I’ve long known that climate change is not a single-issue issue. It interconnects with and threads between many different spheres, such as the environment, the economy, science, development, gender issues, sociology, politics, policy, engineering, human rights, indigenous rights, intellectual property, and public health. But being here in Lima has brought home to me, yet again, in a very concrete way, that climate change is about, perhaps more than anything else, class, equity and poverty.
More about class later. Right now I want to introduce right now the related concept of kyriarchy. First introduced by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, in essence this is the idea that there are separate but interlocking and interacting systems of oppression, including those based on gender, race, ableism, sexuality, class, education, and, yes, how one is affected by climate change. A person may be privileged in some systems and oppressed in others. Just as the struggles of a white upper middle class gay woman are different to those of a minority ethnicity man living in poverty, the challenges faced by a black man living in North America are not comparable with those of a black woman living in sub-Saharan Africa, the Philippines, or other areas which face severe climate impacts now and into the future. Although the concept of kyriarchy is well known, oppression based on climate change never seems to be expressly included in it, and I think it should be.
Last year I wrote about how underlying power dynamics and class issues play out in a very real and perceivable procedural way in the negotiations. That is no less true this year. This time I want to write about how those dynamics interplay with the actual issues at stake in the talks, and about how our social movements should and must react. A foundation of the UNFCCC agreement is the concept of “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities”, which is the idea that countries should contribute, in terms of emissions cuts and finance, in a way that is proportionate to both their responsibility for the problem, and their capacity to help fix it. Implicit in it is the idea of historic responsibility, which is how much carbon each country has emitted throughout history. Sounds simple, right? But the debate over what, precisely, these seven words mean has spanned twenty years and counting.
At the core of the equity issue is that those countries that have contributed least to the problem are most often the ones that will be most affected by it yet have the least capacity to adapt. The way climate change will affect those living in the slums of Mumbai or on farms in Nicaragua vastly differs from how it will impact those living in suburban New Zealand or Norway, yet it is the latter countries who have contributed more to the problem and have benefited from burning fossil fuels . A key component of the Kyoto Protocol was the division of countries into Annex I and non-Annex I countries – meaning that only developed countries had to take binding emissions cuts. There will be no such stark dichotomy in the new agreement, which countries have already agreed must be “applicable to all”. But it’s not clear yet how contributions will be determined: the corporate-driven governments of the global North want to be free to contribute however much or little they want, whereas developing countries are keen for some sort of review system that links contributions to historic responsibility and capacity. It is an unfortunate fact that developed countries have become rich from their emissions, whereas developing countries cannot afford to make as great a contribution. People living in poverty cannot afford to do anything, let alone cut their meagre emissions. Similarly, you cannot fix climate change by telling already poor pensioners to turn off their heaters for an extra hour each day, or telling working-class Britons to cycle an hour or more to work. Class cannot be separated from climate.
The issues of finance, adaptation, technology transfer and loss and damage are also critical here. Developed countries want the new agreement to include only mitigation, and not these other subjects. However, developing countries argue than in order to mitigate, finance is required, and because climate change impacts are already being felt by developing countries who do not have the capacity to adapt by themselves, developed countries need to help with adaptation and loss and damage. Technology transfer, in addition, is necessary to help developing countries develop in a low carbon way without being trapped in poverty; it would be immensely unfair if ceasing emissions meant that developing countries were locked into their situations forever. As such, it’s clear that it would be a great injustice if adaptation, loss and damage, technology transfer and finance were not included in the new agreement. The intersectionality of climate issues cannot be ignored. Class cannot be separated from climate.
Some “solutions” to climate change are similarly fraught with oppression. Mega-dams in Uganda have displaced hundreds of thousands. Biofuels replace the forests of indigenous peoples. Carbon markets have been proven to immensely benefit traders while having little to no impact on climate change.(reference needed’- eu bank report) REDD+, or reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, is a controversial mechanism which is based on the premise that those in the global South should be rewarded for keeping their forests rather than cutting them down. However, REDD+ more often than not acts to displace communities and violate rights. All of these so-called “solutions” disproportionately affect those in the global South.
Now, to turn to the movement. Audre Lorde said that there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not lead single-issue lives. In a similar vein, Chimamanda Adichie reminds us of the danger of telling a single story. This is never more true than in the climate movement. Fracking debates are as much about health as they are about environment. Coal mining struggles can be about health, environment, labour, or indigenous rights. The plight of indigenous peoples living in the Amazon is complex and multifaceted. The climate movements, working alone, cannot adequately address these problems.
Our collective movements – environmental movements, food movements, labour movements, indigenous movements, class movements, gender movements – must link together if we are to have a good chance in this fight, if we are to tackle kyriarchy. Someone in a talk I attended at the Cumbre de Los Pueblos today said (and I agree) that the left is a lot more fractured than the right. The right is a lot more united, in part because they are better at compromise – they are satisfied if only half of their requirements are met in any coalition agreement, whereas left-leaning groups are often more particular about the details and find it harder to compromise. We need to negotiate our differences, now more than ever in the lead up to Paris, and respect the people who work on different levels so we don’t end up undermining each other. This is particularly so in the climate movement, because it is not a single-issue issue.
Personally, Lima has confirmed my affiliation with the ‘climate justice’ movements. I do not think that climate can be looked at in isolation from other issues and systemic problems. “Cambiemos el sistema, no el clima,” as they say here in Peru. I’m sure my thinking will continue to evolve as I attend the Cumbre for the remainder of this week. Adios for now!