Rearranging the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic is the work of the career politician. Their other work is to listen to lobby groups and bend economic policy to suit the needs of vested interests. By doing this politician’s gift economic power to the corporates who pollute our environment the most. This then creates a negative feedback loop which makes taking meaningful action on climate change nearly impossible.
So whilst the icebergs continue to melt, how do we begin a different conversation that allows us to take proper action on the biggest issue that confronts us all?
Campaigner and author of The Memory We Could Be, Daniel Macmillan Voskoboynik and Executive Director of War on Want, Asad Rehman, joined Renegade Inc. to discuss how the biggest crisis facing humanity can be averted.
The debates around climate change have been largely framed by powerful Western interests – policy makers, NGOs and scientists – the groups in the room making the decisions. The intention appears to be to encourage a sense of powerlessness in the wider population. Asad Rehman says that these groups “talk about climate change in a very very technical way.”
Thus, from the perspective of the public, the debates around climate change are configured as rational ones in which everybody is categorized as an equal stakeholder with common goals to solving the problems at hand. However, the solutions, as Rehman acknowledges, fail to take into account the extremely powerful vested interests whose financial bottom line would be threatened in the event of the said problems being solved.
Confronting climate change in a serious way, in other words, undermines profits and threatens the structures of the economy. “It’s interesting when you speak to people about climate change one of the first images that comes into their heads is the polar bear on the iceberg and that was a calculated decision to choose the polar bear on the iceberg”, says Rehman.
Rehman argues that the key reason why the powerful focus on polar bear iconography rather than, for example, the positive impact of renewables, is related to demands set by the environmental groups who are first at the table. The polar bear iconography is their comfort form of campaigning with marketing decisions made on that basis: “They’d run campaigns around whales and they know that it touches the heartstrings of people in the global north”, says Rehman.
That the ozone layer was tackled but there is no concomitant rush to tackle climate change, is evidence that the economic bottom line is the key driver in relation to the latter. Rehman refers to the historical timeline to illustrate his point:
“How do we make sense of the fact that the first climate campaign started happening in the mid 70s?”, he says, adding: “We’re now nearly 50 years on and each year we get more and more warning bells that we’re on the edge of the precipice so why haven’t governments acted?”
Daniel Macmillan Voskoboynik argues that the key cause is the underestimation of the crisis underpinned by the rise of the oil industry:
“This is the most powerful and wealthiest industry in history”, he says, adding, “We have a model where countries have gained huge amounts of political and economic power through pollution. So as the issue of carbon pollution comes up we have to understand what huge amounts of power have been built off the back of the pollution. Tackling the climate crisis is tackling essentially the enormous powerful forces at bay”, he says.
“Instead of these industries being part of trying to respond rationally to the evidence, they have realized from very early on….the risks climate change…posed to their business in terms of rising sea levels affecting sea platforms, for example. They have spent millions funding climate denial, delaying a response and blocking any kind of climate action. Moreover, they have been doing their utmost to ensure that the conversation on climate change remains highly technical, highly depoliticized and highly light. So I think we also have to understand that we’re facing up to an economic model that is deeply ingrained”,
“We’re locked into a pathway that has been cemented through huge amounts of political lobbying. When we’re talking right now in 2019 about facing up to the climate crisis these people have invested huge amounts of money in ensuring that the continuation of the status quo. If you look at the major airline companies, the new planes they’re buying have a lifespan of 50 years. We’re talking about getting up to zero emissions worldwide within five to 10 years. There’s enormous amounts of infrastructure that has been put in place for the last 100 years to ensure that… this extractive model continues for a long time. And so once countries such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United States have gained huge amounts of political wealth and capital to maintain control over the energy system, any attempt in the climate negotiations to democratize the geopolitical and energy system is going to be met with huge resistance.”
Voskoboynik doesn’t appear to be particularly convinced;
“It’s just enough to look at the news for a little second to see that climate violence is devastating communities around the world… that are completely marginalized from the media. Communities in the Global South don’t have any protagonist in the conversation of climate change. But one point five degrees is seen as almost a tipping point. Beyond one point five degrees we start to see feedback mechanisms that mean the climate system essentially moves beyond our control. At one point five degrees and beyond spells devastation for the majority of the world’s coastal communities, eradication for huge amounts of nations and horrific impacts that are going to burden the most marginalized peoples in the world.”
“If one point five is this kind of devastating ‘no go zone’, current estimates show that we’re pretty much heading – at the most conservative estimate – to about three point four degrees. If the earth’s feedback mechanisms get out of control, we’re looking towards a 7 degree/8 degree/9 degree world which surpasses the depths of our human vocabulary or even imagination of what could be there. And the reality is climate violence is not so much this threat on the horizon, but an injustice multiplier that amplifies all the existing deprivations in society. So what we’re seeing already is a future where the atmospheric violence that we have unleashed exacerbates and augments all the other existing inequalities and deprivations – hunger, displacement, water stress, inequality, issues of oppression.”
