In 2022, Americans face two terrifying prospects: one, that accelerating climate chaos could render much of the Earth unlivable, and two, that the United States’ current political drift toward right-wing authoritarian rule could quickly become a steep slide, dashing our hopes for attaining a multiracial, pluralistic democracy. With “In Real Time”, Stan Cox and City Lights Books blog (scroll down) follow the climate, voting rights, and justice movements as they work toward a livable path for all, no matter who will be wielding the levers of federal power.
Listen to the “In Real Time” podcast for audio editions of all dispatches.
In conjunction with “In Real Time,” Priti Gulati Cox will be working on an artwork titled It’s Time, adding drawings that expand the work outward, in concentric ovals, tracking the pivotal events of the next two years. These pen & ink drawings are hand-embroidered on canvas.
Below are links to the dispatches so far. Please click on the image to see detail of individual drawings for the month with captions; click on “Part 1”, “Part 2” etc., to read the monthly posts on the City Lights blog.
Click on “part 1”, “part 2” etc., to hear conversation about the dispatches between Stan Cox and Justin Podur published monthly on Justin’s blogThe Anti-Empire Project.
On October 29th, 75-year-old Saifullah Paracha, Guantánamo Bay’s oldest detainee, was finally released by U.S. authorities and flown home to his family in Karachi, Pakistan. He had been incarcerated for nearly two decades without either charges or a trial. His plane touched down in a land still reeling from this year’s cataclysmic monsoon floods that, in July, had covered an unparalleled one-third of that country in July. Even his own family’s neighborhood, the well-heeled Defense Housing Authority complex, had been thoroughly inundated with, as a reporter wrote at the time, “water gushing into houses.”
Having endured 19 years of suffering inflicted by the brute force of imperialism during America’s “Global War on Terror,” Paracha, along with all of Pakistan, will now suffer through the climatic devastation wrought by the invisible hand of economic imperialism. Indeed, even as his family members were embracing him for the first time since that fateful day in 2003 when he was seized in an FBI sting operation in Thailand, governments and corporations throughout the global North were sharpening their knives, preparing to reassert their dominance as they do at every year’s U.N. climate conference — this one being COP27 in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt.
But delegates from climate-vulnerable, cash-poor countries like Pakistan and Egypt, along with members of climate-justice movements from across the planet, were also there. Tired of being pushed around, they had other plans.
A Breakthrough and an All-Too-Predictable Flop
At previous COPs, negotiations inside the hall were focused primarily on what’s come to be known as “climate mitigation” — that is, trying to keep future greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere — along with adaptation to climate disruptions, past, present, and future. For the first time in official negotiations, COP27 would also feature the demands of low-income, vulnerable countries eager to be compensated for the devastating impacts they, like flooded Pakistan, have already suffered or will suffer thanks to climate change. After all, the global overheating of the present moment was caused by greenhouse gases emitted during the past two centuries, chiefly by the large industrial societies of the global North. In the shorthand of those negotiations, such polluter-pays compensation is known as “loss and damage.”
At previous climate summits, the “haves” resisted the very idea of the have-nots demanding loss-and-damage compensation for two chief reasons: first, they preferred not to admit, even implicitly, that they had created the crisis now broiling and drowning communities across the Global South, and, second, they had no interest in shelling out the humongous sums that would then be required.
This year, however, the shocking death and destruction inflicted by the inundation of Pakistan and, more recently of Nigeria, stoked an already surging movement to put loss and damage on COP’s agenda for the first time. And thanks to unrelenting pressure from that climate-justice groundswell, COP27 did end with the United States, the European Union, and the rest of the rich world approving an agreement to “establish a fund for responding to loss and damage.” Echoing the thoughts of many, climate justice leader Jean Su tweeted that the deal was “a testament to the incredible mobilization of vulnerable countries and civil society. Much work still to be done, but a dam has broken.”
The euphoria that followed over the creation of a loss-and-damage fund was well justified. But, as Su noted, the struggle is far from over. In a correction to its story reporting on that agreement, the Washington Post made clear that, although the batter had now been mixed, the cake was anything but in the oven. The paper informed readers, “An earlier version of this article incorrectly said wealthy nations agreed to pay billions of dollars into a loss and damage fund. While they agreed to create a fund, its size and financing mechanism have yet to be worked out.” Those two remaining how-much and how-to-do-it questions are anything but trivial. In the loss-and-damage debate, in fact, they’re the main issues countries have been arguing over for many years without resolution of any sort.
If the world does commit sufficient (or even insufficient) funds to pay out on loss and damage (and that’s a truly big if), vulnerable countries may finally have the means to begin recovering from the latest climate disasters. Tragically enough, however, there’s little question that, as ever greater amounts of carbon and methane continue to head for our atmosphere, whatever the affected populations may need now, it’s likely just a hint of the sort of compensation they’ll need in a future guaranteed to be full of ever-increasing numbers of disasters like the Pakistan floods.
And the reason for that isn’t complicated: COP27 negotiators failed to match their loss-and-damage breakthrough with any significant progress on reining in greenhouse gas emissions. Efforts to come to agreement on phasing out the chief sources of those emissions — oil, gas, and coal — flopped, as they have at all previous COPs. The only thing the negotiators could manage was to repeat last year’s slippery pledge to pursue a “phase-down [not “-out”] of unabated [not “all”] coal [nor “coal, gas, and oil”] power.”
On the one hand, civil-society movements prevailed in the debate over loss and damage. On the other, energy imperialism remained all too alive and well in Egypt, as corporate interests and the governments that serve them extended their 27-year winning streak of blocking efforts to drive emissions down at the urgently required rate. Yeb Saño, who led Greenpeace’s COP27 delegation, told Phys.org, “It is scarcely credible that they have forgotten all about fossil fuels. Everywhere you look in Sharm el-Sheikh you can see and hear the influence of the fossil fuel industry. They have shown up in record numbers to try and decouple climate action from a fossil fuel phaseout.”
How to Pay?
The World Bank estimates that the floods in Pakistan caused more than $30 billion in damage, while rehabilitation and reconstruction will cost another $16 billion. And that, says the bank, doesn’t even include funds that will be needed “to support Pakistan’s adaptation to climate change and overall resilience of the country to future climate shocks.” The floods seriously harmed an estimated 33 million people, displaced 8 million from their homes, and left more than 1,700 dead. According to the World Bank’s report, “Loss of household incomes, assets, rising food prices, and disease outbreaks are impacting the most vulnerable groups. Women have suffered notable losses of their livelihoods, particularly those associated with agriculture and livestock.” The disaster starkly illustrated the indisputable moral and humanitarian grounds for compelling the governments of rich countries to pay for the devastation their decades of fossil-fuel burning has caused.
For Pakistan in particular, America’s lavishly funded war-making and national-security industries are joined at the hip with the global climate emergency. While those forces are directly responsible for depriving Paracha and countless others of their freedom or lives, the greenhouse-gas emissions they generate have also contributed to the kind of devastation that he came home to when finally released. Furthermore, these industries have wasted trillions of dollars that could have been spent on preventing, adapting to, and compensating for ecological breakdown.
So far this fall, Washington has pledged $97 million (with an “m”) in flood-relief aid to Pakistan. Sounds like a lot of money, but it amounts to just one five-hundredth of the World Bank’s loss-and-damage estimate. In bleak contrast, from 2002 to 2010 alone, at the height of that Global War on Terror, the U.S. government provided Pakistan with $13 billion (with a “b”) in military aid.
To dodge blame and minimize their costs, the rich countries have been proposing a range of alternatives to simply paying loss-and-damage money to low-income ones as they should. Instead, they’d far prefer to have disaster-plagued governments finance their own climate-change recovery and adaptation by borrowing from banks in the North. In effect, rather than obtain relief-and-recovery funds directly from the North, countries like Pakistan would be obligated to make interest payments to banks in the North.
Fed up with having unbearable debt burdens thrust upon them time and time again, countries in the South are saying no thanks to the proposition that they go even deeper into debt. In response, the North has been tossing out other ideas. For instance, encouraging development banks like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund to release disaster-hit countries from their obligations to pay some portion of the money they already owe as interest on past debts and use it instead to support their own recovery and rebuilding. But countries in the South are saying, in effect, “Hey, for decades, you’ve used your power to saddle us with punishing, unjust debt. By all means, please do cancel that debt, but you’ve still got to pay us for the climate loss and damage you’ve caused.”
