Toward Climate Justice: Can we turn back from the abyss?

For Z Magazine, September 2009

The summer and fall of 2009 will surely be noted in the annals of environmental history. This period could be remembered as the time when the world’s elites slowly began to crawl toward a meaningful solution to the threat of accelerating global climate disruptions. But if events continue along the path of recent months, it could mark the beginning of an inexorable slide toward an increasingly unstable planetary climate regime, an unstable and chaotic world that our ancestors would barely recognize.

Relying on the mainstream media for news, you’d think the outlook was fairly rosy. For example, a somewhat cautious note of triumph accompanied the G8’s pronouncement in early July that the world was committing to holding the global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius. The obstacle? “Developing Nations Rebuff G-8 on Curbing Pollutants,” proclaimed the New York Times headline.

You had to read through most of the article to discover that the main objection of those pesky “developing nations” representatives was to establishing a long-range goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (50 percent by 2050), without proportionate commitments from the major industrialized countries to nearer-term commitments—at least 20 percent reductions by 2020, as accepted by most European governments—that would facilitate meaningful progress toward the more distant goal. One astute European activist pointed out that the G8 outcome was “nothing but hot air,” akin to pronouncing that there would be luxury resorts on Mars by 2050. With no intermediate goals nor tangible steps toward implementation, politicians can pledge to do anything at all 40+ years into the future.

What, then, does 2 degrees of global warming mean? Last April, following a series of articles in the prestigious journal Nature that offered some important new revelations about the state of our climate projections, the climatologists who edit the indispensable scientific blog,, wrote, “We feel compelled to note that even a ‘moderate’ warming of 2°C stands a strong chance of provoking drought and storm responses that could challenge civilized society, leading potentially to the conflict and suffering that go with failed states and mass migrations. Global warming of 2°C would leave the Earth warmer than it has been in millions of years, a disruption of climate conditions that have been stable for longer than the history of human agriculture. Given the drought that already afflicts Australia, the crumbling of the sea ice in the Arctic, and the increasing storm damage after only 0.8°C of warming so far, calling 2°C a danger limit seems to us pretty cavalier.”

Two degrees also turns out to be a rather daunting goal, in terms of the current world economy. At pre-recession rates of economic growth, with CO2 emissions increasing 2 percent per year, we are almost certain to exceed 2 degrees of warming by 2100, according to the European researchers whose results were reported in Nature last spring. To keep the odds below 50 percent, developed countries would need to reduce their emissions by at least 80 percent over the next 40 years, but there is a large uncertainty in that prediction, depending on the vagaries of the global carbon cycle and other hard-to-predict factors. The only reliable way to meet such targets for minimizing the global temperature rise is for cumulative world emissions to be kept below a rather austere target, equivalent to a total of 400 billion tons of carbon between 2000 and 2050. Emissions since 2000 “have used up almost a third of that allowance already,” according to a commentary by one of Nature’s US editors. And for all the trading and offsetting of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions since the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997, only the past year’s economic recession has led to substantial reductions in those emissions. The Kyoto agreement, which required wealthy countries to reduce their emissions by 2012 to 6-8 percent below 1990 levels, “has produced no demonstrable reductions in emissions, or even in anticipated emissions growth,” according to a widely quoted report published in Nature in 2007.

In the diplomatic sphere, the world’s hopes for an agreement to curtail emissions and forestall more catastrophic climate changes currently rest on the outcome of the next UN climate summit, scheduled for December 7-18th in Copenhagen. While some are hoping for a breakthrough in back-channel discussions between the US and China, together responsible for 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the US continues to play a largely obstructive role in the negotiations leading up to the Copenhagen summit. So does Japan, which announced in June that it would only aim to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions another 2 percent beyond its Kyoto Protocol obligation over the next decade.

Following the latest in a series of UN meetings in advance of Copenhagen, Martin Khor of the Malaysia-based Third World Network, a decades-long participant in the UN process, wrote “not only is the climate in crisis, the climate talks are also in crisis.” Corporate representatives have been hovering like vultures over UN climate meetings, seeking to define the terms of what they hope will be a rapidly expanding market in tradable carbon allowances, and the World Bank is jockeying to control the funds to curtail deforestation, which is responsible for as much as a quarter of current global warming. Given the pivotal role of the US in these upcoming proceedings, it is important to understand what is wrong with the current domestic debate on global warming, now playing out in the US Senate.

