am I? I’ve never suffered racial or any other kind of oppression. I’ve never had to fight for any fundamental rights. I’m not even a radical, really. (Nor am I an “environmentalist”—and never have been.) All I want is a livable world, and the possibility of social justice. So who am I to quote Frederick Douglass?

Let me tell you who I am: I’m a human being. I’m the father of two young children, a 14-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter, who face a deeply uncertain future on this planet. I’m a husband, a son, a brother—and a citizen. And, yes, I’m a journalist, and I’m an activist. And like more and more of us who are fighting for climate justice, I am engaged in a struggle—a struggle—for the fate of humanity and of life on Earth. Not a polite debate around the dinner table, or in a classroom, or an editorial meeting—or an Earth Day picnic. I’m talking about a struggle. A struggle for justice on a global scale. A struggle for human dignity and human rights for my fellow human beings, beginning with the poorest and most vulnerable, far and near. A struggle for my own children’s future—but not only my children, all of our children, everywhere. A life-and-death struggle for the survival of all that I love. Because that is what the climate fight and the fight for climate justice is. That’s what it is.

Because, I’m sorry, this is not a test. This is really happening. The Arctic and the glaciers are melting. The great forests are dying and burning. The oceans are rising and acidifying. The storms, the floods—the droughts and heat waves—are intensifying. The breadbaskets are parched and drying. And all of it faster and sooner than scientists predicted. The window in which to act is closing before our eyes.

Any discussion of the situation must begin by acknowledging the science and the sheer lateness of the hour—that the chance for any smooth, gradual transition has passed, that without radical change the kind of livable and just future we all want is simply inconceivable. The international community has, of course, committed to keeping the global temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius (3.6 F) above the preindustrial average—the level, we’re told, at which “catastrophic” warming can still be avoided (we’ve already raised it almost one degree, with still more “baked in” within coming decades). But there’s good reason to believe that a rise of two degrees will lead to catastrophic consequences. And of course, what’s “catastrophic” depends on where you live, and how poor you are, and more often than not the color of your skin. If you’re one of the billions of people who live in the poorest and most vulnerable places—from Bangladesh to Louisiana—even 1 degree can mean catastrophe.

But the world’s climate scientists and leading energy experts are telling us that unless the major economies drastically and immediately change course—leaving all but a small fraction of fossil fuel reserves in the ground over the next four decades—we are headed for a temperature rise of four or five or even six degrees C within this century. The World Bank has warned that four degrees “must be avoided.” But we’re not avoiding it. Global emissions are still rising each year. We’re plunging headlong toward the worst-case scenarios—critical global food and water shortages, rapid sea-level rise, social upheaval—and beyond.

The question is not whether we’re going to “stop” global warming, or “solve” the climate crisis; it is whether humanity will act quickly and decisively enough now to save civilization itself—in any form worth saving. Whether any kind of stable, humane and just future—any kind of just society—is still possible.

We know that if the governments of the world actually wanted to address this situation in a serious way, they could. Indeed, a select few, such as Germany, have begun to do so. It can be done—and at relatively low cost. And yet the fossil-fuel industry, and those who do its bidding, have been engaged in a successful decades-long effort to sow confusion, doubt and opposition—and to obstruct any serious policies that might slow the warming, or their profits, and buy us time.

As I’ve said elsewhere, let’s be clear about what this means: at this late date, given what we know and have known for decades, to willfully obstruct any serious response to global warming is to knowingly allow entire countries and cultures to disappear. It is to rob the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet of their land, their homes, their livelihoods, even their lives and their children’s lives—and their children’s children’s lives. For money. For political power.

These are crimes. They are crimes against the Earth, and they are crimes against humanity.

What, are you shocked? The same industry, the same people committing these crimes—while we subsidize them for their trouble—have been getting away with murder along the fence lines and front lines for generations.

What is the proper response to this? How should I respond?

Remain calm, we’re told. No “scare tactics” or “hysterics,” please. Cooler heads will prevail. Enjoy the Earth Day festivities.

Fuck that.

The cooler heads have not prevailed. It’s been a quarter-century since the alarm was sounded. The cooler heads have failed.

You want sweet, cool-headed reason?

How about this? Masses of people—most of them young, a generation with little or nothing to lose—physically, nonviolently disrupting the fossil-fuel industry and the institutions that support it and abet it. Getting in the way of business as usual. Forcing the issue. Finally acting as though we accept what the science is telling us.

Um, isn’t that a bit extreme? you ask.

Really? You want extreme? Business as usual is extreme. Just ask a climate scientist. The building is burning. The innocents—the poor, the oppressed, the children, your own children—are inside. And the American petro state is spraying fuel, not water, on the flames. That’s more than extreme. It’s homicidal. It’s psychopathic. It’s fucking insane.

* * *

Coming to grips with the climate crisis is hard. A friend of mine says it’s like walking around with a knife in your chest. I couldn’t agree more.