The rich countries have even floated the idea of taking a portion of the money they’ve previously earmarked for development aid and depositing it in a global fund that would pay damages to vulnerable countries suffering future climatic disasters. Note the key to all such “solutions”: no extra expense for the wealthy countries. What a sweet deal! It’s as if, domestically, the U.S. government started issuing smaller Social Security checks and used the money it “saved” that way to pay Medicare benefits.
The new COP27 loss-and-damage fund is supposed to prohibit such shell games, while also pulling climate finance out of the realms of imperialism, debt servitude, and what Oxfam calls the “disaster begging bowl.” What’s needed, says Oxfam, an organization focused on alleviating global poverty, is “a fair and automatic mechanism for financial support — rooted in the principle that those who have contributed most to the climate crisis pay for the damage it causes in countries least responsible and hardest hit.”
How Much and Where to Get It?
When confronted with numbers ending in “-illion,” as Americans were during the debates over the Congressional spending bills of 2021 and 2022, it’s easy enough for your eyes to glaze over and miss the orders-of-magnitude of difference among such figures. In an American world where the Pentagon budget alone is headed for $1 trillion sometime in this decade, it’s easy enough to forget, for example, that a million of those dollars is just one-millionth of a trillion of them. In response, in discussing the staggering sums needed to deal with our already desperately overheating planet and the amounts available to pay for loss and damage, we’ll now put everything in terms of billions of U.S. dollars.
High-emitting countries like ours have run up quite a climate tab. A June 2022 report from the V-20 group, which represents 55 of the world’s lowest-income, most climate-vulnerable economies, estimates that, from 2000 to 2019, their membership lost $525 billion thanks to climate disruption. That’s a huge blow to a staggeringly large set of countries whose gross domestic products add up to just $2,400 billion. But in the global North, such sums and even far larger ones, while more than pocket change, are still easily affordable, as that Pentagon budget suggests.
By Oxfam’s reckoning, hundreds of billions of dollars could be raised for paying loss-and-damage by taxing fossil-fuel extraction, international cargo shipping, frequent flying, and other significantly carbon-producing activities,. Progressive wealth taxes could net even more: $3,600 billion annually, according to the Climate Action Network (CAN), which also estimates that ending government subsidies to corporations (one-third of which go to fossil-fuel companies) could net $1,800 billion annually. Furthermore, cuts in military spending could free up a whopping $2,000 billion per year globally. The latter could be an especially juicy target. For instance, by CAN’s estimate, the United States’s fair share of payments owed to the Global South for climate mitigation and adaptation, plus loss-and-damage reparations, would come to roughly $1,600 billion over the next decade. And those 10 payments of $160 billion each could be covered if the Pentagon just ditched production of its most disastrously expensive jet fighter, the $1,700 billion F-35, and diverted the money toward climate assistance.
It’s always the government’s job to spend big when America faces a dire emergency, wherever the money comes from. In 2020-2021, Congress passed more than $3,000 billion in Covid relief — enough to pay our international climate tab, as estimated by CAN, for 19 years.
“Our Cause Is One”
Shortly after Saifullah Paracha’s return to Karachi in October, another family, in Sharm el-Sheikh 2,340 miles away, had embarked on what reporter Jeff Shenker called “a desperate and possibly reckless mission” to save the life of one of their own: the British-Egyptian human-rights activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah, possibly Egypt’s most prominent political prisoner.
Abd El-Fattah, who has spent most of the last decade behind bars for speaking out against Egypt’s oppressive regime, had been on a partial hunger strike since April. After visiting him on November 18th, his family reported that he had broken his hunger strike “out of a desire to stay alive, but he would resume it if no progress was made regarding his freedom.” His sister Sanaa Seif told reporters inside the COP27 conference hall,
[BLOCKQUOTE] “He’s not in prison for the Facebook post they charged him with. He’s in prison because he’s someone who makes people believe the world can be a better place. He’s someone trying to make the world a better place… There are tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt. There are more around the world. Climate activists get arrested, kidnapped in Latin America. We face the same kind of oppression, and our cause is one.”
What is Guantánamo Bay but a place where the American empire has practiced its human-breaking tactics for 20 years without accountability offshore of any system of justice? What is the U.N. climate summit but a meeting place where the world’s elite have protected their power for 27 years and counting?
Living as a “forever prisoner” (as the Guardian dubbed Saifullah Paracha in 2018) was, he once said, “like being alive in your own grave.” Forever wars, forever prisoners, forever climate chaos, forever theft. That’s the world we live in, where governments like those of the United States and Egypt throw innocent Muslims like Saifullah Paracha and pro-democracy dissidents like Alaa Abd el-Fattah into prison for standing in the way of their forever-repressive interests.
Reporting on the struggle to free Abd el-Fattah, Shenker noted, “The phrase ‘We Have Not Yet Been Defeated’ became the unofficial slogan of COP27, a reference to the title of a book by Abd el-Fattah published in 2021, ‘You Have Not Yet Been Defeated.’” Could the perseverance and courage of people like Paracha, Abd el-Fattah, and the activists for climate justice and human rights — both those who attended the conference at Sharm-el-Sheik and countless others around the world, make it possible someday to drop the “Yet” and say simply, “We Have Not Been Defeated”?
This November, voters stood up and rejected a host of anti-democratic candidates all across America. Although the GOP eked out a victory in the House of Representatives, dimming prospects for further progress on climate and other issues for at least a couple of years, the nation managed to avoid a much worse fate.
In Part 1 of “In Real Time” last April, I included a quote from the historian Thomas Zimmer in which he described our precarious, knife-edge political situation: “America will either slide into authoritarianism or make the leap to multiracial, pluralistic democracy.” Since he wrote that, our political situation has been sliding, not leaping. Much remains to be done if we’re to manage a leap toward real democracy—nevertheless, we’ve kept alive our prospects for achieving an ecologically livable future while fending off a host of power grabs by would-be autocrats.
The stakes are higher than ever
In the other national crisis that’s coming to a head, the climate emergency, the good times definitely aren’t rolling. A couple of weeks before US elections ended and the COP27 global climate conference got underway in Egypt, two global climate-related agencies explained clearly that nations are making little or no headway on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and that time is running out.
The World Meteorological Organization issued a report showing that from 2020 to 2021, the yearly increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration accelerated, exceeding the average annual increase during the 2010s. Scientists also observed that the concentration of methane, another greenhouse gas, experienced “the biggest year-on-year jump . . . since systematic measurements began almost 40 years ago.”
Meanwhile, the UN’s Emissions Gap Report for 2022, ominously titled “The Closing Window,” concluded that current plans by the world’s nations, taken together, will “make a negligible difference” in emissions by 2030. Even if all nations fulfill the pledges they made at last year’s global climate summit in Glasgow, says the report, the Earth will undergo a catastrophic 2.5°C temperature rise by the end of the century. And governments are not keeping up with even those weak pledges. If they continue following their current policies, says the UN, the temperature rise may reach 2.8°C or higher.
These reports followed a September 2022 article in the journal Science that vividly described the bleak consequences of our failure to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. It showed that the Earth may have already undergone enough warming to reach several “tipping points”—changes that “lead to abrupt, irreversible, and dangerous impacts with serious implications for humanity”—and will cross several more such one-way bridges in coming decades, even if all emissions-reductions pledges under the Paris climate agreement are fulfilled. Tipping points include disasters such as melting of permafrost, collapse of ice sheets, and dieback of rain forests.
Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and a co-author of the Science study, told The Guardian that the world is “very, very close to irreversible changes. . . . [T]ime is really running out very, very fast.” He added, “It’s a really bleak moment,” because “we’re not delivering on either the Paris or Glasgow climate agreements,” even as emissions keep rising. And there is no good reason to expect that the high-emitting nations will pledge adequately ambitious phaseouts of fossil fuels at COP27 and live up to them. Now there’s no time left to wait around for the rest of the world to start deeply cutting emissions; the United States needs to start phasing out oil, gas, and coal immediately. But can we?
Consequences for climate policy
Writing for Scientific American the day after the midterms, while correctly assuming a GOP win in the House but not yet knowing the margin, Adam Aton and Scott Waldman listed several ways in which the results could impact US climate policy. The new House GOP caucus will include even more far-right extremists than the current one, but won’t be able to get climate-hostile bills passed into law, thanks to its narrow majority, a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate, and President Biden’s veto power. These extremists can cause plenty of trouble, nonetheless. For example, Republican-controlled House committees might hold hearings to attack the Interior Department, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Forest Service, the Council on Environmental Quality, and other agencies that deal with environmental issues, while the chamber’s Select Committee on the Climate Crisis might be completely dissolved.