Climate Politics in Washington

Even more than the G8 discussions on climate, the US House of Representatives’ passage of a significant global warming bill in late June was received by the mainstream press, and many environmentalists, with a palpable sense of triumph. Rep. Henry Waxman of California, one of the bill’s two main sponsors, called it a “decisive and historic action,” and President Obama described the bill as “a bold and necessary step.” Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund, among the most corporate-friendly of the major environmental groups, called it no less than “the most important environmental and energy legislation in the history of our country.”

Environmental Defense, along with NRDC and the Nature Conservancy, played an important role in the development of the bill. As members of the US Climate Action Partnership, a collaboration with corporations such as Alcoa, BP, Dow, DuPont, GE, and the former big three US automakers, among others, they helped articulate what would become the bill’s broad outlines: an emphasis on long-range goals, trading of emissions allowances, initially free distribution of those allowances, and a generous offset provision that permits companies to defer significant pollution reductions well into the future.

While many environmentalists breathed a sigh of relief, and suggested that any step in the direction of regulating carbon dioxide and other climate damaging greenhouse gases is better than nothing, others remained skeptical. As the bill meandered its way through various House committees, groups like Friends of the Earth, Public Citizen, and Greenpeace issued sharp critiques. Even more scathing were analyses from smaller independent groups such as Chesapeake Climate Action and the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). The bill that passed the House falls far short of international standards in mandating a meaningful level of reductions in global warming pollution, and seeks to implement decades of emissions cuts through the market-based device known as “cap-and-trade.” It also contains a number of Trojan Horse provisions that could ultimately forestall, rather than encourage, genuine climate progress.

By the time the bill had passed through the relevant committees, as well as last-minute horse-trading on the House floor, the loopholes were staggering to behold. Recall that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions on the order of 20-40 percent are needed in the next decade or so to prevent a slide toward uncontrollable global climate chaos, with reductions on the order of 80-95 percent by the leading industrial economies required by mid-century. The House bill—cosponsored by Reps. Waxman of California and Markey of Massachusetts, and now up for debate in the Senate—first attempts to shift the terms of the discussion by measuring emissions relative to 2005 levels rather than the accepted Kyoto Protocol benchmark of 1990. It promises a 17 percent reduction by 2020, relative to 2005, which only translates into 4 or 5 percent less global warming pollution than the US produced in 1990. The much-touted cap-and-trade provision of the bill accounts for about a 1 percent reduction by 2020, according to the Center for Biological Diversity’s analysis, with the remainder coming from regular, old-fashioned performance standards for smaller pollution sources, including automobiles, and from a controversial USAID effort to reduce deforestation in poorer countries. For comparison, recall that most wealthy countries agreed over a decade ago in Kyoto to reduce their emissions by 2012 to 6-8 percent below 1990 levels.

It’s important to note that the deforestation provisions of the bill mirror a highly controversial international climate mitigation strategy, promoted by the UN and the World Bank under the name of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries (REDD). REDD mainly targets intact forested lands, largely occupied by indigenous peoples, which are threatened with privatization for use as carbon offsets. Soon after the current US bill passed the House, an Anglo-African brokerage firm announced that it would sell “avoided deforestation” credits to buyers of voluntary carbon offsets in the US, threatening a wave of corporate takeovers of African forest lands.

Cap-and-trade, of course, is the latest catch phrase for attempting to control pollution by establishing an artificial market in permits to emit carbon dioxide. Since George Bush Senior’s Acid Rain Program of the early 1990s, advocates have aggressively promoted the idea that the most efficient pollution reductions come from the government setting a cap, and then allowing companies to freely trade pollution permits in order to nominally encourage development of the most cost-effective technologies. The Acid Rain Program succeeded modestly, but mainly because still-regulated electric utilities (this was the pre-Enron era) were mandated by state officials to hold true to their obligations and actually reduce their output of acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide. Trading contributed only marginally to the 50 percent pollution reductions from that program. An effort to reduce air pollution in southern California by a similar scheme appears to have mainly delayed the installation of emission controls, and the region still has the dirtiest air in the country. In Europe just three years ago, the value of tradable carbon dioxide allowances plummeted and the carbon trading system almost collapsed under the weight of excess permits that were freely granted to favored industries.

Under the House bill, some 7400 facilities across this country would be given annual allowances to continue emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. As many as 85 percent of the allowances would initially be given to polluting companies for free, reversing Obama’s campaign pledge that they should mainly be auctioned off. (In Europe, utilities routinely bill their customers for these newly acquired credits.) Meanwhile, the quantity of available pollution allowances would actually increase through 2016, only falling gradually thereafter, and companies would be allowed to indefinitely “bank” them for future use, borrow from their future allowances, and finally trade them with other regulated companies as well as with Wall Street firms and an emerging cadre of brokers in carbon futures. If all this reads a little too much like the financial machinations that nearly brought down the world’s financial markets in 2008, consider that carbon market boosters are projecting a worldwide trading system ultimately valued at $10 trillion a year—perhaps launching the next major financial bubble. All this potential for increased financial fraud and manipulation is for a mere 1 percent in CO2 reductions over the next decade, and a questionable promise of 70 percent by mid-century.

