A History of Climate Justice


Tommy Clark / Flickr
“Climate justice” has emerged as a new framing for climate change activism.

In recent years, “climate justice” has emerged as a new framing for climate change activism, one in which the grassroots energy of the environmental justice movement intersects with the global catastrophe that is climate change. A broad range of individuals and organizations identify as climate justice activists, from the well-known (Bill McKibben and Tim deChristopher) to the less well-known (Peaceful Uprising and Rising Tide).

Taken in aggregate, climate justice is a self-corrective—a direct response to the very real failures of contemporary environmentalism: in particular, its reliance on individual consumer-based lifestyle solutions, and its dependence upon abstract and moralizing arguments (the “ideological, theological, and economic”).<sup<1 According to climate justice activists, these two tendencies have rendered environmentalists’ attempts to halt global warming an abject failure, producing a paradoxical situation in which the general population is well aware of the imminence of global warming, yet feels entirely disempowered to act upon it.

From a historical perspective, the climate justice critique precisely diagnoses the congenital defect of the environmental movement. Scholars and activists alike habitually cite the first Earth Day in 1970 as the moment of coalescence for the modern environmental movement. The universal conceit of the event—the urgency of protecting all life on Earth—had the advantage of political malleability. In a time of rancorous political division, the message of Earth Day could be (and was) heard and appropriated by campus Republican clubs and Students for a Democratic Society, Congressmen, and countercultural circles alike.
This universal premise left environmentalism extremely well poised to take advantage of the shifting political and economic landscape of the United States in the 1970s. The country’s disinvestment in the public sphere, its embrace of “hyper-individualism,” its move away from traditional identities of race and class and insistence instead that it was a “post-racial” society: these seismic changes in the American public sphere were seamlessly incorporated into the post-ideological worldview of “mainstream” Washington, D.C.-based environmentalism.2 Those organizations which became the voice for the environment in Washington D.C. were the product of, and themselves contributed to, the migration away from ideologically-based movement politics and towards individual consumer choices, the erosion of commitment to the common good, and the belief that the free market is the most natural expression of human relations.

Although many environmentalists who went to Washington, D.C. in the 1970s would have been horrified to be associated with these broader transitions, it is undeniable that environmentalism was fully of its time. The best evidence of this complicity lies with what happened to those environmentalists who did make arguments against business as usual—whether unfettered economic growth, the identification of the individual as a consumer, or the primacy of technological solutions. To take a few examples: by the early 1980s, Friends of the Earth had radically smoothed its edges in order to adapt to D.C. Beltway politics; bioregionalists such as Gary Snyder and Peter Berg had been ignored by the rest of the movement; and Earth First! had been pushed into a hyperbolic radicalism.

By the early 1980s, the environmental movement was geographically and tactically bifurcated between D.C. power politics and an effusion of various anti-toxics, wilderness, and nascent environmental justice grassroots campaigns. It was not lost on contemporary observers that this bifurcation reflected clear lines of race and class. The boundaries between these two paths have only hardened in the intervening three decades, a particularly sad fate given the historical connections between the civil rights and environmental movements.3,4

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Sterling College / Flickr
350.org is a modern-day global climate movement that focuses on grass-roots campaigns and projects.

In stepped climate justice, the first concerted attempt to reunite grassroots and Beltway politics. Climate justice activists understand climate change as one symptom of capitalism’s organized oppression, and they espouse a militancy unseen in mainstream politics—a resuscitation of the tactics of non-violent civil disobedience honed through decades (and, in some cases, centuries) of labor, civil rights, and antiwar organizing.

Yet, not all voices within the climate justice camp are singing the same song. At present, a small group of some of the loudest and most recognizable voices within the climate justice movement has failed to transcend the divisions of class and race which have historically divided environmentalism. The suggestion made in recent months by a certain number of high-profile climate justice activists, including Wen Stephenson, Bob Massie, Gus Speth, and Bill McKibben, that climate justice activists should model themselves after the 19th century abolitionist movement, highlights these continued divisions. Writing in the Boston Phoenix in March of 2013, Stephenson described the need for such a historical revival,
“The parallels are irresistible: there’s the sheer magnitude of what’s at stake, in human and moral and, yes, economic terms…There’s the explicit emphasis on human rights and social justice, including economic and racial justice – considering that the majority of those suffering the worst impacts of climate change globally are impoverished people of color.”5

At root, the abolitionist movement was a white-dominated crusade predicated upon the inability (both real and perceived) of slaves to eradicate slavery themselves. For prominent climate justice activists to advocate a return to this paradigm of political action connotes a desire to embody the role of the white savior. Not only does this self-imagination keep the United States’ movement to reverse climate change confined within the stark boundaries of class and race that it currently inhabits, but it furthermore presumes that the impoverished and non-white communities on the frontlines of climate change cannot speak for themselves.

Who do these “New Abolitionists” believe they are representing? Who are they speaking for? Who do they imagine themselves fighting on behalf of? The very availability of these questions belies a self-understanding that is both inadequate and suspect. As Henia Belalia from Peaceful Uprising has argued, it is past time for the environmental professionals to dump the “colonialist ‘savior’ syndrome,” and instead to tackle “institutionalized and structural privilege” within their own organizations.6

The climate justice movement —the New Abolitionists included —took its start from how local communities experience climate change: as one manifestation of the broader web of structural inequality. The most cogent articulation of a politics of structural inequality can be found not through a return to abolitionism, but rather to the 1960s, to a politics that, ironically, modern American environmentalism helped to bury.

