Social justice activists are the hope of the environmental movement because the climate crisis will not be averted without a major re-structure of our economic, social and political systems.
Remember how citizens of the United States became discarded refugees in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?[i] African Americans were rounded up and tightly packed into the Superdome, as in some monster slave ship of the infamous Middle Passage on the ocean of flood waters. They were held like captives in slave-pens, without food and water for days, awaiting the slow-to-arrive school buses that would disperse them throughout a land far away from their homes. Some tried to walk out of the flood- ravaged city, rather than wait to drown or die of thirst as our government did nothing. Crossing the Crescent City Connection, the bridge that links the city of New Orleans with the west bank of the Mississippi and the predominantly white town of Gretna, they were met with shotgun fire from White Gretna city police. The group of hundreds of predominantly Black citizens stopped at the fire of warning shots. They were instructed that they could not cross. Not knowing where to turn, they began to set up camp on the middle of the bridge. A Gretna police officer yelled at them through a bull horn “Get the f*** off the bridge.” Someone asked why they couldn’t pass on to safety. They were told that “there will be no Superdome here.”[ii]
Citizens, who by definition have the constitutional right to travel, who reasonably rely on their own government to help them in a crisis, lost their citizenship rights that night. From the perspective of civil rights and social justice, the entire Hurricane Katrina fiasco was one enormous abrogation of citizenship resulting in death and displacement. A complete betrayal. I remember the shock I felt when I heard news reporters actually refer to the residents of New Orleans as “refugees.”
As an African American woman and direct descendant of slaves, I am constantly attuned to the fact that people are used and discarded. I was born into a family of activists, and taught that the only way to survive is to fight back. My father was the child of slaves—both his parents were born in 1860, my grandmother Harriet Thorpe was born the property of Squire Sweeney in Howard County, Missouri and my grandfather Haywood Hall was born the property of Colonel Haywood Hall on his plantation in Tennessee. I never met either of them—they died long before I was born in 1963. My dad was the youngest of the Hall family’s children, born in 1898. He never finished eighth grade and worked odd jobs, from shining shoes to waiting tables. Unable to tolerate or comply with racism, he worked outside the system. He was labor organizer, a communist and a self-taught worker-intellectual, publishing two books and numerous articles during his life. In 1956 my parents were forced to travel to three different states before they could find a judge to marry them—my mom a second generation White New Orleanian Jew of Russian and German descent, my dad African American and 33 years her senior. My mom had begun her work as an anti-racist activist when she was a teenager in the 1940s and never looked back. She was a teacher and later a professor of history and has written 3 books on the history of slavery. My parents were black-listed during the McCarthy era and forced to flee the country, which is how I ended up being born in Mexico City and having dual citizenship.
It was Hurricane Katrina that woke me up to the climate crisis, and when I think about it, I immediately think of all the disposable people—the half the planet who are already barely surviving. What will happen when the levees break again?
Pacific Island nations face the destruction and inundation of their lands caused by rising sea levels. There are over 7 million Pacific Islanders who live in 22 nations. The Prime Minister of Tuvalu explains that his nation was being destroyed by climate change, which represents an unprecedented threat to Tuvalu’s “fundamental rights to nationality and statehood, as constituted under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other national conventions.”[ii] After a long fight against slavery and imperialism, after finally gaining their sovereignty in 1978, the First World’s consumption of fossil fuels will take their country away again.[iii] It is enough to make a grown woman cry.
In 2007 a record was set: human-caused global warming caused the melting of 42% of the Arctic ice cap. That record was broken in 2012, and scientists predict that the Artic will be ice-free in 20 years.[iv] Storms are getting fiercer. Hurricane Sandy appeared soon after that record was broken. Sea levels are rising. I grew up in New York City, and watching the videos of water pouring into the subways and Path train terrified me. My mom, who grew up in New Orleans and live in New York for many years, called me crying and said both of her home places were being destroyed.
95% of the world’s glaciers are in retreat.[v] And the snow pack is melting in places where people depend on its water for agriculture and drinking water.[vi] And already Pacific Islanders are preparing to relocate, to leave their countries underwater and be cast on the mercy of other nations. Who will take them in? Friends of the Earth International and the Australian Refugee Council are urging Australia to step up, to include the category of “climate refugee” into their asylum program.[vii] The current categories used world-wide, written in the wake of World War II were designed to protect those who are in fear of persecution by their government because of their race, religion or nationality. There is no system in place to handle those forced to leave their nations because of climate change. My fear is that they will continue to be treated as so-called “economic refugees,” people by definition who won’t be helped. We in the Global North have no responsibility for people who are in trouble because their economic systems failed them, right? Some scientists estimate that all of the world’s mountain snowpack will be gone by 2030. What happens to the billions of people who need that water to drink and grow food with? What will happen when 7 million Pacific Islanders, along with the millions of citizens of the low lying river deltas throughout the world, lose their citizenship along with their nationhood? Will we watch the flags of country after country lowered in front of the United Nations? What will these people be when they are stateless? What will the first world do with all of these stateless people of color from other lands? The U.S. government would not help its own citizens in New Orleans, never mind racialized others who aren’t even from here. In 2005 we saw how, within days, African Americans in New Orleans lost their citizenship, as if some Frankenstein-like Chief justice Taney rose from the dead declaring a new Dred Scott decision.
