AnalysisClimate Crisis

Climate apartheid: Differential impacts in the age of imperialism

This article is based on a talk given at the August 24 “Eco-Socialism Conference: For the Planet to Live, Capitalism must End,” hosted and organized by the Albuquerque branch of the PSL.

On June 25, the United Nations released a report by poverty expert Philip Alston titled, “Climate Change and Poverty.” The report states that under the so-called “best-case scenario” of a one-and-a-half degree rise in global temperatures, hundreds of millions of people will face food insecurity, forced migration, disease and death. The report also raises the specter of “climate apartheid,” described as a hypothetical future scenario where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.

In fact, there is nothing hypothetical or futuristic about this scenario. The signs of climate apartheid are already showing.

The Marshall Islands, a virtual colony of the United States since 1944, are drowning. Three-foot waves are washing away their seawalls and flooding their homes. Drought has left thousands of people with less than a liter of water to drink per day. This small nation − which already suffers so much from the radioactive fallout of U.S. nuclear weapons testing − will literally face extinction if global temperatures rise above 1.5 °C.

In Nigeria, currently ranked the 4th most climate-change vulnerable country, heavy rainfall caused by global warming is wreaking havoc on the nation’s large coastal city, Lagos. Flooding is now a costly annual experience, submerging cars and homes, forcing waste out into the streets, and killing dozens of people every year.

Here in the U.S. Southwest, Indigenous people more than any other group are battling the effects of more frequent wildfires and drought. On the Navajo Nation, wells have run dry and reduced drinking water supplies, causing many losses of crops and livestock which are needed for agricultural, medicinal and cultural uses.

There is no doubt about it. Climate change is hitting oppressed nations, and working class and poor people the hardest. Even the imperialist World Bank openly projects that 75-80 percent of the costs of climate change will be borne by economically developing countries.

This situation is even more outrageous when you connect it to the fact that these countries are the least responsible for climate change. The poorest half of the world’s population − three billion people – live in countries and territories that produce just 10 percent of global emissions. Even this is an inflated figure when we account for the fact that a substantial part of those emissions are produced by multinational corporations owned by capitalists that hail from Western imperialist states. Meanwhile, the wealthiest ten percent of the world’s population is responsible for over half of global emissions. A person in the wealthiest one percent uses 175 times more carbon than a person in the bottom 10 percent!

The United States, which makes up only 4 percent of the world’s population is responsible for 27 percent of total carbon emissions since 1850, and it show no sign of slowing down! Even though climate scientists and activists have been speaking out for decades about the need to reign in this country’s absurd energy usage, U.S. energy consumption hit a record high last year. Greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise.

Climate change is a class war. Not all humans are equally responsible for climate change. The miniscule ruling class of capitalist owners are the real planners of the capitalist economy that is destroying the planet. The vast majority of the world’s people are compelled to operate within the framework established by capitalist profit-seekers, even as it endangers all life on the planet.

A global situation is now developing where the capitalist elites steal and hoard, not only all the wealth but the very means of survival, which they will attempt to use as a shield to survive the effects caused by their own endless profiteering.

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, leaving millions of people without access to electricity or healthcare, the Goldman Sachs headquarters was protected by tens of thousands of sandbags and continued to hum with energy supplied from a private generator. Meanwhile, Rikers Island prison located in the middle of a river was not included the evacuation plan for Hurricane Sandy, abounding 12,000 caged people to their fates.

When the wildfires in California last year destroyed 18,000 structures and killed 103 people, private white-glove firefighters were contracted by the wealthy to save the mansions of high-end insurance customers.

There are even companies out there marketing underground, concrete-encased luxury housing to wealthy customers who want to maintain a certain standard of living after the coming climate apocalypse.

Climate change is producing a type of climate apartheid between rich and poor nations, and between the rich and working-class majority within all capitalist societies. It is the direct and inevitable result of a global capitalist system based on endless profit for a tiny few. If capitalism is the order of the day, we can expect that natural disasters will worsen, that the working class and poor will suffer most, and that the rich will use their mountains of money to shield themselves.

But, contrary to what the World Bank may say, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Our class, the working class, makes the world run. We grow all the food, we drive the trucks, we teach children and care for the sick. Nothing in this world happens without our work. We’re even the ones building those luxury bunkers!

We do all of the mining, manufacturing, energy production, transporting, farming, construction − the capitalists don’t lift a finger to do that.

We do the work. But we don’t get to choose the work. Those decisions are made undemocratically by the capitalist class, for the purpose of profit, not for meeting the needs of the vast majority.

If we want to do the work that meets our needs and the needs of our planet − things like farming organically, installing solar panels, or restoring ecosystems − that means fighting for a new political reality where working people, as a class, are making decisions. Not the millionaires and billionaires out there prepping for doomsday. That means taking power from the millionaires and billionaires and putting it into the hands of the working class.

It means revolution − the biggest and most complicated task possible. It’s a task that seems impossible. But as Nelson Mandela said about the historic struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, “It always seems impossible until it is done.”


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