In 1977, scientist James Black delivered a presentation to Exxon executives called ‘the greenhouse effect’. Black gave evidence that the carbon dioxide released during the burning of fossil fuels was warming the planet. This warming, he revealed, will eventually pose a grave risk to the survival of humanity. Black suggested that humans had between five and ten years to change the way they use fossil fuels before the situation becomes critical. Exxon took this very seriously initially, spending millions on climate science. Early climate science thus was conducted by fossil fuel companies both in an effort to understand the impact of fossil fuels on the world, but also to find new drilling opportunities. By 1982 it was very clear the negative impact that the burning of fossil fuels was having on the earth. These early reports recognised the likely emergence of ‘catastrophic events’ like the melting of icecaps, and rising sea levels. The 20 companies that have been responsible for the extraction of most fossil fuels since 1965 are responsible for 35% of all energy-related emissions worldwide.
Burning fossil fuels released lots of gases into the atmosphere. These gases trapped hot air in, causing the earth’s temperature to rise. As the earth warms, ice melts, and sea levels rise. Heat is energy and energy must move, so the energy in our atmosphere moves into weather, creating storms and other extreme events. These changes have created a crisis in biodiversity as the earth reaches temperatures never before known to humans. If we do not change our systems dramatically the planet will become uninhabitable for humans and other species. This transformation must be done in a just way, so as to protect the most vulnerable communities, who have very little responsibility for global warming.
Fossil fuel companies realised that drastic measures were needed to prevent this and also realised that this would be detrimental to their business – so, they shut down their research and adopted a different strategy for dealing with the problem: obfuscation and denial of the climate science. In the same ways that cigarette companies manufactured lies in the face of evidence of their harmful health effects, the fossil fuel companies sought to manipulate the public through misinformation. In 1989, climate scientist James Hansen testified in the US senate that climate change was occurring. In response, the fossil fuel companies initiated advertising campaigns and formed seemingly independent groups (but were funded by the fossil fuel companies) to advocate against the climate science message. Through spreading misinformation, they sought to create confusion and uncertainty around the mounting scientific evidence.
At the turn of the millennium, British Petroleum hired a marketing company and began to popularise the idea of the ‘carbon footprint’. The carbon footprint refers to the amount of carbon an individual is producing over the course of a year. In doing this, BP sought to move responsibility from themselves and put it onto the consumer. When people spoke out against climate change, they were subject to character assassinations and accusations of hypocrisy. The narrative around climate change began to be portrayed as a problem we are all responsible for, rather than being seen as the result of a corrupt system that values profit over people and planet.
The exploitation of coal, gas and oil reserves has damaged the environment and communities around the world. Fossil fuel propaganda has resulted in a delayed response to this crisis, as we have lost decades during which we could have been taking important action. Those who had a large hand in creating this problem are the ones least effected by it, while those, particularly in the global south, who are least responsible are paying the largest price in terms of the climate chaos that has already arrived at their door.
Natural cycles in the warming and cooling of the earth and other events have led to five mass extinctions, the last of which occurred 65 million years ago with the end of the dinosaurs. Six million years ago, early humans emerged, with the rise in human civilisation occurring in the last 10,000 years, when we moved from hunting and gathering to farming, as humans began to transform the natural world. Around 140 years ago fossil fuels were discovered. Coal, gas and oil were formed out of ancient plant and animal matter that lay deep within the earth. These fossil fuels were extracted and used to provide energy to support human civilisations. Burning coal produced the energy that fuelled the industrial revolution as human societies moved from being largely agricultural to largely industrial. With that the population began to explode from 4 million to 7 billion people. The industrial revolution was dependent on oil and gas, which, in turn, required colonialism and slavery. Colonialism gave access to countries where oil and gas could be found while slavery helped to finance the industrial revolution. Today, marginalised communities continue to be targeted as sites of fossil fuel extraction, as pipelines are run through these communities.
Responsibility: Polluters pay!
Indigenous communities, people of colour and women are the ones on the frontlines of the climate crisis and the ones most at risk of suffering the consequences of a problem that, in large part, was not their making. The global north has created most of the carbon that has caused climate change, while it is the global south that is suffering most of the consequences. The development of the global north was made possible by digging up resources in the global south, destroying communities in the latter regions to create wealth in the former. This has contributed to climate change leaving the south to face the consequences without the resources to support their communities to face this challenge.