In 2012 the Northeast was hit by the monster Hurricane Sandy, and we saw there that even in the richest part of the world, government and humanitarian response systems were overwhelmed, and it mattered what neighborhood you lived in, and what your race or class was. What happens when we have super storms every year? It will be a world-wide Dred Scott, as the first world proclaims that the people of the global South have no rights “which the white man is bound to respect.”[viii]
What can we do? It is not too late to preserve a livable future for humans on this planet, but our window of opportunity is closing. NASA’s top climatologist, James Hansen, explains that if we stop the use of coal within the next two decades, phase out the use of conventional petroleum and ban the use of high-carbon fuels like shale and tar sands, we have a chance to bring greenhouse gasses back down to safe levels.[ix] We may not be able to reverse the extensive damage already done, but we can prevent it from getting any worse.
How do we do it? We need more environmentalists to reframe this whole issue of climate crisis as one of social, economic and racial justice—no small task, but some groups on the more radical end of the environmentalist movement are trying. Here I am calling on all of us at the other end of this intersection, the social and economic justice activists. Over the past three decades the central concept of intersectionality—the ways in which race, class and gender are mutually constituted and can only be dismantled together—have worked its way into the theory and practice of economic and social justice. Now we need to understand that the climate crisis is the most urgent and deadly issue facing women, poor people and communities of color today. We must understand that “the environment” is not something “out there” that we can think about after we deal with poverty, racism, institutionalized male dominance and heterosexism. The environment is where we live and breathe, it is literally the ground on which we stand and fight. We need a climate justice movement, which understands and addresses this intersection.
This movement for climate justice is not merely additive. We don’t just join the environmental movement, We redefine it and restructure it. In fact, social justice activists are the hope of the environmental movement because the climate crisis will not be averted without a major re-structure of our economic, social and political systems. If the standard of success is preserving the earth, the environmental movement and environmentalism has been a failure.[x] It has been trapped in a world of policy strategies while the democratic system needed to actualize these approaches has collapsed under the weight of corporate capitalism. It has gone along with the prime directive of unbridled growth and all of its sick sequelae that are fundamentally at odds with living on a planet with limits. A climate justice movement will instead demand advancing democracy as well as the health and welfare of the people within systems that will sustain the people and the planet. Environmentalism has tried change within a system that is designed to “externalize” the real costs of business as usual—whether that is the burden of subsidizing workers who are paid poverty wages without benefits, or the destruction of local and global ecosystems by international corporations that go wherever they want, leave behind whatever disasters they make, while creating corporate refugees—people who are being destroyed by this economy. And unlike corporations, they’re not allowed to cross borders.
When we demand that our leaders bring carbon emissions back to safe levels, we are requiring them to put the interests of people before the richest corporations in the world. It will require a drastic restructuring of our economy, and provide an opportunity to recreate it in a more just and equitable way. We have moved past environmentalism. The call now is for climate justice, and we all must become climate justice activists.
Rebecca Hall, J.D.; PhD
Rebecca is an attorney, scholar and life-long activist. She has been arrested eight times in the anti-nuclear movement, the anti-Apartied movement, the anti-war movement, and once by accident when the police arrested the legal observers before they arrested the protesters. She got her law degree from U.C. Berkeley and worked for many years in housing rights. She went back to school for a PhD in history in order to better understand the intersections of race and gender and to teach, but has had no success in breaking into the elite club of tenure track professors. Rebecca has published on African American women’s freedom movements, from slave revolts to Reconstruction, and has been an organizer and trainer with Peaceful Uprising since 2009.
[i] For more discussion of this, see my essay “Hurricane Katrina: The New Dred Scott, “in Hurricane Katrina: Response and Responsibilities, John Brown Childs, ed. New Pacific Press, January, 2005.
[ii] Apisai Ielemia, “A Threat to Our Human Rights: Tuvalu’s Perspective on Climate Change,” June 2007 (http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1309/is_2_44/ai_n27399052/pring?tag=artBody;col1) For up to date information on Tuvalu and it’s people’s forced relocation to New Zealand, see http://www.tuvaluislands.com/warming.htm
[iii] According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the Pacific Island nations contribute 0.06 percent to global greenhouse gas emissions but are three times more vulnerable to climate change than countries of the global North. http://www.solomontimes.com/news.aspx?nwID=3371
[iv] The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/sep/14/arctic-sea-ice-smallest-extent
[v] James Balog, Extreme Ice Now. (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009), p.38
[vi] http://www.highroadforhumanrights.org/documents/speeches/071308climatechangeashumanrightsissue1.pdf, p8.
[vii] (http://www.the9billion.com/2013/04/17/australia-urged-to-recognise-climate-refugees/) (http://www.foei.org/en/get-involved/take-action/archived-cyberactions/climate-refugees)
[viii] Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857)
[x] . ( Many environmental “insiders” and strategists agree with this assessment. See generally James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment and crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2008.)