Toward a New Agenda for Climate Justice




For Synthesis/Regeneration Spring 2008

With all the fanfare that usually accompanies such gatherings, delegates to last December’s UN climate talks on the Indonesian island of Bali returned to their home countries declaring victory. Despite the continued obstructionism of the US delegation, the negotiators reached a mild consensus for continued negotiations on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, and at the very last moment were able to cajole and pressure the US to sign on.

But in the end, the so-called “Bali roadmap” added little beside a vague timetable to the plans for renewed global climate talks that came out of a similar meeting two years ago in Montreal (see “Climate talks in Montreal,” Z Magazine, February 2006). With support from Canada, Japan and Russia, and the acquiescence of the new Australian government, the US delegation deleted all references (except in a nonbinding footnote) to the overwhelming consensus that reductions of 25 to 40 percent in annual greenhouse gas emissions are necessary by 2020 to forestall catastrophic and irreversible alterations in the earth’s climate.

In Kyoto in 1997, then Vice President Al Gore was credited with breaking the first such deadlock in climate negotiations: he promised the assembled delegates that the US would support mandatory emissions reductions if the targeted cuts were reduced by more than half, and if their implementation were based on a scheme of market-based trading of emissions. The concept of “marketable rights to pollute” had been in wide circulation in the US for nearly a decade, but this was the first time a so-called “cap-and-trade” scheme was to be implemented on a global scale. The result, a decade later, is the development of what British columnist George Monbiot has aptly termed “an exuberant market in fake emissions cuts.” Of course, the US never signed the Kyoto Protocol, and the rest of the world has had to bear the consequences of managing an increasingly cumbersome and ineffectual carbon trading system.

Given the increasingly narrow focus on carbon trading and offsets as the primary official response to global climate disruptions, it is no surprise that Bali resembled, in the words of one participant, “a giant shopping extravaganza, marketing the earth, the sky and the rights of the poor.” All manner of carbon brokers, technology developers and national governments were out displaying their wares to the thousands of assembled delegates and NGO representatives. Numerous international organizations used the occasion of Bali to release their latest research on various aspects of global warming, including an important new report from the Global Forest Coalition and Global Justice Ecology Project highlighting the consequences for the world’s forests of the current global push to develop so-called “biofuels” from agricultural crops, grasses and trees (revised edition available at

Substantive developments from Bali were few and far between. Those that did emerge serve to highlight the ways that nominal progress on global warming is often linked to counterproductive measures that only benefit the world’s elites. First, the World Bank announced the creation of a new “Forest Carbon Partnership Facility,” releasing Bank funds for governments seeking to preserve forests. But this effort is based on perpetuating the fatuous notion that wealthy nations (and individuals) can “offset” their excessive carbon dioxide emissions by paying for nominally carbon-saving projects in poorer countries. Throughout the global South, carbon offsets have already spurred the replacement of vast native forests with timber plantations, more readily assessed for their carbon sequestration potential, and able to be harvested for “energy crops” such as palm oil and highly speculative cellulose-derived ethanol.

NGOs assembled in Bali warned that the Bank’s forest initiative “could trigger further displacement, conflict and violence; as forests themselves increase in value they are declared ‘off limits’ to communities that live in them or depend on them for their livelihoods.” Traditional forest dwelling communities, deemed incapable of managing their own forests, will continue to be displaced by international experts affiliated with the Bank, national governments, and compliant environmental organizations such as Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund. Ultimately, timber companies and plantation managers, in league with the World Bank, will be demanding, in the words of Simone Lovera of the Global Forest Coalition, “compensation for every tree they don’t cut down.”

Second, the Bali meetings led to the creation of a new UN fund to help poor countries adapt to climate changes. This fund will be managed by the Global Environment Facility, a semi-independent partnership of the UN’s environment and development programs and the World Bank, and funded through a two percent levy on carbon offset transactions under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The CDM’s carbon offset schemes, however, have been widely criticized for manipulations, abuses and the funding of highly questionable projects including, once again, large scale commercial timber plantations displacing tropical rainforests. The new adaptation fund binds governments of poor countries even more tightly to the questionable practice of carbon offsets, even as it offers only a miniscule fraction of the estimated $86 billion needed just to sustain current UN poverty reduction programs in the face of the myriad new threats related to climate change.

Global Warming and the World’s Poor

The limited outcome of the Bali negotiations was especially maddening in light of all the new information released in the past year about the immediate consequences of global climate chaos, especially for the world’s poor. The Nobel Prize-winning scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have documented an unprecedented convergence of findings from hundreds of studies and tens of thousands of distinct data sets in numerous independent fields of inquiry. Never before have studies in so many fields converged on one disturbing conclusion: that the evidence for the role of human activity in altering the earth’s climate is “unequivocal,” and that the disruptive consequences of those alterations are already being felt in literally thousands of different ways.