The technical issues that surround climate change are arguably the greatest factor that prevents people recognising the need to focus on the broader, systemic issues. The kind of public apathy this engenders is destructive in two ways – it encourages apathy and cynicism but is also misleads people into believing that they are equally to blame for climate change as the corporations.
“One core myth is that we’re all responsible for climate change”, says Voskoboynik, who also makes the point that, historically, it is the most overdeveloped countries containing 10 per cent of the worlds population who have been responsible for 50 percent of emissions.
“The vast majority of human communities over history have borne incredibly cohesive and coexisting relationships with nature. Many of the world’s richest and most biodiverse ecosystems have been inhabited by human beings for millennia, that human beings have enhanced those ecosystems.”
In other words, human nature is best understood, not as a separate entity from the rest of nature, but a holistic part of it that enhances and thrives within it as a mutually reinforcing ecosystem. “If everyone is to blame, then we have to focus on who seems to be emitting the most. What matters is not the person but the density and the amount of consumption”, says Voskoboynik.
Asad Rehman views climate change to the analogy of the Titanic:
“We’re all on the Titanic, it hits the iceberg and you know it’s sinking so we must do something. Well actually that’s not quite true. We are all on the Titanic but actually on the deck of the Titanic are still the rich and the elite and they’re still sipping cocktails, still listening to the orchestra and they think there’s gonna be some technological miracle that’s going to come rescue them. But the people in the hold – the poorest in the world are already drowning. For them, climate change is not something that’s going to happen in your children or your grandchildren’s lifetime, it’s actually happening right now.”
Rehman alludes to the problem posed by short-termism:
“When you say to people this is a huge issue and then you say but you do it for your grandchildren, you’re immediately saying actually we don’t have to really address this issue because it’s something we can kick down the line. If it’s that serious then by that time government and some scientists will have found a solution”, he says.
In other words, the technical and ethical choices people make as consumers is deemed by them to be a sufficient corrective to climate chaos in countries not immediately affected by it. Moreover, these kinds of ethical consumer choices are encouraged by corporations in their advertising campaigns. In this way, they are able to create a clean and green image for themselves whilst simultaneously creating the illusion that they are combating climate change in any meaningful way. The process also, in turn, helps prevent media scrutiny of unscrupulous corporate practices. This is the very meaning of greenwashing.
Underlying the greenwashing tactics of the corporations which are designed to kick the problem down the line, are the systemic issues. The root causes of climate change run deeper than the choices consumers make. What is required, as Rehman acknowledges, is a more visionary approach:
“People have often talked about the problem but have not tended to talk about what the solution or the vision is. We should have been talking about the fact that tackling climate change creates a better, more fairer, more equal, safer, and happier world. When we talk about climate change what is it we actually mean? It really means changing the way we produce and consume energy, changing the way we produce and consume our food. Moreover, if you want to stop deforestation we know exactly what to do – give land rights to indigenous people living in those ecosystems. They are the best guardians. If you do those three things you’ll transform economies.”
Rehman notes that the climate crisis has been compounded by neoliberalism:
“The problem with the climate crisis was it came at the very moment of the rise of neoliberalism which said that the only solution was an economic model which claimed that our economic betterment was due to the corporations. The state was encouraged to retreat the very moment they needed to come together to regulate. However, the push was to deregulate. The moment you needed more controls on corporations we gave corporations the green light to be able to move all around the world and basically put profit before people, planet and everything. And so that convergence of those two things led us to exactly where we are.”
A core reason why there has been a lack of real urgency to tackle the issues around climate change, is arguably, in part, due to the inability of the public to make the kind of connections outlined above. Daniel Macmillan Voskoboynik describes this as an all-pervasive “ecological illiteracy” which he has attempted to redress in his book, ‘The Memory We Could Be’:
“The book was an attempt to put together lots of voices – mainly from the Global South – who joined those dots in interesting ways but it also talks very clearly about solutions and about the possibilities that arise when you put on the glasses of ecology – which is the glasses of connection, the glasses of seeing intersections and interactions”, says Voskoboynik, who adds:
“We can see that not only does the climate crisis offer us an enormous opportunity to change the world for the better, but the solutions are in the same place, the solutions to our mental health crisis, to our economic crisis, to our crisis of inequality. All these can be joined together in ways that bring well-being to everyone and restore a world in face of the climate crisis.”
What the recognition of all these connections illustrates, is the fact that tied into the climate crisis equation is the historical context relating to empire, imperialism, exploitation and rent seeking. All these issues have to be factored in to enable a proper understanding of where we are today.
Asad Rehman concurs:
“When we looked through history and we see that there was an economic argument for enslaving people in the world and having the slave trade – which countries in the Global North profited hugely from – when we look at towns and cities in, for example the UK, that wealth has been built on the wealth of slavery. Then we had colonialism where the British occupied a third of the world. When the British arrived in India, India’s global GDP was about 23 per cent. When they left it was less than 2 per cent. They took 53 trillion dollars out of India in wealth extraction.”
