Why does environmental activism not register frontally either locally or globally? The politics of climate change
On October 10, 2013, the news agency IPS put out a story sensationally titled The Climate Plague which it described as “a shift to an entirely new climate where the lowest monthly temperatures will be hotter than those in the past 150 years. The shift is already underway due to massive emissions of heat-trapping carbon from burning oil, gas and coal.”
According to the article:
A climate plague affecting every living thing will likely start in 2020 in southern Indonesia, scientists warned Wednesday in the journal Nature. A few years later the plague will have spread throughout the world’s tropical regions.
By mid-century no place on the planet will be unaffected, said the authors of the landmark study.
“We don’t know what the impacts will be. If someone is about to fall off a three-storey building you can’t predict their exact injuries but you know there will be injuries,” said Camilo Mora, an ecologist at University of Hawai‘i in Honolulu and lead author.
Mora goes on to use Jamaica as an example of the kind of change we can expect:
“Within my generation, whatever climate we were used to will be a thing of the past,” he said.
In less than 10 years, a country like Jamaica will look much like it always has but it will not be the same country. Jamaicans and every living thing on the island and in its coastal waters will be experiencing a new, hotter climate – hotter on average than the previous 150 years.
The story hit the Jamaican public sphere a few days later in the form of a wire article in the country’s leading newspaper, The Gleaner, but barely attracted any notice. The Hill 60 Bump blog lamented that there seemed little reaction to the alarming news either in Jamaica or other tropical countries also slated to face steeply rising temperatures:
‘Temperatures Rising: Jamaica To Face Extreme Heat in 10 Years’ – Perhaps this headline was not sensational enough, the text too scientific or there were just too many other news items but for some reason, this article in the Jamaica Gleaner a few days ago seems to have received little attention. We spotted brief discussion on twitter about whether or not this would be good for solar power and a single query about roof insulation but in general, minimal hysteria. The lack of public response seems strange as our immediate thoughts ranged from recollections of the drought of 2009 all the way to Armageddon type blockbuster film scenarios. Online searches returned a myriad of global articles on the matter but little in from the news desks of the tropical countries now considered to be on the climate front line.
It’s an uncomfortable fact that for countries such as Jamaica, India and others in the ‘developing’ world environmental concerns have remained a preoccupation of the elite, those well off enough we think, to worry about changing weather patterns, global warming and the like, in the face of more urgent local problems such as unemployment, hunger and homelessness.
The truth however is otherwise. “People don’t realize that events that seemingly have no connection to activities like drilling the Arctic for oil are actually intimately linked in an interdependent chain of violence and destruction,” says Kumi Naidoo, the outspoken head of Greenpeace International. In a recent interview with US TV journalist Bill Moyers, Naidoo elaborated on this:
Take the genocide in Darfur for instance, in Sudan, the media largely reported it as an ethnic quasi-religious sort of conflict and so on. But, that is your first major resource war brought about by climate impacts because Darfur neighbours Lake Chad. Lake Chad used to be one of the largest inland seas in the world. And the climate scientists warned us decades ago that, as a result of a warming planet, Lake Chad was under risk.
Lake Chad has now shrunk to a size of a pond as the current secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon put it recently. So water scarcity, land scarcity and food scarcity as a result of an absence of water and land was the toxic mix that created conditions for identity manipulation by opportunistic politicians that saw the horrific events in Darfur happen.
In three days it will be a month since 30 Greenpeace activists were intercepted by Russian forces during an act of non-violent civil disobedience in which they mounted a peaceful protest against drilling in the Arctic, a region Naidoo refers to as the “refrigerator and air conditioner of the planet”. According to news reports some of the environmental group’s activists scaled the rig, operated by Russian state energy giant Gazprom. The Greenpeace crew were protesting Russia’s plans to drill for fossil fuels in the fragile ecology of the Arctic. The ship was towed to Russia’s Arctic port of Murmansk and the activists bused to the local headquarters of Russia’s Investigative Committee. Despite the fact that the activists posed no threat to property or to people, Russian authorities have imprisoned the 30 citizens from 18 different countries, pending trials which could see some of them receiving up to 15 years in prison.
Marco Weber, one of the detainees, whose first language is not English, has written a letter describing the conditions of his detention and pleading for help from the ‘global public’.:
“I am now for about 12 days alone in a cell. I don’t have books, newspaper, TV or someone to talk to. At the daily walk I am also isolated. The 4×5 metre “walkyard” is surrounded by concrete walls and covered with iron bars. On top is a roof, which doesn’t allow the sunshine in.
“The only sky I can see is out of my cell window, which is placed in the northern wall of the building. This means no sun at all. Days are long! The highlights are weekly visits of my lawyer and consul. And yesterday I got the first bunch of email from the outside! Yehaa…
“The aggressive and unfair acting of the Russian government and Gazprom shows how important it is, that decisions about Arctic and its future are made by global public. And not by states and companies which are blinded by its resources and short term profits.”
What worries me is that the world seems to be paying as little heed to the dangerous drama playing out in Russia and the Arctic as Jamaicans are to the news of their impending descent into a tropical inferno as soon as 2023. Will anyone pay money to visit this tourist haven then, as they do now, just barely keeping this fragile Caribbean economy afloat?
Can those of us from poorer economies afford to avert our eyes from the environmental catastrophes looming on our doorsteps? Can we afford to withhold our activism leaving it to white people and isolated elites around the globe to save this planet from ourselves? What is most disturbing is the precedent this will set and the chilling effect on any kind of activism anywhere if the Greenpeace 30 receive jail sentences. Are we being told that we can’t hold peaceful protests anymore? Is civil disobedience, that cornerstone of democratic liberalism, no longer recognized or allowed? Is the concept of protest being criminalized?
If there’s any danger of this we ought to organize a day of collective protest globally in tribute to the Arctic 30, because their actions symbolize the freedom to register dissent, to draw attention to public bads, to demand our right not to comply with rapacious processes in the name of ‘development’. Unlike the localized protests we’ve seen spreading all over the world from Egypt to Turkey to the USA to Libya, environmental protests such as the one mounted by Greenpeace against oil drilling in the Arctic call on us to respond as concerned citizens of the globe. This is not just about our neck of the woods, it’s about the world we live in and all the creatures in it. Are we going to sit by and allow rich corporations to loot it into oblivion? Shouldn’t we too be willing to risk our lives to safeguard the planet for our grandchildren?