What do we want? What should the climate movement be trying to accomplish?
How we see the current situation affects what we are trying for. It affects what we think are the most important things to do and how we go about getting them done. We may see our current situation like this: vast use of fossil fuels has caused such high emissions of greenhouse gases that the climate is changing in ways that are disastrous for humans and other species. The best solutions are to dramatically increase the use of solar and wind power and to adopt some better practices with regard to food, farming and forests.
This description and its implied solutions are certainly accurate. All of the above is true. However, if this is our full description, it’s easy to accept, perhaps unconsciously, some underlying assumptions that we got into this mess because humans didn’t understand enough about climate change, so the choices we made have been unwise and have led to the current climate crisis. So if we can just educate people enough and get people committed to transitioning to clean energy, with some government incentives, then we can make the changes we need.
Yet… We’ve known since 1988 that fossil fuels were starting to cause disastrous climate change. Yet more than 50% of all fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions in human history have happened since then. The cost of solar and wind power has fallen rapidly and significant efforts are underway to expand their use world wide. Opposition to deforestation has grown. Increasing numbers of people understand the severity of the crisis and are speaking up and taking to the streets. Yet international greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, not fall. The problem is getting worse, not better. Why?
We need to see the climate crisis in a larger context. Many climate activists are viewing the climate situation as part of a larger system of social and economic arrangements that got us into this mess and resists efforts to solve it. Our current situation is that wealth in the United States, and in the world, is more grossly concentrated in the hands of a very small number of families and corporations than at any time since before the start of the Great Depression 90 years ago. The top 1% in the U.S. own more wealth than the bottom 90% combined. Worldwide, the wealthiest 1% now own more than the bottom half of the population of the world. With that wealth comes tremendous political power, so that both in the so-called democracies and in authoritarian regimes, governments have mostly followed policies that support the rich getting richer.
The system of social and economic arrangements that has made this possible also worsens the climate crisis, even as more and more people work to end it. For roughly the last 40 years in the United States, those who have most benefited from this system have put forward a vast effort to shrink government regulation, portray government as the enemy, leave everything to the so-called “free market”, and steadily reduce the resources used for the public good. This has had immense, harmful effects in many areas including schools, welfare, health care, infrastructure and environmental protection. This same right-wing effort has also cut the power of unions, undermined the minimum wage, and dramatically increased incarceration, especially of black and brown people. Corporations have been significantly freed to pursue profits without regard to the negative effects their enterprises have on people at home or abroad, or on the environment. In the pursuit of profits they have accelerated their damage to the climate and are continuing to do so.
As always in the United States, racism has been at the center of this — used to manipulate white people’s fears and resentments about people of color, to portray government social programs as taking from whites and giving to “undeserving” people of color, to cast immigrants of color as threatening “invaders” of the United States, and to deflect any upset about the middle class becoming less well-off and less secure by pointing to supposed increased rights for people of color as the source of the problem. So we find ourselves in a system – a system in which the wealthy pursue their own greed at the expense of workers, of people of color (both in the US and in the less-developed world), and of the planet. As long as this system remains in place, the wealthy and powerful are not going to allow meaningful regulation and government intervention that reduces their profits. That is exactly the kind of regulation and government intervention that is needed to address the climate crisis and transform society to sustainability.
Only With System Change
Solving the climate crisis can only be accomplished by substantially transforming this system. The system can only be transformed by undoing the effects of racism. Therefore, climate change can only be stopped if we address racism and the other oppressions that divide us. It’s not that people don’t want to stop climate change. It’s that a system of exploitation, extraction and dominance by the wealthy and their enablers is keeping society from doing what needs to be done about the climate. If we want to stop climate change, we can’t just advocate for more solar and wind power, we must take on the whole system and truly transform our societies so they work for everyone.
Fortunately, some of the major presidential candidates in the U.S. are talking more about system change and endorsing the Green New Deal. Similar plans are being promoted in other parts of the world. More political candidates in the U.S. are taking a pledge not to accept contributions from fossil fuel companies. The time is ripe for us to engage everyone, including the individuals and groups around us personally, in thinking and talking about what systemic changes we need in order to stop climate change. Good analysis can lead to effective action.
In my next column I’ll expand on how racism is central to the system that has gotten us into the climate crisis.
Russ Vernon Jones blogs regularly on climate justice at www.RussVernonJones.org