It has also become clearer than ever before that the effects of chaotic global warming are most felt by those people who are least able to adapt or compensate for these disturbing changes: the roughly half of the world’s population that live on less than two dollars a day. The IPCC made it very clear in the second volume of their 2007 report, addressing the consequences of climate change, that the people least responsible for climate change will likely bear the worst consequences, as they are most vulnerable to the widespread increases in floods, droughts, wildfires and other effects of a rapidly changing climate. The UN’s biannual Human Development Report (, which was released in Bali, shows that at least one out of every 19 people in the so-called developing world was already affected by a climate-related disaster between 2000 and 2004.

Most vulnerable, of course, are the inhabitants of various Pacific island nations, whose very survival is seriously in doubt. With rising sea levels, not only are people less able to live near the shore, but even inland sources of essential drinking water are becoming brackish due to increasing infiltrations of sea water. Migration of Pacific islanders to New Zealand has quadrupled in recent years, according to The Independent, as rising numbers of island communities are becoming uninhabitable. Island nations, according to the IPCC, are collectively responsible for far less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

But this is only the beginning. While it appears that the northern- and southernmost portions of the earth’s temperate zones may reap some short term benefits from global heating, including longer growing seasons, the future looks bleak for people throughout the world’s tropical and subtropical regions. These areas, where people are far more likely to rely on the cycles of the earth, water and sky for their immediate subsistence, are in for a future of uncertain rainfall, persistent droughts, coastal flooding, loss of wetlands and fisheries, and increasingly scarce fresh water supplies. Flooding will most immediately affect inhabitants of the major river deltas of Asia and Africa. The one sixth of the world’s population that depends on water from glacial runoff may see a brief increase in the size and volume of their freshwater lakes as glaciers melt, but very soon the overall decrease in glacial area will become a life-threatening reality for many people.

The IPCC predicts a worldwide decrease in crop productivity if global temperatures rise more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit, but crop yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by half as soon as 2020. In Africa alone, between 75 million and 250 million people will be exposed to “increased water stress.” Agricultural lands in Latin America will be subject to desertification and increased salt content.

The health consequences of climate changes are perhaps the most starkly framed: “[I]ncreases in malnutrition and consequent disorders…; increased deaths, disease and injury due to heatwaves, floods, storms, fires and droughts; the increased burden of diarrheal disease; the increased frequency of cardio-respiratory diseases due to higher concentrations of ground-level ozone…; and, the altered spatial distribution of some infectious disease vectors,” including malaria. There is little doubt that those with “high exposure, high sensitivity and/or low adaptive capacity” will bear the greatest burdens.

The UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, released in 2005, offers a particularly graphic representation of where we seem to be headed. One page of this report (p. 119 of the Synthesis Report on Ecosystems and Human Well Being) offers a pair of world maps, each with a bar graph superimposed on every continent. The upper map chronicles the number of major floods reported in each decade from 1950 to 2000; the lower map displays the number of major wildfires. Everywhere but in Oceania (which is facing such a severe drought that large portions of the Australian breadbasket are now virtually unable to grow grain) the graphs rise steeply as the decades advance. Over this period, global temperatures only rose about one degree Fahrenheit; only the most optimistic of the IPCC’s projected future scenarios limits further warming during this century to less than three additional degrees.

As the UN Human Development Report showed that one out of every 19 people in the so-called developing world was affected by a climate-related disaster between 2000 and 2004, it also highlighted the contrasting figure for people in the wealthiest (OECD) countries: one out of every 1500. Yet the funds available thus far to various UN efforts to help the poorest countries adapt to climate changes ($26 million) is less than one week’s worth of flood defense spending in the UK, and about what the city of Venice spends on its flood gates every 2 – 3 weeks. The report estimates that an additional $86 billion will be needed to sustain existing UN development assistance and poverty reduction programs in the face of all the various threats attributable to climate change.

Two additional studies addressed the likelihood for increased violent conflict in the world as a result of climate-related changes. A paper published in the journal Political Geography by Rafael Reuveny of Indiana University examined 38 cases over the past 70 years where populations were forced to migrate due to a combination of environmental (droughts, floods, storms, land degradation, pollution) and other factors. Half of these cases led to varying degrees of violent conflict between the migrating population and people in the receiving areas. It is clear, states Reuveny, that those who depend the most on the environment to sustain their livelihood, especially in regions where arable land and fresh water are scarce, are most likely to be forced to migrate when conditions are subjected to rapid and unplanned-for change.

