Burnt | Why It’s Time For Climate Justice And How We Can Make It A Reality
In his new book 'Burnt' Chris Saltmarsh, the environmental activist and co-founder of Labour for a Green New Deal, makes his case for a radical anti-capitalist response to the climate emergency
When you think about climate change, you might feel scared, anxious, or nothing at all. Stories about the latest UN Climate Summit might make the climate feel like an abstract issue you personally have no power over. When you see the latest hurricane ripping through a major city, you might switch off and try not to think about it. Or those extreme weather events might always be on your mind, inescapable as they keep you up at night. You might view climate change as something for hippies or just a middle-class concern. Or you might wish that everyone would wake up and take this patently existential crisis a lot more seriously: the planet is on fire for fuck’s sake
You may or may not recycle. You may or may not eat meat. You may or may not take long-haul flights. You might feel compelled to block a road, lock yourself to an oil rig or get arrested to stop climate change. You might want to do something, but you don’t know what or how.
“You might want to do something, but you don’t know what or how”
Climate change is unjust. It comes down to a wealthy elite profiting from business-as-usual while ordinary people bear the costs of their recklessness. In this story of climate change, the ruling class are the villains. They uphold an economic system from which they benefit, while the world is literally on fire. We – ordinary people in every neighbourhood, town, city and country in the world – are the heroes.
As the devastating impacts of climate change collide with decades of economic dispossession, we have a historic opportunity to transform our global political and economic systems to put people before profit. We can change our relationship to the world we live in and repair for the harms already inflicted by climate change. This is a call to action to those ready to stand up for climate justice and an invitation to those who have never thought of themselves as activists. Because without you, we can’t win.
Aged 16, I started environmental campaigning at college against all kinds of waste (food, water and paper), for meat-free Mondays and against unnecessary flying. In short, I was your classic insufferable moralising liberal environmentalist. I had nothing on the youth strikers who have taken to the streets, often at an even younger age, with monthly strikes for climate justice and demands as radical as a Green New Deal.
“This was an education in organising around an explicitly anti-corporate climate politics”
By the age of 18, I became a climate justice activist. On my first day at the University of Sheffield, I joined the fossil fuel divestment campaign for the University to stop investing in fossil fuel companies. This was an education in organising around an explicitly anti-corporate climate politics. At the same time, I became involved in direct-action campaigns, including mass invasions of coal mines and blockading fracking sites by locking my arms in fortified tubes in the middle of the main road connecting Blackpool and Preston.
At the same time, I was active in left-wing politics. I occupied university buildings in the free education movement opposing tuition fees and the marketisation of higher education. I joined campaigns for a living wage, against detention centres and deportations, for housing justice and solidarity with Palestine. Later, I joined the Labour Party as Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership opened the party up as a vehicle for radical politics.
Being involved in climate and leftist organising at the same time taught me limitations of both as well as how they can draw from each other, to win together. We need a climate politics which faces up to capitalism as the root cause of the crisis and offers a compelling alternative vision for society. We need a strong left which takes the challenges and opportunities of climate change seriously, by drawing the links between environmental issues and the those affecting peoples’ everyday lives.
“A thunderstorm brewed, sucking in air, and then blowing it out with fire bellowing like a volcanic eruption”
In September 2019, Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, gave a rousing speech in support of a socialist Green New Deal at the Labour Party Conference. He told delegates: ‘Now for us, in my industry, this is an industrial matter today. It is a trade union matter today. Firefighters in the UK are dealing with the effects of climate change every day of their working lives in extreme weather events. It’s an issue for firefighters across the globe.’
Wrack goes on to give the 2013 example of Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona where 19 firefighters died. All were trade union members who died at work. Amid severe drought, a crew was tasked with fighting a 300-acre fire 850 feet up Weaver Mountains. A thunderstorm brewed, sucking in air, and then blowing it out with fire bellowing like a volcanic eruption. The rapidly changing weather ultimately cost those lives as the crew made their way down the mountain into thicker smoke before encountering a fire beneath them that had burned four miles in 20 minutes. They deployed their small aluminium tent fire shelters, wrestling them to the ground as the flames passed over them and the heat became unimaginable.