So I ask again, in the face of this situation, how does one respond? Many of us, rather than retreat into various forms of denial and fatalism, have reached the conclusion that something more than “environmentalism” is called for, and that a new kind of movement is the only option. That the only thing, at this late hour, offering any chance of averting an unthinkable future—and of getting through the crisis that’s already upon us—is the kind of radical social and political movement that has altered the course of history in the past. A movement far less like contemporary environmentalism and far more like the radical human rights, social justice and liberation struggles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Does that sound hopelessly naïve to you? Trust me, I get it. I know. I know how it sounds.

And yet here I am. Because I also know that abolishing slavery sounded hopeless and naïve in 1857, when Frederick Douglass spoke of struggle.

What I’m talking about is not a fight to “solve the climate crisis.” That’s not possible anymore. But neither is it simply a fight for human survival—because there are oppressive and dystopian forms of survival, not to mention narcissistic ones, that aren’t worth fighting for.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

What I’m talking about is both a fight for survival and a fight for justice—for even the possibility of justice. It’s a fight that transcends environmentalism. It requires something of us beyond the usual politics and proposals, the usual pieties. It requires the kind of commitment you find in radical movements—the kind of struggles, from abolition to women’s, labor and civil rights, that have made possible what was previously unimaginable.

Because our global crisis—not merely environmental but moral and spiritual—is fundamental: it strikes to the root of who we are. It’s a radical situation, requiring a radical response. Not merely radical in the sense of ideology, but a kind of radical necessity. It requires us to find out who we really are—and, nonviolently, in the steps of Gandhi and King and many others, to act. In some cases, to lay everything—everything—on the line.

And it requires us to be honest, with one another and with ourselves, about the situation we face. We’ll never have a movement radical enough, or humane enough, until we are.

That is, until Earth Day is buried—and a day of reckoning begins.

Read more of The Nation’s special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Christopher Hayes: The New Abolitionism
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Mychal Denzel Smith: Racial and Environmental Justice Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
Michelle Goldberg: Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dan Zegart: Want to Stop Climate Change? Take the Fossil Fuel Industry to Court
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
John Nichols: If Rick Weiland Can Say “No” to Keystone, So Can Barack Obama
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I’m Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels

Take Action: Stop Cove Point

Concerned About Climate Change? Take Action to Stop Cove Point

Activists speak out against Cove Point

Activists speak out against Cove Point. (Robert Meyers)

You’ve heard of Keystone XL but have you heard of Cove Point? While it hasn’t garnered the same amount of attention as the infamous pipeline, the proposed $3.8 billion liquid natural gas (LNG) export facility would do serious damage to the local environment and could put the United States on the path to massively increasing our greenhouse gas emissions.

The proposed Cove Point export facility in southern Maryland just fifty miles from the White House would turn natural gas into a liquid to be sent overseas. Much of that natural gas would be obtained through fracking, giving companies a huge incentive to expand the dangerous practice. Furthermore, while natural gas has been sold as a clean alternative to coal, the facility at Cove Point would trigger more planet-heating pollution than all seven of Maryland’s coal plants combined. Finally, while its proponents no doubt want to paint Cove Point as a potential boon for the economy, only the gas industry stands to profit; a recent study commissioned by the Department of Energy found that exporting US gas would raise the price here at home by as much as 27 percent.

According to the International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if we’re to limit global warming to just 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels (a level that avoids climate catastrophe, according to scientists), about two-thirds of the earth’s remaining fossil fuels need to stay underground. In the struggle to mitigate the effects of climate change, Cove Point would take us backwards. We need to move forward.

TO DO

Activists at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) are working tirelessly to make sure that the Cove Point facility never comes to pass and that Maryland instead embraces clean energy alternatives. Join The Nation and CCAN in calling on President Obama to reverse course on his support of LNG exports.

TO READ

The Nation’s Mark Hertsgaard explains the significance of Cove Point to the larger climate movement and why the liquid natural gas facility is shaping up to be “the next flash point between Obama’s ‘all of the above’ energy strategy and the growing grassroots movement to stop global warming.”

TO WATCH

In a video, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network breaks down the dangers posed to the climate if Cove Point is built and highlights the hard work of activists fighting to make sure that never happens.

The Temporary Peace Between Russia and Ukraine Is Built on Sand

Kiev, February 21, 2014

A demonstrator mans a barricade in Kiev, February 21, 2014 (Reuters/Baz Ratner)

A meeting of senior diplomats from Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the European Union concluded last week in Geneva with a one-page agreement requiring all sides to disarm and vacate occupied buildings and public squares. This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. But, as Stephen Cohen cautions, “it would be a mistake to think that the diplomats who sat down in Geneva this week control the situation.” Cohen, a Russian studies scholar and a regular contributor to The Nation, joins Shona Murray on Newstalk to gauge the significance of the accord and other recent events. “There have been mixed developments,” Cohen says, noting that the worst-case scenario—a widespread civil war drawing in both Russia and the United Sates—has so far been averted, but that armed militants on both sides have yet to lay down their arms.

Visit Newstalk for the second part of this conversation.

Shortly after the interview aired, Reuters revealed that a fatal gunfight broke out Sunday morning near Slavyansk, a city in Eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists. For more on the situation in Ukraine, listen to Cohen on KQED Radio.

—David Kortava