Many argue that, for all their uncertainty, these highly manipulable financial dealings are worth the risk because they facilitate the phase-in of an enforceable cap on global warming pollution. But the legislation replicates another of the most egregious features of the largely failed Kyoto Protocol: a virtual “hole in the cap,” in the form of an offset feature that allows companies to meet their obligations by investing in pollution control projects anywhere in the country, and even overseas. Companies could satisfy their full obligation to reduce CO2 by buying offsets until 2027; those familiar with the bill’s fine print suggest that companies could stretch this out for 30-40 years.

An entirely new global mythology has arisen around the idea of carbon offsets. Nearly every time you buy tickets for an airplane flight, or for some major cultural events, someone is out to sell you offsets to alleviate your contribution to global warming. Carbon offsets have become the postmodern version of the indulgences the Catholic church used to sell in the Middle Ages to buy your way out of sin. But on a global scale, with corporations instead of individuals as the main players, they have become a scam of gigantic proportions. Rather than promoting innovative measures to reduce energy use in poor countries, as they are usually advertised, carbon offsets are subsidizing the already routine destruction of byproducts from China’s rising production of ozone-destroying hydrofluorocarbons, minor retooling of highly polluting pig iron smelters in India, and methane capture from a notoriously toxic landfill in South Africa.

One of the most notorious cases is that of the French chemical company, Rhodia, which is anticipating a billion dollars in carbon offset credits in exchange for a $15 million investment in 1970s-vintage technology to destroy the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide in its facility in South Korea. Carbon offsets have become the company’s most profitable line of business. Major hydroelectric projects, mainly in China, India and Brazil, represent a quarter of applications for offset credits, and nearly all of these projects are already under development before applying for the credits. As the International Rivers Network and others have pointed out, large-scale hydro, far from being green, is responsible for huge quantities of methane and other greenhouse gases. A German study of UN-approved carbon offset projects in 2007 reported that as many as 86 percent of offset-funded projects would likely have been carried out anyway. This runs counter to the Kyoto Protocol guidelines requiring that projects granted emissions offsets must be “additional,” that is they cannot already have been planned.

Allowing companies to postpone their own greenhouse gas reductions by buying offsets is one Trojan Horse provision in the climate bill that could forestall future progress against the continued disruption of the climate. Another such measure largely prohibits the EPA from using the Clean Air Act to impose future regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. Recall that it was a 2007 Supreme Court decision allowing the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant that forced the Bush administration to finally start talking about global warming. Removing this authority represents a massive concession to polluting industries, one that would essentially remove the teeth of enforcement from future measures to forestall climate chaos.

Along with these systemic measures to weaken the climate bill, politically powerful industries wrote in further concessions of their own. (The Center for Public Integrity reported in February that some 2340 lobbyists are working in Washington on this issue.) The coal industry gets until 2025 to have to comply with the bill’s mandated pollution reductions, with ample means for gaining further extensions. Agribusiness, which is responsible for as much as a quarter of US greenhouse gas emissions, is exempt from most of the bill’s provisions, but large scale farmers who may, for example, reduce tillage by growing crops genetically engineered to withstand megadoses of herbicides, may be eligible for offset credits. Assessments of ethanol’s eligibility as a “renewable fuel” are to exclude its effects on land use, a factor that researchers from Princeton and the University of Minnesota proved decisive in a pair of landmark studies last year, which showed that industrial biofuels are often net contributors to global warming. Finally, the nuclear industry promises to be a leading beneficiary of the bill’s free allocation of emission allowances; a memo leaked to the Huffington Post reports that Exelon, currently the largest US nuclear power company, expects a $1-1.5 billion annual windfall from the bill in its current form. This despite the fact that nuclear power is yet another false solution to climate change that results in huge greenhouse gas emissions throughout the nuclear fuel cycle.