When the crew was finally found an hour and a half later, the paramedic first on the scene confirmed the fatalities. Though a tiny proportion of deaths caused by climate change already, the deaths of those 19 firefighters illustrate that working-class people experience the worst of climate change, whether they are front line workers or in the communities they protect.
“If you’re a millionaire in Malibu, you can rebuild”
In the years since, captivating videos of wildfires in the US across social media have become an annual feature of summer. Residents displaced from their California homes film as they drive along highways flanked by almighty flames. The apocalyptic images adorning 24/7 news and Twitter feeds make unavoidable the reality that climate change is happening right now with devastating effects. An anonymous firefighter wrote in This is Not a Drill, Extinction Rebellion’s handbook:
I’m not emotional about burning structures: you get used to that. What’s painful is the way the fire affects people: when they’re actively evacuating and scared and are told to leave everything behind because the fire is imminent. I see dead animals, horses, family dogs that were left behind.
If you’re a millionaire in Malibu, you can rebuild. But communities like Paradise [a town swallowed by fire in December 2018] are mostly older, retired, working class folks. They can’t afford to bounce back.
When Greta Thunberg urges leaders to act with the refrain ‘our house is on fire’, this is literally true for many working-class people around the world. Their possessions, homes and communities are burned to a crisp because of climate change. Some people lose everything.
Firefighters are on the front lines experiencing and witnessing first-hand the trauma of climate change, but it isn’t just fires that are having that effect. A study by researcher Tamma Carleton has shown that crop-damaging changes in temperatures have resulted in increased suicide rates among India’s farmers. When temperatures rise, crops are less successful. This means that farmers don’t earn as much money and become trapped in cycles of debt.
“When Greta Thunberg urges leaders to act with the refrain ‘our house is on fire’, this is literally true for many working-class people”
In 2019, the BBC reported the story of Mallapa, a farmer in the state of Andhra Pradesh.One day in August 2018, Mallapa left his home ‘to buy groceries’ but in fact walked into town to buy all the necessary things for his funeral before taking his life due to a debt of 285,000 rupees (£3,100) to banks. Mallapa had a peanut farm ruined by drought and his debt was worsened by falling crop prices. Mallapa is just one example of the 59,300 suicides by Indian farmers since 1980. As temperatures rise and environments change faster than populations can adapt, lives are ruined. The striking thing about Mallapa’s story is that his suicide was not born of a moment of desperation. The time he takes to arrange his own funeral proves that this was a considered choice when colonial-capitalism left no other option.
The psychological effects of debt are predominately individualised. The stress, anxiety and depression endured due to significant indebtedness often fall on you alone. They make you feel isolated and powerless. They can be fatal. In the case of Hurricane Maria in 2017, the effects of climate change were felt collectively. Naomi Klein’s book The Battle for Paradise describes how Puerto Ricans got organised in response to the devastation of the worst storm to ever hit the region. Klein writes of months without power and water, victims cut off from the rest of the island with roads blocked by fallen trees, people living by flashlight and dependent on FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) food aid.
“Where attention is given to human suffering, the reality is minimised”
Reading the devastation described in words alone is insufficient to understand what happened in Puerto Rico. Just as those images of flames engulfing Californian highways had such a viral impact, seeing photographs of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria takes you just a step closer to understanding the wrath that climate change is capable of inflicting. The most visceral images are those of roads not just blocked but ripped to pieces as if they were the collateral damage of a superhero movie fight scene: cars and buildings submerged by flooding, and hundreds of people sleeping in stadiums converted into emergency accommodation. In truth, this is the collateral damage of capitalism’s merciless pursuit of profit at all costs.
