Power beyond borders

The climate crisis is the greatest act of systemic racism in human history, argues Cameron Joshi

July 7, 2019 · 6 min read
Storm damage in the Philippines, after Typhoon Ondoy caused heavy flooding in Marikina City, Manila, in 2009. Since then, an average of 21 million people a year have been displaced by extreme weather-related disasters. Photo: Greenpeace / Gigie Cruz-Sy

The ice caps are melting, temperatures are rising and wildlife is being eradicated at an alarming pace. Ever larger swathes of the earth are desertified and ever larger areas of biodiversity turned into wasteland. Vertebrate wild animal populations have declined by an average of 60 per cent in 40 years, according to the WWF’s Living Planet Index, and the number of climate-related natural disasters requiring UN World Food Programme intervention has quadrupled over the same period.

Yet we show no signs of stopping. Still we burn more fossil fuels, extract more minerals and metals, cut down more forest and farm more intensively than at any time in history.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have barely a decade to cut our emissions and reverse these trends to avert the risk of runaway climate breakdown. This is serious – and urgent.

First and worst

Those living in the global south, or among the working and precarious classes of the north, suffer first and worst from the climate crisis. Most of them are black or brown, and most of them are women. The greatest emitters and most prolific consumers live in the global north.

Large tracts of the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa are expected to become too hot for human habitation over the next few decades. Many low-lying coastal areas and islands, including many areas of dense population, are likely to be lost to the sea. Bangladesh, with its population of 165 million, will be particularly hard hit, with an estimated 27 million people at risk from sea level rises by 2050, according to the IPCC. Tens of thousands have already been forced to move.

The climate crisis is the greatest act of systemic racism in human history, with corporate power right at the centre.

We’re not just talking about the fossil fuel industry – the most profitable in history – but the large and powerful corporations extracting the earth’s natural resources. Their vast extractive projects are responsible for 50 per cent of carbon emissions and an overwhelming 80 per cent of biodiversity loss. Their tax avoidance and profit shifting has looted billions from the global south.

Illicit financial flows lost Africa at least $1.2–1.4 trillion from 1980 to 2009, according to the African Development Bank, with more than $30 billion a year leaving the continent by the end of that period – three times what it received in development aid. Worldwide, developing countries have experienced a net outflow of more than $16 trillion on trade, debt repayments and other financial flows to the rest of the world since 1980.

Real violence

This system is accompanied by real violence. More than 200 land and environmental defenders were killed worldwide in 2017, mainly in the south, according to monitoring by the Guardian in collaboration with Global Witness. The number of killings has almost doubled since 2014.

One of the best-known victims was the Honduran indigenous activist, Berta Cáceres, after whom the pink boat at the centre of the recent Extinction Rebellion protests in London was named. She was assassinated in her home in 2016 for her activism on a range of environmental and human rights issues, including a grassroots campaign that successfully pressured the world’s largest dam builder, Sinohydro, to pull out of a hydro-electric dam construction project on the Rio Gualcarque.

In the global north, too, black and brown people bear the brunt of climate-related problems and corporate extractivism. Black British people are 28 per cent more likely to be exposed to air pollution than their white counterparts, according to a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs impact assessment. In the US, a 2017 study by the University of Washington found that race mattered more than income in determining exposure to nitrous oxide pollution. More explicit violence against minorities has been used to crush indigenous environmental resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Coastal GasLink.

The power of large corporations to go where they want, extract what they want and brutalise who or whatever they want in pursuit of profit for the global north is neo‑colonialism and ecocide.

Freedom of movement

This freedom of movement is not extended to everyone. Since 2008, an average of 21.7 million people have been displaced each year by extreme weather-related disasters according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. The Environmental Justice Foundation has estimated that global warming will force up to 150 million climate refugees to leave their home countries by 2050, with 600 million or more at risk of displacement.

People seeking safety in the global north face serious violence, including rape and often death, along the most dangerous migration routes in the world. In the Mediterranean alone, at least 14,795 people died between 2014 and 2018 as they tried to cross to Europe. Those who make it to the UK are faced with the ‘hostile environment’ policy to deter migration and can suffer indefinite detention while their cases are processed. Everything is designed to make life as hard as possible for migrants who are deemed ‘illegal’ by the government’s oppressive immigration laws.

Border regimes have the primary purpose of preventing people from the global south from gaining fair access to the hoarded – and stolen – wealth in the north, and from fleeing the effects of the north’s fossil capitalism. They are a key part of our extractivist and unequal economy.

Radical solidarity

As activists, our reaction to this must be radical solidarity. Climate justice requires that we stand with people who are suffering the most from the brutal racist logic that underpins climate breakdown. We have to forge links between movements, because a diverse ecology of groups is more threatening to corporate and state power, and more likely to succeed.

As migrants’ rights and climate justice activists, we have to help each other, not only because we target the same structures but because we are part of the same fight for life and for justice. Together we can turn the tide against systemic racism and ecological collapse.

Reclaim the Power is organising the ‘Power Beyond Borders’ camp from 26 to 31 July in the south east of England. It will be a base for actions targeting both new fossil fuel infrastructure and the hostile environment. reclaimthepower.org.uk

Cameron Joshi is a member of Reclaim the Power and other activist groups. thearmyofthree.wordpress.com

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