The recent election has brought a new crop of right wing idiots to the fore, emboldening them to pursue their wacky agenda at an as yet to be calculated cost to the people of America and the world. The likely head of the House Oversight and Congressional Reform Committee, Rep. Darrell Issa has announced that his first priority will be to hold hearings into “Climategate”, with the intent of revealing to the American people the hoax that is being perpetrated by libralsocialististicanarchist enviro-Nazis regarding global warming. And John Shimkus, candidate to be Chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce has said that God promised Noah there would never be another flood, therefore global warming presents no threat.
Ten years after the failure of the U.S. to sign the already inadequate Kyoto Protocol, two years after the collapse of the deeply flawed Copenhagen Climate Summit, and in the midst of a Cancun round of climate talks that are expected to produce no agreements of substance, we are witnessing the triumph of the oligarchic forces who will stop at nothing to maximize their short term profit.
A potential 600 million climate refugees ( the number of people currently living close enough to the ocean to be displaced by a 1 meter rise in sea level.), the desertification of millions of acres of productive crop land, as foretold by the disastrous droughts of last summer, a huge increase in infectious diseases and the suffering of billions as they try to adapt to a changing climate are all discounted by the climate change deniers. The coming climate disaster rests squarely on the shoulders of those who have ignored the predictions that have been offered since the 1960’s, when people like Murray Bookchin began to speak out about the dangers posed by global warming. The current gang of climate change deniers are analogous to those who, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, deny the existence of the holocaust.
While it is important for individuals to take responsibility for their actions and choices to try to mitigate the worst effects of global warming, we must recognize the systemic nature of the problem and place the blame where it belongs; not on “greedy consumers”, and certainly not on the impoverished people of the world (who are responsible for only 3% of greenhouse gas emissions), but rather on the political and corporate elites who have failed to act in the face of overwhelming evidence. Not surprisingly, it is not those who are most responsible for creating the climate crisis who will bear the brunt, it is those least responsible. The oligarchs will be able to insulate themselves from climate change, their wealth and social standing will guarantee their continued prosperity. In fact they are already making plans to profit from the coming crisis. The people who will be most affected are the poor and the powerless.
This fact was reinforced for me in a most poignant fashion by a trip last year to meet with indigenous activists in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost settlement in North America. Barrow is 350 miles North of the Arctic circle, at the confluence of the Arctic Ocean, the Beaufort Sea and the Chukchi Sea. It is home to the Inupiak people, Arctic hunters and gatherers who have been living in this region for at least six thousand years. Their traditional life revolves around seasonal hunting of caribou, seals, and whales. We also met with climate scientists who flock to Barrow to study the rapidly changing arctic environment, considered a bellwether for global climate change.
It is difficult to imagine that a more desolate place exists anywhere on the planet. Barrow sits on a narrow strip of beach, and is surrounded on three sides by the endless arctic tundra; flat, frozen, and to the uninitiated eye, completely lifeless. Of course to the Inupiak, the Tundra, its permafrost, and the frozen ocean, are home; a fecund mother who has sustained them for millennia.
All that is changing now. Barrow is on the front line of global warming, and its impact is already being felt by the people and the animals who live there. We flew into Barrow (there are no roads that go there) in early October, when the days were already growing shorter.
The Inupiak were in the last days of their Fall whale hunt. As they have for thousands of years, they send out a dozen whaling crews in 14 foot long umiaks, open boats made of sealskin sewn with caribou sinew, to hunt Bowhead whales. (They take a small number of Bowheads, not an endangered species, with their quota determined by the Aboriginal Whaling Commission.)The whole community participates in the hunt, either preparing and sewing the sealskins for the umiaks, manning the boats, dragging in the whales over the ice or butchering the kill. Everyone in the community receives a share of the butchered whale.
We were told of the ways in which their traditional way of life was being affected by global warming. The permafrost is melting; the Inupiak dig down twelve feet through the frozen earth to build chambers where they store their perishable whale meat. Now, rather than the two top inches thawing during the summer, four inches are thawing, and the melt is running into their storage chambers and ruining the whale meat. The ocean is freezing later every year, and when the ice does come it is thinner, often breaking up when they try to drag a whale carcass to land for butchering. Crucial barrier islands are already underwater and they have lost 18 feet of their narrow beach to erosion. Walrus are being forced to the shoreline because of the shrinking polar ice, and polar bears are severely threatened by the warming of the arctic environment. The melting ice cap, which is predicted to raise sea levels by 4 feet world-wide over the next several decades, will translate into a 14 foot rise in sea levels on the North Slope of Alaska, putting Barrow and five other Inupiak communities under water, effectively bringing to an end a unique culture that has survived for six thousand years.
Much has been made of the threat that global warming poses to polar bears, walruses, and other denizens of the arctic. The loss of these magnificent species will indeed be a great tragedy. However the people of the arctic are rarely mentioned as victims of global climate change; they are largely invisible. We would do well to remember them, and to recognize the irreparable damage that the destruction of cultures like that of the Inupiak will bring, not only to them, but to our common humanity as well.
As the climate deniers bring their three ring circus to D.C., insisting that there is no such thing as global warming, it is clear that we can expect no action from the Federal Government. It is up to people organizing a grass roots movement to hold the elites accountable and to fight to save the planet from irreparable harm. In that struggle, I am sure that many voices, as they should, will speak out for the polar bears; but let us also remember to demand climate justice for the Inupiak and the other coastal dwelling people around the world who are largely ignored in the current climate debate. Social Ecology has always recognized that social justice is a pre-condition for the reharmonization of people and the rest of the natural world.