While there is a sense that we are all in the one boat when it comes to the climate crisis the truth is that those with the most resources will fare better than those with the least. If you live in a community that already suffers from poverty and other major adversities, your coping capacity is already at breaking point due to the stresses you are under. This vulnerability means that extreme weather events like drought, floods and hurricanes are more likely to tip you over the edge as the systems in which you are embedded are less resilient and less able to recover from these disturbances.
The climate crisis has given rise to a huge number of refugees from the global south that begin to sweep into Europe and other countries in the global north. With this comes the rise in right-wing anti-immigration leaders and parties who seek to close their doors in an effort to maintain their privilege. Climate change will continue to increase global inequality and the countries that have the capacity to help will likely turn away from those most in need. This is why it is important to address historical injustices and seek to make amends for the exploitation of poor countries by the rich. The logic of ‘the polluter pays’ is also central to climate justice. Industrialised countries, fossil fuel companies and the rich elites have created climate change through their polluting activities and therefore, they must be the ones to fund the transition to a sustainable world and repair the damage done.
Naomi Klein writes that climate change and soaring carbon emissions is rarely portrayed as being caused by the fossil fuel companies or on the economic system that demands these companies put profit before people and planet. The blame goes onto vague and ambiguous causes like a lack of political will or ambition. Fossil fuel companies are welcomed at climate summit meetings as key ‘partners’ in the search for solutions. In the early 1990’s many grassroots groups began to raise the question: Who is destroying the earth? Are we all equally to blame? Pamphlets urged people to look to the source of the problem. One read: ‘Polluters would have us believe that we are all just common travellers on spaceship earth when, in fact, a few of them are at the controls, while the rest of us are choking on their exhaust.’
This dynamic is well illustrated by the Greek myth of Phaeton, told by the poet Ovid. Phaeton travels to his father, Helios, the god who drives the sun across the sky everyday in his chariot. So happy is Helios to see his son they he promises him anything he wants. Phaeton demands that he be allowed to drive the chariot, but his father pleads with him to pick something else. Phaeton insists and his father gives in. But the young man lacks the skill to control the horses and they gallop wildly causing cosmic chaos. Eventually, they coming crashing down brining the sun crashing into the earth’s surface and causing all manner of destruction. The fossil fuel companies have been driving that chariot for years and it is now coming crashing to earth in a blaze.
Climate justice is a human-centred approach to climate change that seeks to address the many social issues that converge around the climate crisis in the attempt to create a fairer future. This approach recognises that the only way to tackle the crisis is by addressing the intersecting social issues and inequalities that underlie the cause of climate change. Climate change arose as a result of many factors including capitalism, labour exploitation, extraction of resources and the commodification of the natural world. A justice-based approach to climate change makes the claim that it is not a technical issue but one of power and politics. Climate justice views climate breakdown as a result of profit driven and growth-oriented systems of extraction, distribution and consumption. These systems sacrifice the well-being of the many and the planet for the interests of the few. Colonialism and slavery laid the foundation for the capitalist system which has been enabled by the exploitation of fossil fuels. Climate justice is thinking about root causes and the social context of climate change rather than just focusing on emissions.
The climate justice movement aims at transforming economic, social and political systems. It seeks not just to resolve the greatest ecological crisis of all time but also strives to create a new economy, system of energy, a new democracy and a new relationship to the earth and each other. It is about land, water and food sovereignty, immigration, incarceration and human rights. Climate justice is about re-building the world.
A project called ‘Framing climate justice’ describes the ‘story’ of climate justice as follows. Climate change is real and is already happening; the cause of climate change is exploitative systems like capitalism and colonialism; the changing climate increases the injustices that currently exist; those who have done the least to create climate change are the ones suffering the most from its effects; as a global community we need to take direction from those that are most effected (largely countries in the global south); and responsibility for climate change lies with systems and elites, not individuals.
The ‘Framing climate justice’ project researched the attitude of the British public towards the problem. They found that people tend to think that climate change is an unintentional problem without any ‘historical villain’. This is called ‘innocent industrialisation’ – the idea that the founders of the industrial revolution did not know the damage that the release of carbon emissions would cause and are therefore not to blame for climate change. Also, the public tended to see climate change in terms of who is emitting the carbon, rather than the product of economic and political systems. People tended then not to have a historical sense of responsibility for the deliberate social and environmental exploitation that unintentionally created climate change. Finally, the public saw human nature as the cause of climate change – the belief that we are inherently greedy and materialistic rather than this being qualities that are nurtured by the capitalist system, or a tendency largely within the power elites within that system.
