Climate Change and Economic Inequality

Welcome back to my blog! Let’s get right back into it:

Oxfam International just released a study (called Wealth: Having It All and Wanting More) that states that by next year, the richest 1% will be richer than the rest of the world combined. Whoa. That is completely unacceptable. Oxfam is calling on governments to “adopt a seven point plan to tackle inequality:”

  1. Clamp down on tax dodging by corporations and rich individuals
  2. Invest in universal, free public services such as health and education
  3. Share the tax burden fairly, shifting taxation from labour and consumption towards capital and wealth
  4. Introduce minimum wages and move towards a living wage for all workers
  5. Introduce equal pay legislation and promote economic policies to give women a fair deal
  6. Ensure adequate safety-nets for the poorest, including a minimum income guarantee
  7. Agree a global goal to tackle inequality.

Climate change and many of the other global issues we are facing today are intimately connected with this stark economic inequality. These issues are the result of the political and economic system that is keeping people down and destroying our beautiful world. And, in fact, climate change is exacerbating inequality because poor communities are the ones that are on the frontlines of extreme weather and resource conflict. By fighting climate change, we are fighting inequality.

350.org

350.org

The Transition Town Movement

Throughout most of this semester I have written about the bad news – ranging from mass species extinction to climate change to elephant poaching. We all know there are many persistent, systemic, and overwhelming environmental problems. That’s a given. However, during the last few weeks of this course (but don’t worry – I hope to continue this blog after the course is over!) I would like to turn our attention to the courageous people finding solutions. And the Transition Movement is just the place to start.

The Transition Town Movement consists of local grassroots projects that aim to increase community self-sufficiency and resiliency. These projects also educate people about climate change and peak oil, and work towards decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels. The first Transition Town was created in Totnes, England, in 2006.

Common topics for discussion within these communities include peak oil and local energy resilience, transportation, food production, waste and recycling, environmental psychology, and economics (including alternatives to the current capitalist system). If you would like to know more about how Transition Towns are structured and some of the underlying theory, check out the Seven Guiding Principles and Twelve Ingredients of the Transition Model from the Transition United States website.

Transition Towns aim to foster community, educate residents about a wide range of topics, from local food to species extinction, and offer a concrete localized solution to the overwhelming climate crisis. Individual families and towns will face the brunt of climate change, which is why the Transition Movement aims to localize and democratize energy and promote climate solutions.

Transition Towns exist across the world, including right here in Massachusetts in Amherst and Hadley. As of September 2013, there were 1,130 Transition Towns officially registered with the Transition Network Directory, which is a UK-based organization that supports the international Transition Movement. There is also a specific website for the Transition Movement in the United States.

The Transition Movement acknowledges that it does not have all the answers, and that this effort alone will not solve all the world’s current problems. However, they firmly believe that:

  • If we wait for the governments, it’ll be too little, too late
  • If we act as individuals, it’ll be too little
  • But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.

India and Climate Change

India needs to become a climate leader, and the Editorial Board of the New York Times agrees with me. India will suffer incredibly from climate change, with increased floods from the melting Himalayas and increased droughts that will destroy crucial crops.

And yet, as the number three greenhouse gas emitter behind the United States and China, India continues to guzzle more carbon, particularly through coal. India has long stated that it will not sacrifice growth to limit greenhouse gas emissions. According to the New York Times, in the last five years, “India increased its coal power capacity by 73 percent,” and it plans to double domestic coal production to one billion tons by 2019. Increased coal use by India will not only ensure catastrophic climate change for all of us, it will also kill its own citizens. India’s coal plants already kill up to 115,000 people a year and cost the country’s economy $4.6 billion. India cannot afford coal.

To its credit, India has the largest solar plant in Asia, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi “has pledged to create a 50,000-strong ‘solar army’ to help rapidly expand India’s solar capacity — and train job-hungry young Indians in the technologies of the future.” But in order to avert the worst impacts of climate change, Prime Minister Modi must show the world that he is not a climate change skeptic and come to the next round of UN climate talks in Lima, Peru, on December 1st ready to make a commitment.

The Senate Voted Down the Keystone XL Pipeline

On Tuesday, November 18th, the United States Senate voted on the highly controversial Keystone XL Pipeline (KXL) that would bring Canadian tar sands 1,700 miles through forest, desert, and sand hills from Alberta’s boreal forest to the Texas Gulf Coast. The vote was proposed by Senator Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana), and it needed 60 votes in order to pass and permit construction of KXL. It failed by a close final count of 59-41. The bill was approved by the House of Representatives last week (the Sioux tribe declared this an act of war against their nation).