In 1965, Stokely Carmichael, then-chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), interrupted the terrain of civil rights activism by calling for Black Power. Carmichael argued that the time had come for black Americans to organize their own communities, and moreover, that this organization could only happen by blacks and for blacks. White society, Carmichael posited, was incapable of authentically supporting black liberation, because it went against its own self-interest. Racial “integration,” in his eyes, was a “subterfuge…for the maintenance of white supremacy.”7

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Library of Congress
The Black Panther Party was a black revolutionary socialist organization active in the United States from 1966 until 1982.

Black power had an immediate and radicalizing effect on the civil rights movement as well as the ongoing student and antiwar movements. SNCC expelled white activists, arguing that their proper role was to organize against racism at its point of origin: the white community. The Black Panthers, which began in 1966 as a community self-defense organization in Oakland, California, expanded within a few years into a national organization with offices in 68 cities. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), then the largest organization of the New Left with 100,000 members, began to re-conceptualize itself as anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist, allied first and foremost with the struggle for black liberation. By 1969, when SDS dissolved and the militant Weathermen emerged, a sizable cadre of radical white students believed themselves to be a white army fighting in solidarity with black Americans and all victims of imperial oppression worldwide.

Despite dramatic differences in tactics, Carmichael, the SNCC, the Black Panthers, SDS, and Weatherman all understood one thing: the basis for political activism lies not in moral conviction or good intentions, but in socio-economic consciousness. That is, real and effective politics stem from people acting in the recognition of their own structural self-interest. For climate justice, such a re-articulation could open up a completely different set of tactical options. Self-defense options. As Belalia notes, “for many in this country, resistance isn’t a choice – it’s plain survival.”

Tactically, the New Abolitionists have espoused a return to civil disobedience as an expression of their radicalism, their willingness to confront “public enemy number one” – the fossil fuel industry—in person and on the ground. Certainly, this re-embrace of a set of tactics which has wrongfully acquired such a bad rap since the 1970s is refreshing and necessary, as well as an acknowledgement of the real work that continues to be done by a host of grassroots communities and organizations.

Yet how this commitment to civil disobedience has so far been expressed should occasion a wake-up call. In August of 2011, some 1,200 prominent environmentalists, scientists, and professionals peacefully protested against the Keystone XL pipeline in front of the White House. They were arrested and detained for refusing the order of the Washington, D.C. park police to disperse. Why did these arrests garner sustained national media attention and widespread accolades? Stories about the hundreds of environmentalists who, outside of the Beltway, daily risk arrest by placing their bodies directly in the way of environmental destruction are mentioned sparingly, if ever. Why exactly was it noteworthy and admirable for Gus Speth, an older professional environmentalist, to declare that he was willing to get arrested because he was “at the end of his rope”?8 Presumably the residents of Dimock, Pennsylvania and Houston’s East End have been living at the end of their proverbial ropes for much longer and with drastically more palpable consequences. Particularly infuriating is Bill McKibben’s repeated insistence that the Keystone arrests were the largest act of civil disobedience in recent history. This claim, which denies legitimacy to the large-scale and non-violent protests in Seattle (1999) and New York (2004), as well as to the Occupy encampments (2011-12), speaks to the limits of McKibben and others’ definition of civil disobedience. When put into practice, the New Abolitionists’ embrace of “radicalism” and “civil disobedience” rings hollow in comparison with the principled militancy of the 1960s, and the ongoing direct actions of grassroots climate justice activists at actual sites of environmental destruction.

If the New Abolitionists’ real desire is to escape association with the legacy of consumer-choice and compromise environmentalism, they would do well to join their truly radical counterparts by naming the elephant in the room: capitalism. Such a direct naming is a necessary step towards clarifying their own allegiances. To date, this direct naming has remained confined to the so-called “radical” environmentalists, such as Earth First!, the Earth Liberation Front, Rising Tide, and Peaceful Uprising. Not incidentally, these environmentalists are also those who already understand their activism as self-defense.

Most Americans recognize that they live in a radically unequal world. Most realize that they are on the losing end of the equation. So why have these people failed to see their struggles reflected in climate justice politics? The workers sickened and killed from chemical exposure during the BP oil spill cleanup, residents of South Los Angeles whose children are inhale the emissions from gas extraction, or the residents of the Marcellus Shale whose water is undrinkable: why have these communities, each of whom is on the front-lines of environmental destruction in the United States, yet to join the ongoing struggle against climate change?

Responsibility for the disconnect between local communities and the globally-focused climate justice movement lies squarely on the shoulders of those well-known climate change activists who have bypassed the human landscape which successful climate justice organizing must inhabit. The self-imagination as New Abolitionists implies a selfless “speaking for” the masses that are unable to speak for themselves. Yet this is manifestly not the case. Local communities are completely able to speak for themselves: they simply do so in a different language.

If their goal is to articulate the connection between the challenges faced by local communities and the global fight against climate change in a way that broad populations of dispossessed people hear and respond to, the New Abolitionists need to radically recalibrate their approach. The first step will be to truly ally with grassroots climate justice activists, by stepping out of the limelight to lockdown on the Keystone pipeline or staging a sit-in at TD Bank to protest its continued funding of the pipeline. In this regard, the radical leftist politics of the 1960s illuminate a structural critique of oppression that recognizes the differential burdens placed by manmade climate change on the poor and non-white populations of the world. Moreover, they suggest how a clear understanding of structural inequality leads directly to a praxis of self-defense.

It is time for the loudest voices in the climate justice camp to go all the way: to stop representing and find the grounds for true solidarity.