The MAGA House contingent is determined to disrupt implementation of even loosely climate-related laws such as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. However, the GOPers’ failure to gain an advantage of more than a few House seats, alongside their losses in critical governors’ races, will limit their ability to create havoc.
This election also removed or loosened the GOP grip on governments in a number of states, reducing the risk of chicanery in the next presidential election. Michigan and Minnesota will be under unified Democratic control in both legislative chambers plus the governor’s mansion—in Michigan’s case, for the first time in 38 years. Crucially, all of the election-denier liars running for secretary of state positions in swing states were defeated. As I write this, only one, Mark Finchem in Arizona, is contesting his defeat, and he will fail. Secretaries of state will play a central role in the presidential election in two years, so keeping those positions secure was crucial to preventing a rerun of the 2020 assault on the electoral system.
Aton and Waldman cited six gubernatorial and congressional election results that could be especially consequential for climate policy. Democratic candidates won or are leading in all of those races, and if that holds, some modest progress could result. On the other hand, the victory of one Democrat, oil-and-gas-friendly Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas (who narrowly defeated a climate-friendly opponent in the party primary), did not help the climate cause.
I continue to worry that passage of the IRA in August has reduced pressure to pass much more ambitious climate legislation in coming years. Similarly, the evaporation of this year’s predicted “red wave” increases my concern that our society will again become complacent about the anti-democratic threats that hamper our ability to adequately address climate change, systemic racism, and a host of other issues. When the networks announced five days after the election ended that the Democrats had retained their majority in the Senate, majority leader Chuck Schumer proclaimed, “We were on the edge of autocracy, and thank God the American people pulled us back!” Let’s all be glad of that, while also realizing we’re still close enough to that edge that we can peer into the abyss.
There’s no shortage of red flags. Donald Trump has announced a third run for the White House, and the broader threats to the will of the majority and the rule of law have not gone away. In this election, more than 80 percent of victorious GOP House candidates, almost half of those who won Senate seats, and 25 candidates who won governor, secretary-of-state, or attorney general races out in the states have questioned or denied the 2020 election results. Writing for The Atlantic a week after the election, Elaine Godfrey warned, “Election denial is now a chronic wound in America’s body politic, only partially healed, and ready to reopen—red and raw—whenever circumstances permit.”
If we now sit back and relax, it’s still possible that a MAGA regime, with or without Trump, with or without cheating, could gain control of both Congress and the White House in 2024. Were that to happen, we’d see a mass repeal of environmental legislation, including the IRA. Congress would likely pass into law sweeping measures that increasingly normalize racist anti-woke laws, book bans, anti-trans repression, forced-birth laws, intolerance for immigration, and protections for the fossil fuel business. And to keep itself in power the MAGA right could be expected to gleefully take a sledgehammer to voting rights and election administration.
In an October 20 article titled “We Need to Stop Calling Ourselves Conservatives,” John Daniel Davidson, a senior editor at the arch-far-right outlet The Federalist, made MAGA goals crystal clear. He wrote that conservatives “should stop thinking of themselves as conservatives (much less as Republicans) and start thinking of themselves as radicals, restorationists, and counterrevolutionaries.” He continued,
Put bluntly, if conservatives want to save the country they are going to have to rebuild, and in a sense, re-found it, and that means getting used to the idea of wielding power, not despising it. . . . conservatives will have to discard outdated and irrelevant notions about ‘small government.’ The government will have to become, in the hands of conservatives, an instrument of renewal in American life — and in some cases, a blunt instrument indeed.
This sort of language was casually mainstream in GOP circles before the election, and there’s no reason to expect far-right lawmakers and governors to be chastened by the November 8 results. Even if Team MAGA is prevented from taking long-term one-party control of the federal government, we face a rough road ahead. A nation having one of two major parties dominated by leaders hostile to democracy is at risk of experiencing lasting damage.
We don’t know what we’ll be facing in 2025
Pro-democracy observers who had been bracing for an election-night horror show are of course delighted that the forces of authoritarianism have been thwarted, at least for now. Those results were consistent with research by Jason Brownlee, a professor in the Department of Government at the University of Texas, showing that affluent countries such as ours tend to oscillate up and down the political spectrum without plunging into long-term autocracy. Two weeks before the election, Brownlee told me he believed that the likelihood of an autocratic takeover of the US government “is very, very low,” and that even the kind of “competitive authoritarianism,” that we see in Hungary under strongman Viktor Orban (a MAGA hero) is unlikely to succeed in this country.
Because the US has an entrenched two-party system and the federal government’s executive and legislative branches are separate—a division that doesn’t exist in Hungary— Brownlee says, “It’s much more difficult for one of the two parties in the US system to take complete control for any protracted period.” Even if that were to occur, he believes, “it will be exceedingly difficult to make radical changes to the Constitution,” as was done in Orban’s Hungary. His research has shown that over the past century, the majority of countries that went through a spell of democratic backsliding, as the US has been doing over the past decade or so, recovered without descending into autocracy. Nevertheless, I believe it’s important to remember (as investment brokers always warn) that past performance may not be indicative of future results. We’d better not assume that this year’s election has eradicated the threat for good.
Regarding the consequences for climate policy if a MAGA regime does manage to grab power in 2024, Brownlee said,
In modern history, when responding to the climate crisis and other environmental challenges, authoritarian governments have, in some cases, outperformed democratically elected governments. But I wouldn’t bet on authoritarianism. I think what it comes down to—whether the government is authoritarian or democratically elected—is this: Are there organized movements that can compel a policy change? In authoritarian systems, it is generally harder to have that type of broad-based organizing and political movement building.
Like Brownlee, I can’t imagine betting on a far-right authoritarian regime to pursue climate mitigation in this country; in fact, such a regime would surely work to undo environmental legislation across the board, starting with repeal of the Inflation Reduction Act. And we have solid reporting that if re-elected, legitimately or not, Trump would pursue a wholesale purge of career federal officials and replace them with MAGA acolytes. I would expect any alternative MAGA president to do the same, transforming the EPA, the Interior Department, the Justice Department, and all other agencies that administer environmental laws and regulations into weapons of mass ecological destruction.
Organizing Against Autocracy
Kicking or keeping would-be autocrats out of office can have a big ecological payoff. Consider Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s victory over the authoritarian Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s recent presidential election (solidified by the latter’s decision not to respond with a Trumpian-style insurrection attempt). One study predicted that an area of rain forest the size of the nation of Panama can be spareddestruction in this decade if Lula keeps his pledge to end the rampant deforestation that the Bolsonaro administration allowed. That, accompanied by strong reforestation policies, would deeply reduce Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions.
In an October 2022 working paper titled “Pro-democracy Organizing against Autocracy in the United States,” Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks of the Harvard Kennedy School propose a set of strategies that could form the basis of “a broad-based pro-democracy struggle” in the event that “the U.S. began to careen more precipitously toward authoritarianism at the national level.” What effective actions can communities and broader networks of people take if we find ourselves living under a regime in which elections occur on schedule, but, as they write, “rule of law, separation of powers, press freedom, and civil rights are weak or nonexistent”? They suggest four broad strategies.
Because “elections remain crucial focal points for mobilizing robust collective action in electoral autocracies,” Chenoweth and Marks write, a good first step is to establish a big, multiracial, cross-class united front that continues to vie for power at the ballot box, even if victory is highly unlikely. They have found that nonviolent protests against such regimes “are strongly associated with the defeat of authoritarian incumbents and the ushering in of democratic transitions.”
Secondly, they write, we should build nongovernmental institutions to serve community needs and keep the struggle for multiracial, pluralistic democracy alive: “The more opposition groups are able to establish and maintain political autonomy, prevent the local enforcement of unjust laws and policies, and provide services directly to their communities, the more obsolete authoritarian forces will become relative to pro-democratic ones.” They cite possibilities such as economic cooperatives, food and public health services, mutual aid, community safety, and strike funds.
Thirdly, we should work to divide and unravel the regime “by inducing defections within its pillars of support” through nonviolent tactics “that can build pressure without increasing risk, especially toward minority populations and targeted groups.”
Finally, agile adaptation is required: “Movements can be more resilient when they find ways to make repressive episodes backfire—that is, when they are able to exploit the moment to demonstrate the autocrat’s weakness or hypocrisy.”