With horse-trading continuing on the House floor right up to the time of the vote, the bill ultimately included “billions of dollars in special interest favors,” according to the New York Times. These included $1 billion for green job creation job training in low income communities, viewed as a relatively minor concession by many inner city activists; the biggest giveaways were clearly to oil, coal and gas producers. Requirements for utilities to invest in truly renewable energy were severely curtailed to satisfy some southern Democrats. Still, despite all these concessions, Senators beholden to major polluting industries are already jockeying for much more, threatening to hold up the bill indefinitely if they cannot win even bigger concessions. A bill that passed the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, just a week prior to the final vote on the House bill, would open large new tracts of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling, fund a new gas pipeline in Alaska, and increase funds for scientifically dubious efforts to permanently capture and store CO2 emissions from coal-burning power plants.

Toward a Movement for Climate Justice

At various venues around the world, activists have been meeting for over a year to plan a concerted grassroots response to the upcoming UN climate summit. Anticipating that the forthcoming Copenhagen agreement is likely to fall far short of what the world needs to prevent unprecedented climate disruptions, their focus from the outset was to highlight the limits of business-as-usual and the need for direct action against the root causes of climate change, while demonstrating just and sustainable alternatives. At a meeting this summer of the emerging Climate Justice Action network, participants from more than 20 countries, including several from the global South, agreed on an ambitious alternative agenda to the business-dominated deal-making at the UN level.

“We cannot trust the market with our future, nor put our faith in unsafe, unproven and unsustainable technologies,” the meeting’s declaration reads. “Contrary to those who put their faith in ‘green capitalism,’ we know that it is impossible to have infinite growth on a finite planet.” The statement calls for leaving fossil fuels in the ground, popular and community control over production, reducing the North’s overconsumption, respecting indigenous and forest peoples’ rights and, notably, reparations for the ecological and climate debts owed by the richest countries to those who are most affected by resource extraction and climate-related disasters. The emerging issue of climate debt will be the focus of an entire day of action during the Copenhagen summit, as part of a full week of actions around the summit site. Climate Justice Action has already stirred controversy among European activists for suggesting that they may choose to occupy the summit locations to challenge false solutions and rising corporate influence over the UN proceedings.

The emerging discourse of climate justice reflects a growing understanding that those most affected by accelerating climate-related disasters around the world are usually the least responsible for causing disruptions in the climate (see Z January 2008, February 2008 and February 2009 for more background). Thus any movement seeking an adequate response to global climate changes needs to clearly face this discrepancy and prioritize the voices of the most affected communities. Many people around the world are simultaneously impacted by climate disruptions and by the emerging false solutions to climate change, including carbon trading and offsets, the destruction of forests to create biofuel (agrofuel) plantations, large-scale hydroelectric developments, and nuclear power. Corporate “solutions” to global warming often expand commodification and privatization, whether of land, waterways, or the atmosphere itself, largely at the expense of the same affected communities.

This outlook was first widely articulated following a meeting in Durban, South Africa in the fall of 2004. Representatives from groups (including social movements and indigenous peoples organizations) based in Brazil, India, Samoa, the US, and UK, as well as South Africa, drafted the Durban Declaration on Carbon Trading, which has since gained over 300 signatories from around the world. The Durban Group has helped bring people to the sites of various UN meetings to represent those affected by increased resource extraction over the past several decades, as well as the accelerating conversion of forests to monoculture plantations that is partly justified by the North’s desire for carbon offsets. In discussions following the December 2007 UN climate summit in Bali, where representatives of affected peoples made a strong showing both inside and outside the official proceedings, a more formal worldwide network emerged under the slogan, “Climate Justice Now!”

In the US, this effort is increasingly led by environmental justice activists, mainly from communities of color that have been resisting daily exposure to chemical toxins and other environmental hazards for more than 20 years. An important two day conference in New York City last January, organized by West Harlem Environmental Action (WEACT) brought together inner city activists, community and youth organizers, indigenous representatives, and farmworker advocates with students, environmental lawyers, scientists, public health advocates and government officials to discuss the relevance of the climate justice framework for communities of color and their allies across the US.

Throughout this event, speakers of widely differing backgrounds and perspectives articulated a sharp critique of carbon trading and offsets. This despite the efforts of a handful of mainstream environmental representatives to paint ‘cap-and-trade’ as a moving train that activists either had to board, or else be excluded from important debates around its implementation. A physician from Los Angeles described carbon trading as yet another means of “redistributing wealth from the poor to the wealthy,” and José Bravo of the Just Transition Alliance suggested that “when we put a price on every square inch of air, there are some of us who won’t be able to afford to breathe.” Many speakers described the emerging climate justice movement as a continuation of the civil rights legacy, and of the continuing “quest for fairness, equity and justice,” to quote the pioneering environmental justice researcher and author, Robert Bullard. Others explained how, in recent years, the environmental justice movement has broadened its scope to areas of food justice, housing justice, and transportation justice. Hence their embrace of the emerging global climate justice agenda is a logical continuation of a vital living legacy.

