Class-politicizing the Climate

By An Li

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“Nice seeing you guys!” was Florida Governor Rick Scott’s (non)response last year to a citizen-activist’s question “Do you believe in the man-made influence on climate change?” And in March of 2015, Florida become even more evasive on the problem of climate change by banning the use of terms such as “global warming”, “climate change” and “sea-level rise” in official communications. Governor Scott defended his conservatism on climate change with the well-worn rejoinders: “I am not a scientist” and “I have not been convinced”. He always forgets to mention that he is, indeed, a politician, and that the issue of climate change is not a pure matter of science anymore: it is also a matter of politics and social policy.

At first glance, poor people are most vulnerable to the impact from climate change. Globally, changes in climate patterns will bring the biggest threat to poor people in developing countries. For instance, changes in precipitation and temperature will significantly impact agricultural production, on which peasants in developing countries rely for survival and making a living. In addition, research shows that the ten countries that are most likely to suffer from global warming and rising sea-level are Bangladesh, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Haiti, South Sudan, Nigeria, DR Congo, Cambodia, Philippines and Ethiopia, all of which are developing countries with huge populations under poverty.

If we look at the developed world, it is still the poor who are threatened the most. In the U.S. context, the poor are disproportionately ethnic minorities. According to a study on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in areas damaged by the hurricane, 46% of the population are African American, while in undamaged areas, only 26% of the population are African American. In addition, damaged areas had 21% of households living under the federal poverty line, while undamaged areas have 15%. The data show that when severe climate disasters happen, those areas with higher percentage of poor and ethnic minority populations tend to suffer heavier damages.

Scientists have produced voluminous literature proving that human activities are causing the climate to change. And new research shows that we are degrading our environment at a rate that will put our own lives at risk. By degrading land and freshwater systems, emitting greenhouse gases and releasing vast amounts of agricultural chemicals into the environment, our economic system is driving us towards an unsustainable or even unlivable future.

There has been growing consensus that something has to be done to protect the environment and our future. In the past decades, rising environmental and climate awareness has led to increasing use of greener technologies that reduce pollution and emissions. However, the efforts toward protecting our environment don’t match the growing scale of economic activities that continually damage the environment. In other words, in many parts of the world (e.g. India and China), environmental protection has been outweighed by increasing environmental damages caused by the fast economic growth.

One important reason is that the environmental policies are hugely impacted by the balance of power among interest groups. To be specific, big companies are able to exert significant influence on environmental policies. For instance, oil companies in China have been successful in blocking the implementation of higher fuel emission standards. The committees in charge of designing and implementing the fuel standards are actually dominated by the oil companies. Similarly, in the United Nations’ climate talks, multinational corporations have been able to bend the environmental policies so as to benefit themselves.

Then, what is to be done? In addition to promoting green technology innovation and improving governance, we also need to build channels through which the general population – specifically the working class, peasants, the poor, and minorities – can voice their opposition against corporations intent on continuing with businesses as usual. Doing so will not only put a limit on current pollution, but also push big companies to seek greener ways of operating their businesses and create a more sustainable future!