For many years, people in the UK have been miseducated about what climate change means. This is not to say that information about climate change is wholly inaccurate, but that it is incomplete. For example, a GCSE Geography textbook published by awarding body AQA tells a limited story of climate change. The ‘significant effects of climate change’ presented on the first page of the chapter lead with glaciers, ice caps and Arctic sea ice melting. Where attention is given to human suffering, the reality is minimised.
The textbook draws attention to small-island nations like the Maldives and Tuvalu being ‘under threat from sea level rise’ but does not elaborate on the existential nature of the threat to the people living there. In fact, the Maldives is predicted to be entirely submerged with its entire population made refugees by 2050. The textbook highlights the threat of sea levels rising by one metre by 2100 with agricultural land in Bangladesh, Vietnam, India and China most at risk. It is hard for the reader to grasp that this is not a distant threat coming at the end of the century. Extreme flooding is already devastating huge populations in these countries and beyond.
“While the ruling class have contributed the most to climate change, they generally experience its impacts the least”
The textbook draws an equivalency between ‘natural’ and ‘human’ causes of climate change. Of course, it is true that the climate changes naturally. It is also true that climate change has seriously accelerated with the onset of burning fossil fuels and the greenhouse effect. The textbook claims: ‘Many scientists believe that [the correlation between rising carbon emissions and rising global average temperatures] provides clear evidence that human activities are affecting global climates.’
A more accurate description would be that there is consensus around anthropogenic climate change across the scientific community. The BBC has been criticised for the platform it gives to climate deniers in the name of ‘balance’. This has contributed to the systematic miseducation of the British public, with climate change presented as a question of scientific contention to be debated by equally legitimate ‘experts’, rather than a scientific reality contested only by the fringe and the corrupt. Fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil have funded think tanks propagating climate denial, giving them cover to continue extracting the oil, gas and coal causing greenhouse gas emissions behind climate change. In September 2018, editorial staff at the BBC were finally told that ‘you do not need a “denier” to balance the debate’.
In the textbooks and on broadcast media, the impacts of climate change are abstracted as technical policy debates without a proportionate sense of the scale of the suffering and devastation already being endured. Both may offer a cursory acknowledgement of impacts including droughts, floods, tropical storms or lower crop yields, but it is impossible to understand what these impacts mean without their political context and without the stories of those with direct experience. To understand climate change, our stories must directly address the question of justice.
Using the framework of justice has brought environmental and climate impacts into the political realm. It recognises that while the ruling class have contributed the most to climate change, they generally experience its impacts the least. On the other hand, those who do experience climate impacts have generally done the least to contribute to it. This is the structural injustice of climate change, shaped by relations of class, colonialism and gender. The history of colonialism (the construction of Empire through the occupation and exploitation of land globally) has been one of imposing capitalism and fossil fuel extraction to profit capitalists. The creation and reproduction of this global system has left the Global South with the harshest climate impacts and insufficient resources to adapt.
“The climate crisis is the moment we find ourselves in, and our opportunity to build something new”
These harms are also gendered. 71% of people who die from climate impacts are women.This is largely due to women’s relative lack of access to the security of wealth and economic independence and relative likelihood to have caring responsibilities, reducing mobility. At the foundations of climate injustices is class. The inequitable impacts of climate change are distributed most reliably along the lines of wealth and economic power. The poorest and working-class – whether you live in California, Andhra Pradesh, Puerto Rico or anywhere else – have more in common in the face of climate change than executives of fossil fuel companies and other capitalists profiting from disaster.
The term climate crisis is used a lot, sometimes synonymously with climate change or climate injustice, but looking at the etymology of the word ‘crisis’ we see that it means turning point or decision. If climate change is the ecological process, and climate injustice brings those realities into the political realm, then the climate crisis is the moment we find ourselves in, and our opportunity to build something new.
This article is an excerpt from Chris Saltmarsh’s book ‘Burnt: Fighting For Climate Justice’. Published by Pluto Press, you can find out more about the book and how to get a copy here.
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