Psychological roots of the climate crisis
Bertrand Russel, the philosopher, argued that most discussions of politics take insufficient account of psychology. What, then, are the psychological roots of the climate crisis?
Psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe argues that capital E ‘Exceptionalism’ lies at the root of the climate crisis. People who are caught in this mindset are ‘exceptions’ who see themselves in an idealized way; believe they should have whatever they want; dispense with moral and practical limits by ‘rearranging’ reality in their omnipotence.
Exceptionalism existed throughout human history but has triumphed in the last forty years as it emerged in neoliberal ideology. Exceptionalism is a manifestation of mind that is contrasted with more caring parts of the mind and so is an expression of ‘uncare’. It is not, argues Weintrope, what group holds power that matters, but what part of the mind is operating within that group. The narcissistic part of the self believes it is ideal, writes Weintrobe, inflating it into a ‘big I am’. It wants to be seen as special, uniquely entitled to take all that it wants. Climate change could have and should have been addressed forty years ago. This historical tragedy occurred because Exceptions who owned the oil industry have also controlled the political process and blocked the necessary change from happening.
Exceptionalism involves a controlling colonising form of entitlement that sees everything as ‘ours’ and believes that others should bend to our will. It is embedded within the Judeo-Christian view that ‘man’ holds dominion over the earth. This dangerous way of thinking gathered energy with the advent of industrialisation and colonialism. Industry saw workers and nature as ‘raw materials’ to be exploited while colonialism and slavery worked on the belief that some races and cultures were superior to others.
Both colonialism and the scientific revolution were based on the idea that the earth is controllable. Water wheels and sailing ships put limits initially on the extent to which humans steering these enterprises could exploit the earth and its inhabitants. The invention of Watt’s stream engine resolved this problem and unleashed the capacity of those leading the industrial revolution to extend this exploitation and extraction. Steam engines, powered by coal, were more reliable that natural process, deriving power from water.
Naomi Klein points out that the price of coal was always ‘sacrifice zones’ – areas where mining took place, where the water was poisoned and where workers suffered the ill effects of doing the dirty work of extraction. Coal began to liberate capitalism to exploit the earth and other cultures. The market economy and the fossil fuel economy emerged at the same time, which was, in fact no coincidence, writes Klein. The need for new markets for the mass-produced consumer goods produced by industrial factories motivated the colonial enterprise and the building of empire. Coal, colonialism and capitalism formed an unholy alliance, each facilitating each other’s destructive influence. Coal, writes Klein, seemed to free large parts of humanity from the need to be in dialogue with nature. Coal and oil were ‘possessable’ because they did not behave independently like wind, water or workers. When purchased, these fuels created power wherever the owner wanted. It was, says Klein, the ultimate non-reciprocal relationship. But, we have since learned that the ‘give and take’, ‘call and response’ that is the essence of all relationships was not eliminated but delayed when it comes to fossil fuels. The cumulative effect of centuries of burning carbon is now unleashing itself back upon us. The power relation between humans and the earth, writes Klein, is the reverse of the one we assumed for centuries. The engine enlarged the power of countries like Britain to advance the industrial revolution at home while expanding and colonising abroad. Colonial powers pillaged large parts of the world, enriching themselves, while impoverishing vast numbers in other parts of the world. These carbon-fuelled inequalities persist today. Fossil fuels destroy life in the areas where they are extracted to the seas into which the waste is poured.
Joanna Macy talks about the ‘core assumptions’ that fuel the climate crisis. These include the idea that economic growth is essential for prosperity; that nature is a commodity to be used; that consumption is good for the economy and indeed constitutes the ‘good life’; that life is about ‘getting ahead’; and that the problems of other people and the natural world are not our concern. These assumptions help form the story of ‘business as usual’.
The neoliberal mindset
To understand the climate crisis, we must understand neoliberalism, argues Weintrobe, which is largely responsible for many of the problems we face today. Neoliberalism is a deregulated form of capitalism that began to grow in the 1980’s when Reagan and Thatcher came to power. The neoliberal mindset does not see things of the world – plants, people, water – as being valuable in themselves, but only in so far as this value can be represented in monetary terms.