In looking through Chenoweth and Marks’s list, it occurred to me that these strategies could be just as effective in heading off autocracy as they would be in coping with it. They seem especially relevant in several southern and midwestern states that are sliding briskly toward authoritarian one-party control. With the midterm election now behind us, I’m hoping for a surge in what Brownlee called “organized movements that can compel a policy change,” a surge aimed at both building multiracial, pluralistic democracy and preventing climate meltdown.
Much of the excitement over the Inflation Reduction Act, which became law this summer, focused on the boost it should give to the sales of electric vehicles. Sadly, though, manufacturing and driving tens of millions of individual electric passenger cars won’t get us far enough down the road to ending greenhouse-gas emissions and stanching the overheating of this planet. Worse yet, the coming global race to electrify the personal vehicle is likely to exacerbate ecological degradation, geopolitical tensions, and military conflict.
The batteries that power electric vehicles are likely to be the source of much international competition and the heart of the problem lies in two of the metallic elements used to make their electrodes: cobalt and lithium. Most deposits of those metals lie outside the borders of the United States and will leave manufacturers here (and elsewhere) relying heavily on foreign supplies to electrify road travel on the scale now being envisioned.
Adventurers and Opportunists
In the battery business, the Democratic Republic of Congo is referred to as “the Saudi Arabia of cobalt.” For two decades, its cobalt — 80% of the world’s known reserves — has been highly prized for its role in mobile-phone manufacturing. Such cobalt mining has already taken a terrible human and ecological toll.
Now, the pressure to increase Congo’s cobalt output is intensifying on a staggering scale. Whereas a phone contains just thousandths of a gram of cobalt, an electric vehicle battery has pounds of the metal, and a quarter-billion such batteries will have to be manufactured to fully electrify the American passenger car fleet as it now exists.
Not surprisingly, the investment world is now converging on Congo’s capital, Kinshasa. In a remarkable series of articles late last year, the New York Timesreported on how the cobalt rush in that country has been caught up “in a familiar cycle of exploitation, greed, and gamesmanship that often puts narrow national aspirations above all else.” The most intense rivalry is between China, which has, in recent years, been buying up cobalt-mining operations in Congo at a rapid clip, and the United States, now playing catch-up. Those two nations, wrote the Times, “have entered a new ‘Great Game’ of sorts,” a reference to the nineteenth-century confrontation between the Russian and British Empires over Afghanistan.
Fifteen of 19 cobalt mines in Congo are now under Chinese control. In and around those mines, the health and the safety of workers have been severely compromised, while local residents have been displaced from their homes. People sneaking into the area to collect leftover lumps of cobalt to sell are being shot at. The killing of one man by the Congolese military (at the urging of Chinese mine owners) spurred an uprising in his village, during which a protester was also shot and killed.
The Times further reported, “Troops with AK-47s were posted outside the mine this year, along with security guards hired from a company founded by Erik Prince.” Prince is notorious for having been the founder and boss of the mercenary contractor Blackwater, which committed atrocities during America’s “forever wars” of the 2000s. Among other mayhem, Blackwater mercenaries fired upon unarmed civilians in both Iraq and Afghanistan and were convicted of the killings and woundings that resulted. From 2014 to 2021, he was the chair of a China-based company, Frontier Services Group, that provided Blackwater-style services to mining companies in Congo.
Prince has joined what the Timescalls “a wave of adventurers and opportunists who have filled a vacuum created by the departure of major American mining companies, and by the reluctance of other traditional Western firms to do business in a country with a reputation for labor abuses and bribery.”
Forbes reported recently that 384 additional mines may be needed worldwide by 2035 to keep battery factories supplied with cobalt, lithium, and nickel. Even were there to be a rapid acceleration of the recycling of metals from old batteries, 336 new mines would still be needed. A battery-industry CEO told the magazine:
“If you just look at Tesla’s ambition to produce 20 million electric vehicles a year in 2030, that alone will require close to two times the present global annual supply [of those minerals] and that’s before you include VW, Ford, GM, and the Chinese.”
Currently, the bulk of the world’s lithium production occurs in Australia, Chile, and China, while there are vast unexploited reserves in the southern part of Bolivia where it joins Chile and Argentina in what’s come to be known as the “lithium triangle.” China owns lithium mines outright throughout that triangle and in Australia, and two-thirds of the world’s lithium processing is done in Chinese-owned facilities.
Lithium extraction and processing is not exactly a green business. In Chile’s Atacama Desert, for instance, where lithium mining requires vast evaporation ponds, a half million gallons of water are needed for every metric ton of lithium extracted. The process accounts for 65% of the total amount of water used in that region and causes extensive soil and water contamination, as well as air pollution.
While evidently uninterested in Mother Nature, Tesla’s electric car tycoon Elon Musk is intensely interested in vertically integrating lithium mining with electric battery and vehicle production on the Chinese model. Accordingly, he’s been trying for years to get his hands on Bolivia’s pristine lithium reserves. Until ousted in a 2020 coup, that country’s president Evo Morales stood in Musk’s way, pledging to “industrialize with dignity and sovereignty.”
When a Twitter user accused Musk of being complicit in the coup, the Tesla tycoon responded, “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.” (He later deleted the tweet.) As Vijay Prashad and Alejandro Bejarano observed at the time, “Musk’s admission, however intemperate, is at least honest… Earlier this year, Musk and his company revealed that they wanted to build a Tesla factory in Brazil, which would be supplied by lithium from Bolivia; when we wrote about that we called our report ‘Elon Musk Is Acting Like a Neo-Conquistador for South America’s Lithium.’”
Bolivia continues to seek to exploit its lithium resources while keeping them under national control. Without sufficient wealth and technical resources, however, its government has been obliged to solicit foreign capital, having narrowed the field of candidate companies to six — one American, one Russian, and four Chinese. By year’s end, it’s expected to select one or more of them to form a partnership with its state-owned firm, Yacimientos de Litios Bolivianos. No matter who gets the contract, friction among the three suitor nations could potentially kick off a Western Hemispheric version of the Great Game.
And whatever you do, don’t forget that Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, a lithium-rich land with centuries of bitter experience in hosting great powers, is another potential arena for rivalry and conflict. In fact, Soviet invaders first identified that country’s lithium resources four decades ago. During the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan in this century, geologists confirmed the existence of large deposits, and the Pentagon promptly labeled the country — you guessed it — a potential “Saudi Arabia of lithium.” According to the Asia-Pacific-based magazine The Diplomat, the lithium rush is now on there and “countries like China, Russia, and Iran have already revealed their intentions to develop ‘friendly relations’ with the Taliban,” as they compete for the chance to flaunt their generosity and “help” that country exploit its resources.
Don’t Look Down
The greatest potential for conflict over battery metals may not, in fact, be in Asia, Africa, or the Americas. It may not be on any continent at all. The most severe and potentially most destructive future battleground may lie far out in international waters, where polymetallic nodules — dense mineral lumps, often compared to potatoes in their size and shape — lie strewn in huge numbers across vast regions of the deep-ocean floor. They contain a host of metallic elements, including not only lithium and cobalt but also copper, another metal required in large amounts for battery manufacturing. According to a United Nations report, a single nodule field, the 1.7 million-square-mile Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific Ocean southeast of the Hawaiian Islands, contains more cobalt than all terrestrial resources combined.
A U.N. agency, the International Seabed Authority, issues exploration licenses to mining companies sponsored by national governments and intends to start authorizing nodule extraction in the CCZ as soon as next year. Mining methods for polymetallic nodules have not yet been fully developed or used on a large scale, but the metal hunters are advertising the process as being far less destructive than the terrestrial mining of cobalt and lithium. One can get the impression that it will be so gentle as not even to be mining as we’ve known it, but something more like running a vacuum cleaner along the seafloor.
Don’t believe it for a second. In just a small portion of the CCZ, scientists have identified more than 1,000 animal species and they suspect that at least another thousand are also living there, along with 100,000 microbial species. Virtually all of the creatures in the path of mining operations will, of course, be killed, and anything living on the surface of those nodules removed from the ecosystem. The nodule-harvesting machines, as large as wheat combines, will stir up towering clouds of sediment likely to drift for thousands of miles before finally settling onto, burying, and so killing yet more sea life.
To recap: In America, the Saudi Arabia of green greed, we now covet a couple of metals critically important to the electric-vehicle industry, cobalt and lithium, the reserves of which are concentrated in only a small number of nations. However, the ores can also be sucked straight off the seabed in humongous quantities in places far outside the jurisdiction of any nation. Environmentally, geopolitically, militarily, what could possibly go wrong?