India’s resistance to this wealth extraction of its resources was met with the full force of imperial power. The ‘crimes’ of the nations of the Global South, in general, is their desire for a better life for its people’s and the withdrawal of Western multinationals.
“But instead”, says Rehman, “we saw the democratic governments in Iran overthrown. Why? To enable the West to have access to the oil. The democratically elected leader of Congo was killed on the orders of the Belgium and American governments. Why? Because the West wanted access to the natural resources of Congo. Arbenz in Guatemala, Suharto in Indonesia – you see the same pattern emerge – the fingerprints of the Global North wanting the extraction of wealth of the Global South. Climate is simply the latest episode in that.” Rehman adds, “Where before it was violence – in terms of occupation – now it’s violence of our multinationals.”
Arguably, the latest manifestation of this form of violence can be seen from the early 1980s onwards with respect to the neoliberal debt bubble, the beneficiaries of which have managed to largely insulate themselves from the climate chaos. In this sense, “the neoliberal economic model – particularly in the Global North – has had an alienating impact on society which in turn has a knock-on effect in terms of manufacturing output. All of these things are interconnected.
The other side of the coin has been the dominance of the service sector of the economy. Rehman posits that this reflects badly on our sense of self worth. The emphasis, he says, becomes increasingly “about how much we consume, what we consume and when we consume.” Rehman adds, “I would much prefer to step back and say we’re looking at a crisis of justice, a crisis of solidarity and that’s what we have. And the solutions and how we see the interconnections between the economy and the environment and people, needs to be seen together. That’s why in the Global South people talk about, and are involved in, justice movements. They don’t say I’m involved with an environmental organization, a poverty organization or something else, they say we are the same movement that’s working around land rights here, around poverty here and around the climate crisis. Until you have that holistic approach, we’re not going to be able to move forward.”
The problems outlined are clearly complex in nature. Rehman argues that the role for activists as we move forward is to take that complexity and simplify it in a way that connects with people’s lives like clean air and good jobs. “There is a way for us to deconstruct those in ways that are not about the environmental, but are actually people centered so that the ordinary person on the street can connect with them and actually begin to see the vision that you’re putting forward”, says Rehman.
But that presents its own set of problems:
“The environmental movement basically had a strategy of one elite talks to another elite about a problem and then the elite acts rationally”, says Rehman, who argues that the only way to overcome this, is “to appeal to people and say, ‘We collectively can have a better vision of the world’.
At the moment, though:
“We’re at a crossroads where all of these crises are bubbled up and there is one set of people saying the answer is walls and fences and blaming the other. And that’s right wing authoritarian populism. Then there’s us. We haven’t got our act together to actually provide a compelling vision that brings those people over with us and actually builds a powerful enough movement that says, ‘Move over political leaders, we’re throwing up new people’.
There is, however, incredible hope because “not only in the global South but in the global North as well, local communities are standing up.”
“You have to start from where people are”, says Daniel Macmillan Voskoboynik:
“We have a crisis of deep economic precarity with people struggling to live. We have to have an economy which considers that. You know a crisis of health, mental health and public, physical health that are fundamentally connected. We have a crisis where we have multiple poverties across the South, you have poverties of time, we have poveries of energy, we have poverties of healthy and nutritious food. So what we could start with is coming up with one of the key… three or four demands and economic proposals and come together among different movements to try and join the dots and build that vision. We have to bust the silos by actually bringing together the various movements that do exist, braid together a common vision and then work on that on the multiple levels. We have community levels, domestic levels and global levels. There are obviously – in terms of the climate crisis – two key pillars of things that need to happen. We have to boldly tackle emissions and boldly tackle the injustices and absences of adaptation that leave us vulnerable. So that has to be core in any proposal.”
Voskoboynik adds some words of caution:
“But together with that we have to realize that even to speak to environmentalists, if you’re concerned about climate change when any flood or disaster hits the people that are most affected are those people that have poor sanitation, people whose houses are built of precarious materials, people who lack access to communications/infrastructure that can warn them of the flood. It’s primarily the most marginalized communities and elderly people. So if you’re concerned about climate impact per se you have to be concerned about marginalized communities and about inequality and exclusion.”
Asad Rehman concurs:
“We should be talking about everybody in the world has a right to a dignified life. That should be our vision and we should say, ‘What does that mean?’ It should mean that everybody has a right to a living wage. That means you should have enough money to be able to have a good house, to be able to send your children to school, to be able to look after your health care. It also means that energy – the fundamental core which decides everything – should be owned by us as people, communities, not by private corporations making trillions in profits. Energy is a public good, it’s the only way to bring renewable, community owned renewable energy. We should say, ‘Everybody has a right to food’. We should also change the food system by taking out the agribusiness. Adopting these solutions would transform the lives of half the world’s population.”
“All of us have a role we should embrace”, says Voskoboynik. “We have an opportunity not only as individuals, but also as individuals that are participants in society and participants in communities to contribute to trying to tilt the spinning top of the world in a better direction.”
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