President Obama has said that his position on KXL has not changed. In fact, it seems he may be even more against the pipeline. He has said he will not approve the pipeline if it is shown that it will contribute to climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions (which it obviously does). Luckily, Obama will not see this bill on his desk, but there is still room for him to lead and reject Keystone for good. Regardless, the vote is a victory for environmental and climate activists who have worked hard for years to stop the construction of this destructive pipeline.

This issue is particularly close to my heart. In March 2014 I participated in XL Dissent, where more than 1,000 students marched from Georgetown University, where President Obama gave a speech on climate change in 2013, to the White House, where 398 people zip-tied themselves to the fence and got arrested. I was one of the 398, and I was arrested for my convictions and for my hope for the future. You can read more about my reasons for getting arrested here.

XL Dissent Protest in Washington, D.C. in March 2014 (http://bit.ly/11vW8ey)

XL Dissent Protest in Washington, D.C. in March 2014 (http://bit.ly/11vW8ey)

The U.S. – China Climate Agreement

Less than two months after the historic People’s Climate March, when 400,000 people marched for climate justice in New York City, world leaders listened to us and stepped up to the plate.

On the night of November 11th, 2014, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Beijing, United States President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a a new U.S.-China climate deal. President Obama stated that by 2025, the United States will lower greenhouse gas emissions 26-28% compared to 2005 levels. President Xi stated that China will reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, and then decline. To reach that goal, 20% of China’s energy will have to come from renewable energy sources by 2030.

The agreement was crafted in secret over the last nine months. Officials hope that it will inspire action at the climate talks in Paris in 2015. Prior to this ground-breaking agreement, many believed there was not much hope for a firm commitment in Paris. This is because the United States and China are the two largest economies, as well as the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, and without leadership from these two countries, other governments do not have as much incentive or obligation to cut greenhouse gases.

Although this agreement is an important step in the right direction, it has no enforcement mechanisms, and will not keep the world below the 2 degrees Celsius tipping point beyond which catastrophic climate change is inevitable. Bill McKibben provides interesting thoughts about the significance of the climate deal: what it is, and what it isn’t. McKibben notes that this agreement is an important victory for the grassroots and that it indicates that the grassroots should continue to put pressure on the international community. The Council on Foreign Relations also weighs in.

Let us hope that this agreement will push the world, especially the biggest polluters, towards climate solutions and a binding treaty in Paris.

Climate Inaction and the Midterm Elections

There was a paucity of serious talk about climate change during America’s 2014 midterm elections. Amid rising sea levels, landmark climate reports, and the hottest June, August, and September on record, the most common sentiment coming from Republican politicians was, “I’m not a scientist.” This refrain is used to deflect tough questions on climate and avoid the politically-charged subject of climate denial.

According to an article from the New York Times, environment and energy issues were the “third-most mentioned issue in political advertisements” during this campaign season. Through these ads, many Republicans, often backed by right-wing billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch of Koch Industries, attacked climate action such as the Environmental Protection Agency regulation of coal-fired power plants, funding for climate science, and political momentum moving toward the climate talks in Paris that are scheduled for late 2015.

Even though a plurality of American voters believe that climate change is occurring and that the government should curb greenhouse gas emissions, with Congress now solidly Republican, many believe that any hopes of a federal effort to address climate change are dashed.

Climate Depression

A new report published by the National Wildlife Federation, The Psychological Effects of Global Warming on the United States, challenges conceptions of the extent of climate change. Climate change will not only wreak havoc on our coasts, forests, and ice, it will wreak havoc on our psyches. This report argues that activists, climate scientists, and concerned citizens are already experiencing “pre-traumatic stress disorder,” a term coined by Lise Van Susteren, a forensic psychiatrist and co-author of the National Wildlife Federation report.

Climate depression is very real. I have witnessed it in myself, in my activist friends, in family members, and in people I do not even know. As urgent as the physical, scientific reality of climate change is, and as urgent as it is to transition to a zero-carbon economy, it is also imperative to acknowledge and honestly address the reality of climate depression. Without an honest conversation about the serious mental consequences of knowledge about climate science and engagement in climate activism, these scientists, activists, and citizens will never be able to practically work to address the challenges we face in a warming world.

MHC Divest: The Fight for Climate Justice at Mount Holyoke

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MHC Divest is a campaign organized by the Mount Holyoke Climate Justice Coalition (CJC). Our focus on justice arises from the need to bring attention to the global inequity of the current economic system, and the effects of climate change.

In pursuit of divestment, MHC Divest is organizing all stakeholders on the issue of divestment: Mount Holyoke students, alumnae, faculty, and staff. MHC Divest aims to work with the Administration and the Board of Trustees to redirect investments away from the fossil fuel industry. We urge Mount Holyoke to take the following steps:

  1. Immediately freeze further investments in the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies,
  2. Divest the approximately 2% of its endowment currently invested in fossil fuel companies within the next five years,
  3. Reinvest part of the endowment into environmentally and socially responsible enterprises.