Plenty, of course. Writing for the Center for International Maritime Security last year, U.S. Coast Guard Surface Warfare Officer Lieutenant Kyle Cregge argued that the Coast Guard and Navy should have a high-profile presence in seabed mining areas. He stressed that the 1980 Deep Seabed Hard Mineral Resource Act “claimed the right of the U.S. to mine the seabed in international waters, and specifically identifies the Coast Guard as responsible for enforcement.”
He did acknowledge that patrolling areas where deep-sea mining occurs could create some dicey situations. As he put it, “The Coast Guard will face the same problem the U.S. Navy does with its freedom of navigation operations in places like the South China Sea.” But by potentially putting their vessels in harm’s way, he wrote, “the services seek to reinforce the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as reflecting customary international law.” (Forget the fact that the U.S. has never signed onto the Law of the Sea treaty!) Cregge then predicted that, “[a]mong the most challenging in a future seabed competition would be China and Russia, states that have already used lawfare in the South China Sea and Arctic regions respectively to pursue their territorial gains.”
To make matters worse, seafloor mining might not only spark military conflict but also become an integral part of warfighting itself. Manabrata Guha, a researcher in war theory at the University of New South Wales, told Australia’s ABC television that data, including topographic or thermal maps of the seabed, obtained through exploration of the seafloor by mining operations projects, could be of great value to a nation’s armed forces. According to ABC,
“Just 9 percent of the ocean floor is mapped in high resolution, compared to about 99 percent of the surface of Mars — a blind spot that affects both deep sea miners and military planners. This is all worth keeping in mind, because while the Pacific Ocean is set to be the sea with the most mining potential, it is also home to this century’s most consequential geopolitical tension: the rise of China, and the U.S.’s response to it.”
The resource-rich South China Sea in particular, notes ABC, has long been a potential flashpoint between China and America. As Guha speculated, U.S. use of deep-sea data in the region “could be expanded beyond its battle-centric focus to also include attacks on civilian infrastructure, finance, and cultural systems.” He added, “The undersea domain provides another vector, another potential ‘hole’ that the Americans would look to penetrate,” thanks to the fact, as he pointed out, that the U.S. is 20 to 30 years ahead of China in undersea-mapping technology.
“You want to pick and choose where you hurt the adversary to such an extent that their whole system collapses,” he said. “That’s the idea of multi-domain warfare… the idea is to bring about systemic collapse.”
The Burden of the Big-Ass Truck
Systemic collapse? Really? Instead of devising technologies to take down other societies, in this increasingly heated moment, shouldn’t we be focusing on how to avoid our own systemic collapse?
A national fleet of battery-powered cars is unlikely to prove sustainable and could have catastrophic consequences globally. It’s time to consider an overhaul of the whole transportation system to move it away from a fixation on personal vehicles and toward walking, pedaling, and a truly effective nationwide public transportation system (as well as very local ones), which could indeed be run on electricity, while perhaps helping to avoid future disastrous resource wars.
Such a transformation, even were it to occur, would, of course, take a long time. During that period, electric vehicles will continue to be manufactured in quantity. So, for now, to reduce their impact on humanity and the Earth, America should aim to produce fewer and far smaller vehicles than are currently planned. After all, electrified versions of the big-ass trucks and SUVs of the present moment will also require bigger, heavier batteries (like the one in the F-150 Lightning pickup truck, which weighs 1,800 pounds and is the size of two mattresses). They will, of course, contain proportionally larger quantities of cobalt, lithium, and copper.
The true burden of a massive battery in an electric car or truck will be borne not just by the vehicle’s suspension system, but by the people and ecosystems unlucky enough to be in or near the global supply chain that will produce it. And those people may be among the first of millions to be imperiled by a new wave of geopolitical and military conflicts in what should be thought of as the world’s green sacrificezones.
Read previous “In Real Time” dispatches here. Listen to the “In Real Time” podcast for audio editions of all dispatches, and hear monthly conversations with Stan on the Anti-Empire Project podcast (scroll down). Also see the evolving “In Real Time” visual work in the illustrated archive.
Two high-profile events relevant to this series are going to coincide next month. One of them—the US midterm elections, which will conclude November 8—could provide the strongest indicator yet of which way our society will turn in the near future: toward an inclusive, pluralistic democracy or toward the anti-democratic “semi-fascism” of the MAGA right. It could go either way. In contrast, the other big event—the COP27 global climate conference November 6 to 18—is highly unlikely to bring any perceptible change in the trajectory of world greenhouse-gas emissions or anything else.
Indeed, the election results could have more profound consequences for the Earth’s climate than the climate conference will have. If, in November of 2022 and 2024, pro-democracy candidates prevail at the polls and the will of the voters is not overturned, passage of bold new climate legislation won’t be guaranteed, but the possibility will at least remain alive. If, however, by hook or by crook, MAGA politicians prevail in large enough numbers to seize control of both houses of Congress and the White House, any chance for effective national climate action will be lost for years to come. In either event, expansion of local struggles for climate action and environmental justice will be needed more than ever, as a foundation for a bigger, stronger national movement. This month, I spoke with two climate activists who are working tirelessly toward those goals.
Taking Down the Fossil Gas Lines
Liz Karosick is a visual artist and climate activist with Extinction Rebellion in Washington, DC (XRDC). Karosick says that while protecting and extending the right to vote is important, it’s not sufficient: “The system’s not working. If voting was enough, the will of the people who go into the voting booths would be represented here in Washington, and it’s not.” That makes it even more important, she says, for more people to take part in grassroots movements, in order to “build those numbers before things progress even further into the scary future that we’re looking at.”
That kind of organizing is, by its very nature, local. And what better place to energize national climate mitigation through local environmental-justice organizing than in the nation’s capital? That’s why, says Karosick, XRDC has kicked off a campaign against Washington Gas Light Company, the city’s sole supplier of fossil gas. Traditionally known by the euphemism “natural gas,” fossil gas consists mostly of methane, a compound with powerful global warming potential.
Washington Gas has some of the oldest distribution lines in the nation, and a 2014 survey found more than 6,000 leaks in the system—about four leaks per mile of pipe, largely in the city’s low-income and Black neighborhoods. Some of the leaks posed a serious explosion risk. The company responded by launching a 40-year, $5 billion program to replace the entire pipe system.
Because installation of new gas infrastructure would throw the city’s climate-mitigation goals completely out of reach, XRDC is demanding that the DC Council stop the pipe replacement project (except for emergency repairs of hazardous leaks) and immediately launch a just transition away from gas that prioritizes DC’s most marginalized people and ends the city’s dependence on gas.
Fossil gas is a threat to humanity and the Earth at both the largest and smallest scales. A federation of state-based, citizen-funded public interest research groups, PIRG, reports that gas leaks across the US from 2010 through 2021 led to the release of 26.6 billion cubic feet of methane, with a global-warming impact equivalent to more than 2.4 million internal-combustion vehicles driven for a year. Meanwhile, open gas flames from stoves, furnaces, and water heaters also produce large quantities of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and other indoor air pollutants. These gases can cause severe respiratory problems—affecting children, especially—and are found disproportionately in low-income and Black communities.
An XRDC press release has more on the campaign to pressure the DC city council to phase out gas as quickly as possible. Karosick stresses that what she calls “hyper-local” actions such as the DC fossil gas campaign are necessary building blocks of global climate action:
Karosick stresses that what she calls “hyper-local” actions such as the DC fossil gas campaign are necessary building blocks of global climate action:
I get a sense that some people are confused, like, “Hey, fossil fuels are a global problem, much bigger than a local gas campaign. Why this issue?” But strategically, we’re mobilizing with an issue that’s local, that will build momentum behind local demands—like telling Washington Gas, “No, you cannot spend $5 billion on new pipes to lock us into 40 more years of burning fossil gas.” This is a way to change the trajectory, electrify the city. We feel like this is winnable. And then we can go back to expanding upon broader demands. We’re finding leverage points where we can access the people who have decision-making power and move public opinion.
Taking on Tesla
The way that young people have been taking the lead on climate in recent years has been especially heartening to Karosick, who says the climate movement is hoping for a massive influx of members in years to come. “The more young people who participate, the more change we can make,” she says. “It’s not a matter of explaining to them what the problem is—they’re very aware of that.” Still, groups like Extinction Rebellion can offer solidarity and additional opportunities for mobilizing. And, she says, “in our case, that includes nonviolent civil disobedience as the mechanism to get the government to pay attention and to make change.”