In the US and around the world, an impressive array of interests is coming together to contribute to shaping the climate justice agenda. First among these are the opponents of mountaintop removal coal mining, who have put their bodies on the line repeatedly to expose the profound hazard posed by this exceedingly destructive practice. Growing numbers of people in coal-dependent communities in Appalachia are expressing the need for an alternative development model that relieves the stranglehold of the coal companies over their communities, protects people’s health, and facilitates the phase-out of the single most climate-destructive form of energy production. Indigenous communities, many organized under the umbrella of the Indigenous Environmental Network, are resisting increased mining of coal and uranium and advancing educational initiatives on the false solutions to global warming. An emerging youth climate movement is carrying out creative direct actions, not only at coal mining sites, but also at corporate headquarters, industry conferences, and even the headquarters of corporate-friendly environmental groups such as Environmental Defense (see

Internationally, people from Pacific Island nations, in some cases already losing land and groundwater to rising seas, have been in the forefront of calls for immediate action. The worldwide confederation of peasant movements, Vía Campesina, with affiliated groups in more than 80 countries, has joined the call for actions in Copenhagen, challenging the status of carbon as a newly privatized commodity and arguing that the UN climate convention “has failed to radically question the current models of consumption and production based on the illusion of continuous growth.” Critical civil society organizations, many working within the framework of Climate Justice Now! continue to challenge the status quo inside the UN negotiations. Further, hundreds of cities and towns in the US have defied the federal government’s 20-year trend toward inaction and committed to substantial, publicly-aided CO2 reductions of their own.

In the fall of 2008, U.S. organizations actively working for climate justice both nationally and internationally, including Indigenous Environmental Network, Global Justice Ecology Project and Rising Tide North America, launched the Mobilization for Climate Justice (MCJ, see The Mobilization was founded to link the climate struggle in the US to the growing international climate justice movement, with an eye toward building for actions around the Copenhagen climate summit and beyond.  Its objective was to provide a justice-based framework for organizing around climate change that opened space for leadership by representatives of communities in the US that are most impacted by climate change and the fossil fuel industry.

The MCJ issued a broadly focused open letter to potential allies, calling for “a radical change in direction to put climate justice, ecological integrity and people’s rights at the center of international climate negotiations,” and is working toward a nationwide day of action on November 30, a week before the Copenhagen talks begin—and coincidentally the tenth anniversary of the mass demonstrations that successfully confronted the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999. Activists confronting the toxic legacy of Chevron’s refinery complex in San Francisco Bay city of Richmond, California are already developing action plans for that day, and gatherings in Chicago and Pittsburgh this fall will focus on developing plans for other regions of the country. In Pittsburgh, a climate action camp, modeled on similar camps in the UK and across Europe, will begin during the Pittsburgh Coal Conference (September 21-23), and continue through the September 24-25th meeting of the G-20 heads of state, also in Pittsburgh. The climate camp and subsequent protests against the coal conference and the G-20 will bring together climate justice advocates from throughout the eastern US to build pressure on the Obama administration and others to commit to real and just action on climate change in Copenhagen. Other groups are focusing their efforts on dates throughout the fall, including the annual commemorations of Indigenous People’s Day on October 12th (see, and an international day of climate actions on United Nations Day, October 24th, initiated by prominent environmentalists including Bill McKibben and David Suzuki (see

The increasing urgency of the climate crisis has clearly hit a nerve among people of many walks of life, all around the world. While the outcome of this fall’s events remains highly uncertain, it is clear that such a flowering of creative and determined popular responses is precisely what is needed to reverse decades of willful inaction by the world’s elites and reach beyond the limits of politics-as-usual.

Brian Tokar is the Director of the Vermont-based Institute for Social Ecology ( His books include Earth for Sale , Redesigning Life? and the forthcoming collection (co-edited with Fred Magdoff), Crisis in Food and Agriculture: Conflict, Resistance and Renewal (Monthly Review Press). Thanks to Anne Petermann and Orin Langelle for helpful suggestions.

2 Replies to “Toward Climate Justice: Can we turn back from the abyss?”

  1. I hope we can come up with some more workable solutions. As a Wob and union steward I found two or three ideas were handy tools to defang capitalists. I also know there are people in industry who are scared about what is happening and doing things about it.
    In paint making the two major American firms Golden and Gamblin both work hard and invest in real solutions. Solar mavens like Lotus et al (Bennet Floor and cheap inversion) work out their lives in creative frustration. I am not speaking for capital but rather informed cooperation

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