In November, the UK-based relief organization International Alert reached a similar conclusion. In a report titled “A Climate of Conflict,” they compared maps of the world’s most politically unstable regions with those most susceptible to serious or extreme effects of climate change, and concluded that 46 countries, with a total population of 2.7 billion people, are firmly in both categories. The report states:

“Hardest hit by climate change will be people living in poverty, in under-developed and unstable states, under poor governance. The effect of the physical consequences – such as more frequent extreme weather, melting glaciers, and shorter growing seasons – will add to the pressures under which those societies already live. The background of poverty and bad governance means many of these communities both have a low capacity to adapt to climate change and face a high risk of violent conflict.”

The report profiles 8 case studies of places in Africa and Asia where climate changes have already put great stress on people’s livelihoods and often exacerbated internal conflicts. The outlook is significantly improved, however, in places where political institutions are relatively stable and accountable to the population. This contrast allows for a somewhat hopeful conclusion, with the authors extolling “the synergies between climate adaptation policies and peacebuilding activities in achieving the shared goal of sustainable development and peace.” One specific recommendation is to prioritize efforts to help people adapt to a changing climate, especially where subsistence-based economies already contribute very little to global warming but are highly vulnerable to the consequences. Various international NGOs have already intervened, particularly in Africa, to document and disseminate those adjustments in farming practices that prove most useful in facilitating adaptation to a changing climate.

Worldwide, the potential human toll from severe changes in the climate is even more disturbing than the statistics and “objective” case studies suggest. Two centuries of capitalist development—and especially the unprecedented pace of industrial development and resource consumption that has characterized the past 60 years—have created conditions that threaten everyone’s future. “There could be no clearer demonstration than climate,” says the recent UN Human Development Report, “that economic wealth creation is not the same as human progress.” Those who have benefited the least from the unsustainable pace of economic growth and expansion over the past five or six decades are facing a future of suffering and dislocation unlike the world has ever seen—unless we can rapidly reverse the patterns of exploitation that many in the global North have simply come to take for granted.

A Different Response

The more closely we follow the evolving discussion of global warming and its potential impacts, the more often we seem to find ourselves hovering at the edge of despair. This is especially true once we realize how many of the proposed “solutions” merely worsen the problem and exacerbate inequalities around the world. Powerful interests in the US are seeking massive subsidies for even more destructive false solutions, including the expansion of nuclear power and the liquification of coal. for  But as the recent UN Human Development Report states, “resigned pessimism is a luxury that the world’s poor and future generations cannot afford.” So what are we to do?

The last time a popular movement compelled significant changes in US environmental and energy policies was during the late 1970s. In the aftermath of the OPEC oil embargo, imposed during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the nuclear and utility industries adopted a plan to construct more than 300 nuclear power plants in the United States by the year 2000. Utility and state officials identified rural communities across the US as potential sites for  new nuclear facilities, and the popular response was swift and unanticipated. A militant grassroots antinuclear movement united back-to-the-landers and traditional rural dwellers with seasoned urban activists and a new generation of environmentalists who only partially experienced the ferment of the 1960s.

Just over 3 decades ago, in April of 1977, over 1400 people were arrested trying to nonviolently occupy a nuclear construction site in the coastal town of Seabrook, New Hampshire. This event helped inspire the emergence of decentralized, grassroots antinuclear alliances all across the country, committed to nonviolent direct action, bottom-up forms of internal organization, and a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between technological and social changes. Not only did these groups adopt an uncompromising call for “No Nukes,” but many of them promoted a vision of an entirely new social order, rooted in decentralized, solar-powered communities empowered to decide their energy future and also their political future. If the nuclear state almost inevitably leads to a police state—due to the massive security apparatus necessary to protect hundreds of nuclear plants and radioactive waste dumps all over the country—a solar-based energy system could be the underpinning for a radically decentralized and directly democratic model for society.

This movement was so successful in raising the hazards of nuclear power as a matter of urgent public concern that nuclear construction projects all over the US began to be cancelled. When the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania nearly melted down in March of 1979, it spelled the end of the nuclear expansion. While the Bush administration today is doing everything possible to underwrite a revival of nuclear power, it is still the case that no new nuclear plants have been licensed or built in the United States since Three Mile Island. The antinuclear movement of the late 1970s also spawned the first wave of significant development of solar and wind technologies, aided by substantial federal tax benefits for solar installations, and helped launch a visionary “green cities” movement that captured the imaginations of architects, planners and ordinary citizens.