As it happens, I also had the opportunity recently to interview Alexia Leclercq, 22, a climate and environmental justice activist and a co-founder of the nonprofit Start:Empowerment. Our conversation took place onstage at The Land Institute’s annual Prairie Festival. (See the video here. Leclercq’s and my conversation runs from about the 14-minute to the 59-minute mark.)
In 2019, Leclercq began working with the environmental justice group PODER (People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources) in Austin, Texas. Formed in 1991, PODER has an impressive track record, as she explained:
Austin is highly segregated due to redlining. East Austin is a largely Black and Brown community, zoned industrial. A bunch of community members came together and started organizing to fight the dirty industries there. They started petitioning door to door, talking to the media, hosting toxic tours for politicians so they could see the conditions that community members are living in. PODER was incredibly successful. They kicked six major oil companies out of East Austin.
At the time Leclercq began working with PODER, East Austin was still being plagued by a host of problems, including pollution from gravel-mining operations and lack of access to clean and affordable water. And then there’s Elon Musk’s electric vehicle company, Tesla. According to Leclercq,
Tesla came in with zero plans for community engagement. We built out a coalition and started talking to the press to the point where they had to answer our emails and come talk to us. You could really tell from their company culture, that this wasn’t something that they necessarily cared about. They saw East Austin community members as a workforce to exploit, just as they were exploiting the land, air, and water. Loose regulations in Texas are one of the main reasons they’re there.
Leclercq told the audience, “We’re trying to push Tesla to make commitments, such as ecological restoration, community education programs, hiring Spanish speakers, and having programs for Spanish speakers to learn some English.” But in dealing with any corporation, she said, “it’s always kind of like a back-and-forth dance: How much do you really want to collaborate with them? How much external pressure do you apply? It’s a fine line.”
Taking a Stand Against Manchin’s Side Deal
“I work outside of the system, trying to build community and resilience and mutual aid, and I also do work that’s more like inside the system, both local and federal,” said Leclercq. At the time we spoke, her “inside” efforts were focused on a measure then before the US Senate to speed up the permitting of energy projects. The legislation would theoretically streamline all energy sources; however, its primary sponsor, Democratic senator Joe Manchin, valued it most dearly as a vehicle for expediting construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline to carry fossil gas out of West Virginia, the state he represents. In August, he had insisted that this side deal for fast-tracking his pet pipeline be included in future legislation as the price of his vote for the ostensibly pro-climate Inflation Reduction Act.
Leclercq joined a group of fellow activists in signing an open letter opposing the Manchin side deal. At last count, the letter had been signed by more than 600 grassroots groups and individuals as well as seven US senators and 70 House members. “We’ve been doing a lot of lobbying, a lot of phone calls, a lot of press as well,” she said. A few days after we spoke, she headed to DC with the Environment JusticeLeadership Forum—a coalition of around fifty grassroots BIPOC-led environmental-justice organizations—to turn up the heat on Congress. And they won! Faced with fierce opposition from grassroots groups and anti-gas congressional Democrats (as well as many Republicans who, while favoring quicker permitting of pipelines, were furious at the often-inscrutable senator for voting yes on the IRA), Manchin withdrew his permitting measure from the Senate’s year-end funding bill.
Next month, Leclercq will travel to Sharm-al-Sheikh, Egypt for COP27. As with all past COPs, she says,
Most of us in the grassroots groups don’t expect radical change to come out of it, because of who’s leading it and because the Paris climate agreement doesn’t have any teeth anyway. We can’t have a top-down revolution—it has to be bottom up. We’re attending COP-27 just to make sure that our voices are there, and we’re not being completely screwed over at the same time we’re building movements at home to create the change that needs to happen. And in trying to build those movements, we have to ask, “How can we create alternative systems that are not colonial, that are not capitalist?” And, of course, we need more people on board.
“It’s Not Something to Be Glamorized”
Responding to a festival audience member—a climate activist who had observed firsthand what she called the “over-exploitation of the energy, passion, and labor of young people involved in this work, which can sometimes lead to burnout”—Leclercq was blunt:
I think every youth activist I know is burnt out, which is a problem. In organizing, there’s very much a culture of having to do more and more and more at the expense of ourselves, and we need to shift away from that. We need both self-care and collective care, because we’re looking to build a sustainable movement, and it doesn’t work to have people burn out and leave. We need to make sure that when we’re opposing systems like capitalism, we don’t perpetuate them in our own work. Making sure we have time off, we’re respecting boundaries, we’re distributing work fairly. The media like to kind of glamorize the youth movement, but it’s not something to be glamorized. I’m honored to be doing the work that I do, and so are all the incredible youth that I’ve met. But I don’t think that kids, especially young kids, should be responsible for doing all the hard work. I think it’s really important for us to encourage intergenerational organizing, and making sure that everyone of all ages gets involved and does their part to create a more sustainable movement.
A few years ago, Leclercq and her friend Kier Blake set out to help build that more sustainable movement by co-founding Start:Empowerment, which describes itself as “a BIPOC-led social and environmental justice education nonprofit working with youth, educators, activists, and community members.” Rather than emulate mainstream environmental education programs by focusing on the physical and biological sciences, Leclercq said, she and Blake wanted to emphasize “the political component, the justice component. These are things that are not usually taught in schools. Youth spend most of their time in those schools, for thirteen years, K through 12. That’s a long time to not be learning about the climate crisis, about environmental justice, about organizing, about politics.”
Those gaps in learning, she said, “are a huge barrier to taking any kind of action. Before we can make any progress on climate and justice, there has to be mass education, and not necessarily in formal spaces.” The program is not just conveying knowledge, Leclerqc stressed; rather, “we’re building knowledge together. It was really cool to see students connect their lived experience with some of the ideas we were introducing to them, and have them share what their perspective is from growing up in their neighborhoods, and how they saw environmental justice and injustice play out.”
* * *
In the peril-filled decade ahead, local, collective struggles by people of all ages—as exemplified by Extinction Rebellion, PODER, and Start:Empowerment—will be essential to advancing multiracial, pluralistic democracy and climate justice nationwide. Democracy and justice are prerequisites for ending our transgression of ecological boundaries and ensuring a livable future for all.
Recent polls suggest that the bonkers, even barbaric, rhetoric coming from far-right MAGA candidates could be undermining Republicans’ chances of capturing both chambers of Congress in November. Now, the greater danger may lie down-ballot. If extremists win key offices in swing-state governments in 2022, they might manage to award their states’ Electoral College votes to the MAGA presidential candidate, against the will of the voters, in 2024 and illegitimately capture the White House.
With the prospect of such coup-plotting in state capitals, and with the Democrats’ much-hyped federal climate bill now passed into law, the focus of struggle on both the political and climate fronts has moved from Washington out to regional, state, and local arenas. Exemplifying this shift is a confrontation now building in the Plains states that pits a grassroots alliance of Native tribes, farmers, and environmental groups against predatory agribusiness interests. It’s a confrontation with potentially profound ramifications for climate and the broader ecological emergency.
A company called Summit Carbon Solutions is proposing to build a 2,000-mile network of pipelines sprawling across parts of Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. The system would collect liquefied carbon dioxide (CO2) from 32 ethanol fuel plants across the region and transport it to North Dakota’s oil country for storage. A second company, Navigator CO2 Ventures, wants to build 1,300 miles of pipeline to pick up CO2 from 20 ethanol and fertilizer plants in the same region but transport it in the opposite direction, to Illinois. At both destinations, the compressed CO2 would be injected into deep rock formations where it is supposed to remain until far-off geologic time.
Why would the industry go to all that work and expense? Because ethanol manufacturing facilities release a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere, canceling out that biofuel’s purported climate advantage over gasoline. Retrofitting plants to capture most of the CO2 from the plant’s exhaust stream, liquefy it, and inject it into the earth could help shore up ethanol’s shaky “green” image.
In 2016–17, the region fought a valiant battle against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which carries carbon-heavy oil into the Midwest from North Dakota. Now a broad, politically diverse coalition of environmentalists, Indigenous communities, and landowners is arrayed against the proposed carbon pipelines.
