Climate Change and Justice

(Some thoughts for the Sierra Club and other environmentalists)

Climate change does change everything. Drought destroys food production, whether the producers are traditional peasants raising rice by hand or modern agribusiness raising chemical drenched corn and soybeans. Repeated droughts change forests into barren landscapes populated by stumps of the former trees. Extreme storms have already flooded parts of Detroit, New York, Miami, New Orleans and Huston. That’s an incomplete list for just the last decade. What were once thousand-year storms now can happen several times in a year. We can expect both more intense floods and more intense droughts to go along with rising sea levels.

Why? There’s a lot of moving parts to weather and climate, but it’s excess carbon dioxide emissions from centuries of mankind burning fossil fuels that has thrown historical climate mechanisms seriously out of balance. That’s just one effect of excess emissions. In the atmosphere, carbon dioxide pushes more greenhouse warming. Absorbed in the oceans, it causes increased acidification. Between warming and acidification, the whole ocean food chain, including the plankton that produce half of the earth’s oxygen, is upset. 

The fact is, there are enough fossil fuels still buried in the earth that, if they are all extracted and burned, the emissions will make most of the earth uninhabitable. It’s not an exact prediction in that we do not know whether this will take the next hundred years, or several hundred. We also do not know how much methane (another greenhouse gas) might be released from permafrost and methane hydrate, turning human caused climate change into runaway climate change. What we do know is that our (mankind’s) emissions are increasing, and they need to be decreasing, if we are to limit the worst effects.

The full title of Naomi Klein’s latest book is This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. I don’t know that Capitalism, as distinguished from, say, Communism, is the sole culprit. I believe Industrialism would be a more accurate way of labeling an “-ism” as the enemy of the climate, but we don’t need an “-ism” label at all to see where carbon dioxide emissions originate.

Wherever we point the finger of blame, the best we could possibly do now is to transition away from fossil fuel energy and to sustainable energy as quickly as possible.

Nuclear energy is often promoted as a “solution” for climate change. That’s like saying immersion in an ice bath is a solution for fever due to influenza. It’s a solution that will kill us. Nuclear energy will kill us slowly with leaks or quickly with meltdowns. In the very best case, it produces radioactive waste that is either difficult or impossible to dispose of safely. Basically, nuclear energy is too dirty, too dangerous and too expensive to be the solution to anything besides making materials for nuclear weapons.

One big obstacle to making the transition to sustainable energy is that it will eliminate many current types of jobs that are part of the fossil fuel economy. Naturally, the people who have these jobs will object. In the United States today, loss of your job means a crisis and possibly will ruin your life and destroy your family.

Now, if we had single-payer universal health care, anyone could lose a job without also losing health insurance. If we had a guaranteed income – not extended unemployment benefits, but a guaranteed minimum income – anyone could lose a job without becoming impoverished and homeless. If we had free to the student (paid through taxes) education for all along with the previous two benefits for everyone, then anyone could learn new skills for a new job without worries about health insurance or becoming impoverished.

I would call these policies for economic justice. Some decades ago, ideas about ending racism and creating environmental justice were just ideas. Now, these are standard, accepted elements of Sierra Club thinking. Maybe goals of racial and environmental justice are not enough to tackle carbon emissions. Maybe we need a broader approach that supports economic justice to reverse the ongoing destruction of our environment.

Perhaps this sounds like a radical idea. Maybe it’s even radical enough to to address the environmental crisis caused by centuries of burning coal and oil and natural gas. Phase out jobs that are tied to destruction of the environment. Create jobs that provide clean and safe energy and otherwise support and restore the natural environment. Support workers and families so they can make the transition without being ruined in the process. If we don’t, we are leaving a miserable world to the next generation.

[A slightly shorter and earlier version of this article appeared in The Activist, December 2015, a publication of the Southeast Michigan Group of the Sierra Club.]

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