Radically reconstructive social visions are relatively scarce in today’s political climate, dominated by endless war and rapidly rising inequality. But dissatisfaction with the status quo reaches wide and deep among many sectors of the US population. While elite discourse and the corporate media continue to push political debates rightward and politicians of both major parties glibly comply, poll after poll suggests the potential for a new opening, reaching far beyond the confines of what has become politically acceptable. The more people consume, and the deeper into debt they may fall, the less satisfied most people seem to be with the world of business-as-usual.

Over the past year, activists across the US and in other industrial countries have begun to dramatize the reality of potentially catastrophic global warming and pressure their governments to do something about it. Al Gore’s movie and the IPCC report have had positive educational impacts, but most public gatherings up to now, at least in the US, have been rather timid in their outlook, and minimal in their expectations for real changes. The failure of the Bali talks suggests the urgency of a far more pointed and militant approach, a genuine People’s Agenda for Climate Justice. Such an agenda would have at least four central elements:

1.  Highlight the social justice implications of global climate disruptions. Global warming is not just a scientific issue, and it’s certainly not mainly about polar bears. As the UN’s Human Development Report describes so eloquently, global warming is a global justice issue, and the immediate consequences for the world’s poor are truly staggering. Bringing home these implications can go a long way toward humanizing the problem and raise the urgency of global action.

2.  Dramatize the links between US climate and energy policies and US military adventures, particularly the war in Iraq, which is without question the most grotesquely energy-wasting activity on the planet today. Author Michael Klare has documented (see S/R # ?) that troops in the Persian Gulf region consume 3.5 million gallons of oil a day, and that worldwide consumption by the US military—about four times as much—are equal to the total national consumption of Switzerland or Sweden. Last October, people gathered under the banner of “No War, No Warming” blocked the entrances to a Congressional office building in Washington, demanding an end to the war and real steps to prevent more catastrophic climate changes. Similar actions across the country could go a long way toward raising the pressure on politicians who consistently say the right thing and blithely vote the opposite way.

3.  Expose the numerous false solutions to global warming promoted by the world’s elites. Billions of dollars in public and private funds are wasted on such schemes as a revival of nuclear power, mythical “clean coal” technologies (supported by Barack Obama, among many others), and the massive expansion of so-called biofuels (more appropriately termed agrofuels): liquid fuels obtained from food crops, grasses, and trees. Carbon trading and offsets are described as the only politically expedient way to reduce emissions, but they are structurally incapable of doing so. We need mandated emission reductions, a tax on carbon dioxide pollution, requirements to reorient utility and transportation policies, public funds for solar and wind energy, and large reductions in consumption throughout the industrialized world. Buying more “green” products won’t do; we need to buy less!

4.  Envision a new, lower-consumption world of decentralized, clean energy and politically empowered communities. Like the antinuclear activists of 30 years ago, who halted the first wave of nuclear power in the US, while articulating an inspiring vision of directly democratic, solar-powered communities, we again need to dramatize the positive, even utopian, possibilities for a post-petroleum, post-mega-mall world. The reality of global warming is too urgent, and the outlook far too bleak, to settle for status-quo false solutions that only appear to address the problem. The technologies already exist for a locally-controlled, solar-based alternative, at the same time that dissatisfaction with today’s high consumption, high debt “American way of life” appears to be at an all time high. Small experiments in living more locally, while improving the quality of life, are thriving everywhere. So are experiments in community-controlled renewable energy production (see Al Gore is correct when he says that political will is the main obstacle to addressing global warming, but we also need to be able to look beyond the status-quo and struggle for a different kind of world.

Global warming can represent a future of deprivation and scarcity for all but the world’s wealthiest, or this global emergency can compel us to imagine a radically transformed society—both in the North and the South—where communities of people are newly empowered to remake their own future. The crisis can drive us to break free from a predatory global economy that fabulously enriches elites, while leaving the rest of us scrambling after the crumbs. The reality is too urgent, and the outlook far too bleak, to settle for status-quo false solutions that only appear to be addressing the problem of global climate disruption. Instead, we can embrace the reconstructive potential of a radically ecological social and political vision, prevent catastrophe, and begin to make our way toward a fundamentally different kind of future. As a writer in The Nation recently summed up her assessment of two books on the rise of the right wing politics in the US, “sometimes only a willingness to be radical really brings about change.”

Brian Tokar’s books include Earth for Sale (South End), Redesigning Life? (Zed Books), and Gene Traders (Toward Freedom). He is currently the director of the Institute for Social Ecology, based in Vermont.