Mahmud Fitil serves as Land Defense Organizer for the Great Plains Action Society, an Indigenous-led organization in the forefront of this struggle in Iowa and Nebraska. He gave me a quick verbal tour of the territory that Native tribes and the broader alliance of groups are defending: Western Iowa is home to the Meskwaki, or Sac and Fox. Along the Nebraska–Kansas border live the Ioway people, who were expelled from their homelands by 19th-century white settlers. And several Plains tribes have reservations along the Missouri River dividing Iowa and Nebraska: the Umoⁿhoⁿ or Omaha nation; the Ho-Chunk or Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska; the Santee Sioux; and farther upstream, the Yankton, or Ihanktonwan Sioux. “They all will be impacted by the carbon pipelines that are being proposed for the region,” says Fitil. “The tribes are alarmed by the designs the pipeline companies have on the area and are mobilizing against them.”
The Summit pipeline would cross the Missouri River just north of the Winnebago reservation, and that’s a problem, says Fitil. “These projects typically have transient workforces to build out the infrastructure. During construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, we saw some of the issues that come with these types of transient camps: proliferation of drugs and alcohol, crime, violence, prostitution. That’s just not the type of thing we want in our communities in Iowa and Nebraska, whether you’re Indigenous or you belong to another part of the rural community.” The threat posed by the transient camps would be part of a cascade of damage that the pipelines would inflict on humans, other species, landscapes, and waters across the region.
An ecologically irrational enterprise
The Summit and Navigator projects got a huge shot-in-the-pipe from the climate provisions of the new federal Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which increased the tax credit for carbon capture and burial from $50 up to $85 per metric ton. That’s likely to stimulate even more demand for carbon transport and pump up an industry that has already proven incapable of significantly reducing the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions, even as taxpayers are compelled to fork over more than $20 billion worth of incentives to keep it afloat.
The primary purpose of these and other carbon pipeline systems was never to reduce atmospheric CO2. Its backers’ aim is to turn a profit by spiffing up the environmental image of US feed-grain agriculture. The lion’s share of US corn production goes to supply two commodities, vehicle fuel and grain-fed meat. And the chief purpose of feedlots and ethanol plants is not to provide for nourishment and transportation; it is to gobble up surplus grain, thereby propping up grain prices and the agricultural economy. Cultivating the tens of millions of acres of feed/fuel grains—mostly corn and soybeans—that generate that huge surplus has led to soil degradation, chemical contamination of air and water, high energy consumption, and massive greenhouse-gas emissions. The pipeline would address only the CO2 waste gas produced by fermentation of corn grain in ethanol plants, which is a teeny tiny sliver of those emissions.
This ecologically irrational system is very lucrative for agribusinesses that supply equipment and inputs to produce the big crop surpluses and big emissions. These businesses are now offering to create yet another profitable industry, one that will, ostensibly, clean up after the ethanol plants that were built to help sop up the grain surplus resulting from the industrialization of farming.
None of this carbon juggling is justifiable on climate grounds. In a 2022 open letter published as a paid ad in the Washington Post, almost 500 climate, environmental, and civil society groups urged the governmental policymakers of North America to “abandon the dirty, dangerous myth of carbon capture and storage.” Their conclusion: “We don’t need to fix fossil fuels; we need to ditch them. Instead of capturing carbon to pump it back underground, we should keep fossil fuels in the ground in the first place” (emphasis in original).
Stopping the double-steal
Burying and maintaining more than 3,000 miles of pipe requires access to huge amounts of land. In Iowa alone, Navigator’s pipeline will pass through 35 counties, Summit’s through 24. Company representatives have been approaching property owners across those counties about signing over control of portions of their land as an easement. Hundreds are refusing to sign, citing safety concerns (CO2 leaks can be extremely dangerous), damage to their cropland and waterways, and corporate intrusion on their property. In response, Summit is moving toward taking over their land outright through eminent domain.
“If these companies have actually secured as many voluntary easements as they allege,” asks Fitil, “then why are they moving to seize land through eminent domain so soon? People are starting to understand what these guys are up to, and a lot of people are reeling. It’s a very sensitive matter for Indigenous folks. This country was founded on land stolen from them, and now they are trying to prevent some of that land from being stolen again, this time by big corporations. So Indigenous people are standing shoulder to shoulder with farmers.” There is also the serious matter of burial mounds and other culturally sensitive areas that lie in the pipeline route: “We’re working with the State Historic Preservation Office and tribal officers to get those sacred sites preserved and make sure that they aren’t ransacked, basically, by these projects,” Fitil adds.
Farmers have excellent reasons to deny easements and to fight eminent domain. Many of them are cultivating some of the nation’s most productive agricultural lands, and the last thing they want is massive earth-moving equipment driving on, digging into, and compacting the soil in a 50-foot-wide swath across their farm. To bury pipelines, crews dig deep trenches, piling up the soil alongside them. Once the pipes are in place and the soil is dumped back into the trench, topsoil gets mixed with the less fertile subsoil.
The results of this soil abuse are predictable. In 2021, Iowa State University agronomists found that on Dakota Access Pipeline easements, corn yields were reduced by 15 percent, soybean yields by 25 percent. The study’s lead scientist, Robert Horton, said, “Overall, in the first two years, we found the construction caused severe subsoil compaction, impaired soil physical structure that can discourage root growth and reduce water infiltration in the right-of-way.”
An improbable alliance
The pipeline struggle has brought together communities that rarely find common cause and can often be adversaries. “We really have formed an unlikely alliance,” says Fitil. “A lot of conservative Republicans are joining up with Indigenous folks, and they all are joining up with environmentalists. These people normally don’t get along, they don’t join in anything together. But here they’re really pissed off and joining hand in hand in the struggle against these pipelines.”
Fitil told me that this improbable coalition is applying valuable lessons that were learned from the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. That epic 2016 confrontation on the banks of the Missouri River at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation managed to win a months-long halt in work on a stretch of the pipeline in South Dakota, before the newly elected Trump administration authorized a restart. But in Nebraska and Iowa at that time, says Fitil, the opposition was less unified: “People kind of went their own directions, rolled up their sleeves to fight it on their own, and we lost. But now things are different. We’re networking all up and down this pipeline route. Organizers, landowners, tribes . . . there’s a huge groundswell of grassroots activism going on. In Linn County, Iowa [home to Cedar Rapids], every other farm that you pass by, they’ve got grassroots signage up there, you know, ‘country billboards,’ saying ‘No eminent domain for private gain,’ ‘Not on my farm,’ ‘Not through my timber.’ These are just people, not ‘dot-orgs’ or nonprofits, saying, ‘Hell no, we’re not going to have it.’”
“This time, the tribes started networking before the companies even figured out which tribes were which,” says Fitil. “We started networking with our counterparts up in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska. As soon as we heard about the carbon pipeline more than a year and a half ago, we started coming together and discussing what we’re going to do. See, last time, North Dakota was doing their own thing, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, were all doing their own things. Now, we’re holding joint monthly meetings, we’re holding national and state meetings. The landowners are signing up with an easement action team. And that’s something that’s way different than it was with DAPL.”
On August 12, 2022, members of the Great Plains Action Society and allies from across the movement met with the Iowa Utilities Board, the body that will make decisions on eminent domain declarations, among other issues. Says Fitil, “They couldn’t have been any less interested in what ‘we the people’ had to say. These folks were handpicked by governors, current and past, one of whom is now working for one of the pipeline corporations. We let ’em have it! We and the landowners told them, ‘Hey, we’re all locking arms, we’re standing up against this.’”
“Is this pipeline really what we need to be spending our taxpayer dollars on?” he asks. “No! These are the industries that have contributed the most to the very crisis that they now claim to be addressing. This has really galvanized resistance like very few issues can do. And, you know, if it comes down to a matter of will, we’ll meet them out in the fields, and we’ll let them know how strong our resolve is. The land is worth it, the water is worth it. Future generations are worth it.”
One thing is constant in India: violence. The perpetrators are the same; only the faces of those who encounter and resist the violence change. In India, or JatiIndia — my name for this nation of jatis/castes — the social hierarchical structure of jatiism/casteism and the inherent violence that goes with it stems from the country’s tree of systemic upper-caste supremacy and injustice.
Today’s face of resistance is that of Bilkis Yakub Rasool or Bilkis Bano. Bilkis’ story is a nightmare that never ends; like a really bad David Lynch movie. Two decades have passed since the infamous 2002 Gujarat genocidal pogrom when Bilkis’ nightmare began.
Flag of Atrocities Caste:
On August 15, 2001, India celebrated 54 years of independence from British rule.
On January 26, 2002, India’s 52nd Republic Day, Gujarat was hit by a 7.7 magnitude earthquake, killing more than 13,800 people.
