Climate justice in an age of Trump

This is a transcript of a speech I gave at a community gathering on environmental justice held in Davis, California on the 8th January 2017.

It’s been 2 months since the election, and I think like many of you, I am still in a state of shock, anxiety, disbelief and fear. At times it leaves me feeling immobilized. What is interesting to me is that these are also many of my emotions when it comes to thinking about climate change and the unparalleled destruction of our environment that has taken place within my lifetime, which have led scientists to say we have entered a new geological age, the Anthropocene, in which humans have irreversibly changed the very chemistry and biology of the planet.


Like Trump, the growing and disturbing evidence of climate change impacts also often leaves me in a state of shock, disbelief and fear.


It might be strange to equate Trump with climate change, given that he doesn’t even believe in man-made climate change, but I think there is a useful parallel. Both are shocks to our economic and political system and both now challenge us in how we should respond. As a British climate negotiator, John Ashton said “Climate change is a mirror in which we will all come to see the best and the worst of ourselves.”


One could say the same as we hold up a mirror to Trump’s election. It leaves us fearful that we will see the worst of ourselves across this nation as a politics of hostility, racism and militarism is given unprecedented backing and legitimacy. But I am also left asking the question: could it be the jolt to the system that could bring out the best of ourselves and build the kind of inclusive movements that can both resist and build a different world? That’s certainly what I felt when I attended the last community gathering in which more than 400 people crammed the Senior Center to share their ideas, creativity and solidarity with communities targeted by hateful rhetoric.


I am sure everyone has read how Trump has already filled his cabinet with some of the worst climate deniers and most anti-environmental policy advocates possible. With the appointment of Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon, as Secretary of State we have returned very brazenly to an age run by oil barons and billionaires. And it couldn’t happen at a worse time. Four years of backtracking and reversals, the end of federal subsidies and support for renewable energy alternatives, and particularly any building of fossil-fuel based infrastructure, will lock in carbon pollution and warming. Every added molecule of carbon lasts thousands of years. These are not actions that can be simply reversed in four years time.


California will be able to forge a different path in some areas but we only make up 7% of the country’s emissions so our actions will not compensate for the rest of the US. Nor will we be immune from Trump’s decisions. His power over federal environmental protection agencies, public lands and public infrastructure give him immense destructive powers. This could play out in many ways – increased logging in national forests, rollbacks of regulations on power plant emissions, approval of chemicals and pesticides that would otherwise be refused. According to an article in the Sac Bee, this administration has the power, also to single-handedly enlarge the Shasta Reservoir, which would flood sacred sites belonging to the Winemum Wintu tribe.


It is not a coincidence that it will be an indigenous people who would be the first to suffer there. It will disproportionately be indigenous people and communities of colour who will suffer the consequences of fossil-fuel expansion as well as rollbacks of environmental regulations. And they will be at the forefront of military and police violence used to impose these projects – whether it is Standing Rock or the revival of Keystone XL pipeline. That is why I believe it was absolutely right to have the first community discussion on protecting communities under attack. People of colour and nature itself have been marked out by many in this new administration as inherently disposable, of no value, and we need to stand up against all these attacks against our fellow citizens our environment. Our struggles whether on stopping police violence or demanding an immediate low-carbon transition can not be separated.


This will also clearly play out at international levels too. It is the inherent injustice of climate change that those who will suffer the most are those who have the least responsibility for causing climate change. The US produces 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions so as we step back from any kind of climate action, we are morally responsible for the extreme weather that plays out in impoverished countries worldwide. Worse of all, under an “America-first’ frame, we are likely to see those affected, such as climate refugees, as threats rather than our victims, building more than just the US-Mexican wall to insulate ourselves.