Neoliberalism is an ideology and a type of economics that developed in three phases. The first, known as ‘the combative phase’, saw neoliberals deregulate the markets and attack ‘cultures of care’, as Weintrobe puts it. In the 1990’s, during the ‘normalising phase’ the horizon of hope was limited to a single political-economic system that reduced all value to monetary value. The ‘punitive phase’ occurred after the 2008 crash, when austerity measures were imposed on populations that did not cause the problem.
According to neoliberal ideology, government regulation and state planning knocked the economy out of its natural rhythm – non-interference was the only way. At the extreme neoliberals were against even welfare provisions. James Buchanan, an influential neoliberal thinker, aimed to break ‘collectivist ideology’ that believed powerful corporations should be reigned in. Public choice theorists argued the public services like social security, health care and education, were failing and needed to be reformed. The ‘solution’ to this ‘problem’ was to privatise public services while trade agreements made under neoliberalism had clauses that stated that if governments pass laws that interfere with the profits of corporations they can be sued. Neoliberal ideology gradually spread infiltrating the mainstream with ideas that demonised the poor and organised workers.
Klein argues that three pillars of neoliberalism, namely, privatisation of the public sphere, de-regulation of the corporate sector and the lowering of income and corporate taxes paid for with cuts to public spending, are all incompatible with the actions we must take to bring emissions to safe levels. These three pillars form an ‘ideological wall’ that has blocked a serious response to climate change.
The ‘Framing climate justice’ project point out that the nature of the problem means that climate justice’s ‘sphere of concern’ is at a global level and we need solutions at every level in order to address this complex problem. To address the historic injustices that lie behind climate change we need to redistribute resources, decentralise power, and offer reparations to exploited communities. Change is possible and the vision is one of abundance where there is enough to go around and people and planet can thrive.
The green new deal aims to address the climate crisis while building a society in which everyone can live better lives. The deal seeks to modernise energy and decarbonise emissions by transforming housing, transport, and food systems while creating millions of green jobs. From this perspective, solving the problem of climate change needs to include dealing with gender equality, human rights, housing and racial justice. This would involve including the most marginalised in the creation of policy and recognising that everyone has a fundamental right to have access to a liveable environment.
Climate justice challenges the mainstream narrative that the way to solve the climate crisis is by changing the choices we as individuals make: our consumption habits, the energy we use and tracking our carbon footprint. We were told that flying less, buying electric cars etc. was the way to make a difference and ‘save the environment’. While these small choices are helpful and important, they do not get to the core of the issue. We need to go ‘upstream’ to the source of the problem. We need radical change at the systems level.
Systems change happens at the political level when, for example, the government stops subsidising airlines or invests in affordable public transport. Our culture’s emphasis on individuality means we often feel helpless in trying to contend with a problem as complex as climate change. But when we see ourselves as part of a collective or a member of a larger team that is working towards the same goal, it becomes much more manageable. Taking action might involve joining a community garden, or speaking to your local politician, creating art or educating people.
Naomi Klein writes that our response will require industrial planning and strong governmental action at all levels. But it will also be about dispersing power and strengthening community action. Community controlled renewable energy, ecological agriculture or transport systems that are accountable to their users are examples of the kind of innovations necessary at the community level. Klein links the current ‘gig’ economy of insecure work with the ‘dig’ economy of extraction of fossil fuels from the earth. We need to shift to a ‘care and repair’ economy where work that cares for people and planet and repairs the damage done to both is valued and prioritised over work that causes harm.
Klein writes that there needs to be a political, economic and cultural transformation if we are to survive this crisis. The question of how we shift from brown to green energy is less the issue, than the ideological and power roadblocks that prevent these solutions (that have been long understood) from happening on the scale required. The problem is less to do with the mechanics of solar power than the mechanics of human power – specifically how there can be a shift in who holds power, away from corporations and onto communities. This will depend upon the people who are currently disadvantaged by the status quo coming together and creating a determined social force that will change this balance of power. The shift also requires us to rethink the nature of human power and our assumed right to extract ever more resources from the earth and the natural world and to manipulate natural systems to suit our wants – a mindset that has been called ‘extractivism’. Climate change is a challenge and a wake-up call. The earth speaks to us in the language of fires, floods, droughts and species extinction. It is telling us that we need a new model, a new way of being on this planet.