MHC Divest launched in November 2012 and quickly gained the support of many students. During the spring of 2013, the group delivered petitions to President Lynn Pasquerella and participated in productive dialogue and educational opportunities on campus. In the spring of 2014, the group formally registered as Mount Holyoke Climate Justice Coalition.

In spring 2014, MHC Divest organized a successful student referendum in which, of those who voted, 88% of students voted for Mount Holyoke to divest its endowment from the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies. Members of CJC attended the Intentionally Designed Endowments Conference in April 2014 with President Pasquerella and presented in a session on engaging in collaborative dialogue on campus. Last spring, MHC Divest also met with President Pasquerella and the Vice President of Finance, Shannon Gurek. Through that meeting, we were able to obtain a meeting with the Chair of the Board of Trustees, Mary Davis, and two other members of the Board, as well as an invitation to the September meeting of the Investment Committee. Two members of MHC Divest attended this meeting, which took place in New York City, and made an impressive presentation to the entire Committee. Following that meeting, the group met with several Trustees in October. Seven members of MHC Divest attended the meeting, as well as Physics Professor Alexi Arango, and a student action occurred outside the meeting in order to encourage the Trustees to support divestment.

At this time, MHC Divest is focusing on building power in all parts of the Mount Holyoke community. In this way, we hope to show the Administration and the Board of Trustees that, not only is divestment a fantastic opportunity for Mount Holyoke to position itself as a leader, but also that the entire community supports divesting from fossil fuels. MHC Divest is working with passionate, collaborate alumnae on a letter-writing campaign, faculty on an open letter to the Administration urging Mount Holyoke to divest, and students (both at Mount Holyoke and other colleges) to form strong relationships and interest in divestment as a strategy for combatting climate change and fighting for climate justice.

Fossil Fuel Divestment

http://bit.ly/1t6UgEh

An example of the destruction of the fossil fuel industry: open pit mining of tar sands in Alberta, Canada, where there used to be boreal forest (http://bit.ly/1t6UgEh).

The fossil fuel industry has a death grip on our civilization. Although most politicians understand the imminent and catastrophic danger of climate change, most have done nothing to fight for international and local climate policy that will limit carbon emissions.

Almost everything in our world runs on fossil fuels, which is why the fossil fuel industry is the most profitable industry in the world. In fact, Exxon Mobil is the most profitable company in the history of the world. It is also the most profitable company in the Global 500. When oil companies make enormous campaign contributions in order to prevent the public from knowing the truth about climate change and to maintain their power, how are ordinary citizens supposed to avert the catastrophic ecological consequences of a warming planet?

It’s clear that individual consumer changes will never add up to enough to counter the destruction of burning fossil fuels. So we need to go after the most powerful industry on the planet, the fossil fuel industry, and go after them where it hurts most – their money.

This is where divestment comes in. Divestment is the removal of investments from a particular company or industry. It has been used as a tactic to oppose injustices and corporate control and irresponsibility. In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of colleges, universities, individuals, and foundations divested their money from the apartheid regime in South Africa. In the 1990s, many colleges and foundations divested from the tobacco industry.

Divestment is a powerful tactic that sends a strong financial and political message, and it is now targeting the fossil fuel industry. Since 2011, more than 400 student divestment campaigns have sprung up across the United States, and there are dozens in other parts of the world as well. (Gofossilfree.org has incredible amounts of information about the divestment movement, from how to start your own campaign to already existing campaigns and divestment wins.)

The purpose of divestment is not to bankrupt the fossil fuel industry – that is almost impossible. The purpose of divestment is to radically change our views about what activism means and to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry and deprive it of its social license to operate.

Divestment is radical, simple, and unavoidable if we wish to avert catastrophic climate change. In the next post I will discuss the campaign to divest Mount Holyoke’s endowment from fossil fuels.

Only 14 States Have Climate Plans

A recent Mother Jones article points out that even though the science and reality of climate change are largely accepted, and individual states are on the front lines of climate change, only 14 states in the U.S. have concrete climate change plans. Nine more plans are in the works. Some of the other states have regional or local climate plans, but nothing state-wide. Here is an interactive map with this information.

The leader is California, with a total of 345 goals, 251 of which are in progress, and 48 of which are completed. Massachusetts leads in the total number of goals, with 373, but has only completed 24 of them.

It’s clear that states need to take the lead in climate legislation and mitigation, given the large-scale political inaction on the federal and international level in response to the climate crisis.