So what do we do? I want to suggest quickly four things, which I sum up with 4 Rs – Resist/Reparations/Radical/Resilience


First resist. With Trump controlling both houses and soon the Supreme Court, it is clear that only a massive popular movement of resistance has a chance to stop Trump’s attacks on people and the environment. This will not work if we stay in our issue silos; we need to work together to build a movement of movements with a focus on protecting the most vulnerable. This does mean that as environmental activists, we may be spending as much time working on stopping attacks on immigrants as protesting climate policies. Because it is only as we stand alongside others that we can build relationships, trust and friendships and build the diverse powerful movement we need at this moment.


Second, reparations. This might sound strange at first, but within the climate justice movement there has long been an argument articulated by people in the Global South that the industrialised North owes a ‘climate debt’ to the South, due to a long history of emissions that fuelled our economic rise. We owe a climate debt to the poor that must be recognised in international negotiations both in terms of the actions the US now takes to address its emissions and the support it provides to poor countries that now face climate consequences. In the US, we have a similar historic debt, we can not ignore. This nation’s development was built on a history of genocide and systemic injustice that remains until today – and can be seen in the disproportionate levels of poverty, unemployment, imprisonment, poor health, police killings  – particularly amongst Black and indigenous populations. Until we prioritise these issues, we can not hope to build a movement of movements.


My experience in Davis is that our environmental movement, in particular, is not as diverse as could be, nor are justice and solidarity as integrated as they could be. For example, as our city moves towards community choice energy, I hear very little about how we ensure jobs go to people without employment or how we can use this moment to reduce energy bills for the poorest in our community. We wonder why our environmental movement is not more diverse but are we there protesting deportation, house repossession, police profiling? Nor do we critically examine our privilege – either individually or collectively – I as white, able-bodied, university-educated, middle-class male (and what’s more with a British accent too!) have massive advantages in how I speak, organize, influence and can easily be blind to the very different experiences many others in Davis and nearby have. If we are privileged, how can we use that as medicine rather than poison in our movements?


Third radical – which means in Latin go to the roots. At a deep, radical level, whoever had won in the last election would have perpetuated an economic and political system that is deeply flawed. We already overuse natural resources and have fossil fuel and extractive industries dominating our politics. We are wedded to an economic system, capitalism, whose DNA demands growth that is unsustainable for a liveable planet. We accept far too many people as ‘disposable’ whether they are ‘collateral’ in a drone strike or refugees crossing the Mediterranean. And to enforce this requires more militarism than we ever admit – the US has thousands of military bases worldwide and an expenditure bigger than the next 10 nations in the world all to protect an economic model that has has failed to bring well-being to all.


This would have been the case whether we had Clinton or Trump. I believe we are not facing a climate  crisis but a civilisational crisis – where our mode of living is trashing a planet and disposing of too many human lives – and no leader in the last election was willing to seriously address this. Perhaps the only difference is that Trump represents the most crude and toxic version of this system, but that is also our chance to expose the systemic problems we face as this deeper civilisational crisis can no longer be shoved under the carpet.


Fourth, resilience. I think one thing Trump’s election has shown is that progressive forces need to do more than just oppose and protest. We need to articulate and show convincing alternatives that reflect the values we believe in and the world we want to see. We also need to build the sort of community that can be resilient to both climate change and properly addresses people’s frustrations, anger and alienation that led so many fellow Americans to see Trump as a solution. We have a good chance to do that in Davis – implementing a plan for a zero-carbon city, integrating social justice and strengthening community bonds. But true resilience can’t be built in a bubble. We could do a lot more to work with communities – with far less resources near to us – as well as demonstrate the the kind of international solidarity that climate justice demands.


A few days before Trump’s inauguration, we will mark Martin Luther King day. In a speech a year before his assassination, he explained why you could not separate the struggles for civil rights from the movement against war in Vietnam or the fight against corporate greed and economic inequality. In words that could have been said today, he said: “The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. And history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.” He urged instead a “radical revolution of values” calling on the US to move from “a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society”. I think his words today couldn’t be more relevant. And I am remain deeply hopeful that we can build that world based on these universal values, because when we hold up a mirror to Trump and climate change, we will realise there is only one choice to the crises we face as a nation and a world – and it is based on love and solidarity rather than fear and hate.


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