One month later, Narendra Modi became the chief minister of Gujarat.
On February 27, 2002, in the Godhra train tragedy, 59 people (mostly kar sevaks, or right-wing Hindu volunteers) were burnt alive.
Following which, more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were massacred in what came to be known as the Gujarat pogrom.
On March 3, during the Gujarat riots, in a village near Ahmedabad, 21-year-old Bilkis Bano, who was five months pregnant at the time, along with her three-year-old daughter Saleha, her mother, and other members of her family were brutally attacked by Hindu fanatics, killing many, including little Saleha. During the assault, Bilkis was gang raped by twelve of those men.
In January 2008, a Special Court sentenced eleven of the accused (one died during the trial) to life imprisonment on charges of gang rape and murder.
In May 2014, the Narendra Modi-led BJP government came to power, making him the 14th prime minister of India.
This August 15, prime minister Modi wanted India to fly 200 million flags to celebrate the country’s 75 years of independence.
Fly the tricolor from that village in Gujarat where Bilkis Bano was raped; from other impoverished countryside huts, city skyscrapers, slums, from atop taxis and auto rickshaws, little tea stalls and what have you. From every food-insecure nook and drought-ridden cranny, fly that symbol of freedom. That was Modi’s vision.
He must’ve been very proud of his people. The flag could be seen flying not only from all these places, but also from space! That’s right. “Space Kidz,” a “small team of young scientists working from Chennai” were behind an effort to fly the flag far, far away from the violence and gore of India on the ground … in space.
And on August 15, amidst all the tricolor fanfare, something else happened. The Gujarat government set free Jaswant Nai, Govind Nai, Shailesh Bhatt, Radhyesham Shah, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania, Pradeep Mordhiya, Bakabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Soni, Mitesh Bhatt and Ramesh — the eleven rapists who destroyed Bilkis Bano’s life.
Welcome to Indian democracy, where Independence Day is celebrated by freeing rapists and murderers; and on other days, throwing the country’s fighters for accountability and justice like Teesta Setalvad, and Rupesh Kumar Singh, among other lawyers, journalists, activists, human rights defenders, students, academics, and opposition leaders into jail.
“I have one request for every Indian. Can we change the mentality towards our women in everyday life? Pride of Nari Shakti (women’s power) will play a vital role in fulfilling the dreams of India! Respect for women is an important pillar for India’s growth. We need to support our Nari Shakti!” — Narendra Modi, August 15.
There are some lyrics from a song that come to mind whenever Modi opens his mouth:
Blowing every time you move your mouth
Blowing down the back roads headin’ south
Blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, baba
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.
Well, we have one request of you, Modiji. Can you shut up and let the country’s women like Bilkis Bano breathe?
Two days ago, on August 15, 2022, the trauma of the past 20 years washed over me again. When I heard that the 11 convicted men, who devastated my family and my life, and took from me my three-year-old daughter, had walked free. I was bereft of words. I am still numb… Today, I can only say this — how can justice for any woman end like this? — Bilkis Bano, August 17, Sabrang.
JatiIndia: Flag of Atrocities Caste, Present and Future is a continuing series that features a face of resistance to systemic injustice in the center of a modified Indian flag. The color orange in the flag symbolizes long-existing casteism, now made more open and feverish by resurgent Hindutva politics; blue — a color historically adopted by the Dalit movement — here honors all of JatiIndia’s and occupied Kashmir’s resisters of supremacy and injustice; the bottom green bar embodies the subcontinent’s ecological foundations, which are endangered by the ideology of extractive capitalism and defended by the country’s Adivasi (indigenous) communities and others, including Kashmiris resisting occupation. The circular image in the center, replacing the flag of India’s Dharma Chakra (Wheel of Law) signifies the view through the crosshairs of a saffron (Hindu nationalist) gunsight.
The blue strip in the middle of the flag is done in chain-stitch embroidery, illustrating the long chain of atrocities that have been carried out by the country over the years on Dalits, Kashmiris, Adivasis and other minorities. Each blue stitch, of which there are many thousands in the blue strip, represents a face of resistance to systemic state and upper-caste violence.
Flags of Resistance so far include: Thangjam Manorama, March 8, 2021; The Farmer We See and the Farmer We Don’t, March 6, 2021; Munawar Faruqui, February 13 2021; Masrat Zahra, January 9 2021; Manisha Valmiki, December 24, 2020; Anand Teltumbde, December 13, 2020; Ram Chander Chhatrapati, Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M. M. Kalburgi, Gauri Lankesh, Shantanu Bhowmick and Kancha Ilaiah, October 16, 2017; the sang-bazan, Kashmir, August 15, 2017; Gujarat, March1, 2017; Teesta Setalvad, February 10, 2017; Kashmir, December 21, 2016;Vinay Sirohi,Shaista Hameed and Danish Farooq,Lingaram Kodopi, March 29, 2016; and Rohith Vemula, March 29, 2016.
No, because the face of a little girl in Bangladesh, or a little boy in Cambodia, and the thought of a nuclear blast going off close enough to them for them to lose their life, is enough. Again, this is a love letter. This is a love letter to all the civilians of the planet. — Philipos Melaku-Bello, in response to a question from Jacob Morgan of Slate Plus about whether he had ever thought about ending his now-41-year-old anti–nuclear vigil outside the White House gates.
In conjunction with Stan Cox’s “In Real Time” monthly dispatches with City Lights Books, I am working on an artwork titled “It’s Time,” starting with a central image and adding drawings that expand the work outward, in concentric ovals, tracking the pivotal events of the next two years, month by month. As part of “It’s Time,” I am also including images that portray people and events that have been either deliberately or lazily almost lost to the popular historical imagination but are still very much part of and connected to the existential kismet of the inhabitants of this heating Earth.
These portraits of human persistence are not actually lost, of course; rather, they serve as connecting threads to the present state of things. Both Tariq Ali and Gore Vidal wrote about this hole-in-history phenomenon and gave it their own labels: respectively, “The Extreme Center” and “The United States of Amnesia.”
These threads, frayed and forgotten as they are, must be acknowledged for their timeless place in history, and repaired. Because if we fail to do that, we can’t move forward in creating a fairer, more just world. Reparations and justice are part of the same tapestry. Justice for the past goes hand in hand with justice for the present and future.
The first five portraits that I’ve placed in this dark center of the “It’s Time” series are those of John Brown, Leonard Peltier, Philipos Melaku-Bello, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and Julian Assange.
If you notice, all of these five men, aside from having been thorns in the side of a state machinery that would rather they disappear from the annals of a dark, white-elitist history, happen to also have long gorgeous hair and/or beards. As if now there’s physically more of these five men for the state to disappear. In this age of unrestrained, ecologically destructive growth, the one kind of growth I can wholeheartedly support is this nonviolent, defiant growth on the face and scalp!
Stan and I live in the heart of the conterminous United States. And as we all know, this heart was beating fast and hard on August 2nd when Kansans flocked to the polls and voted no on an amendment that would have stripped women of their right to an abortion. All eyes and ears of the country and the world were on Kansas that evening as the results were coming in, and we demonstrated via the ballot box that women’s rights are human rights.
But this wasn’t the first time that Kansas voted “No” on a moral issue of great consequence. On August 2, 1858, 164 years to the day before the abortion referendum, Kansans voted down a ballot initiative that would have legalized slavery in our then-territory. Which brings us to the first of these portraits, that of John Brown, who carried out his militant abolitionist action in Kansas in the three years leading up to the slavery vote, the era of “Bleeding Kansas.” Brown said “No!” to slavery and was hanged for it in December, 1859, a year before his vision was partially achieved and Kansas was finally admitted to the Union as a free state.
We all know of Leonard Peltier, America’s longest-held Indigenous political prisoner, who was wrongly convicted of the deaths of two FBI agents in June 1975 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Peltier, a member of the American Indian Movement, was there that day protecting his people against the white supremacists of the time and was handed two consecutive life sentences for it. Many witnesses whose testimony was used to convict him later admitted that FBI agents had coerced them into lying. In 2000, then-President Bill Clinton considered granting clemency to Peltier, but he was hounded by hundreds of FBI agents marching pathetically around the White House, so that put a stop to that.
It is quite possible that Philipos Melaku-Bello was present at the north side of the White House that December day as the agents marched. But how many of us have heard of him? I certainly did not know of him until this past Juneteenth weekend when Stan and I went to DC to join the Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls. After the march, we saw Mr. Melaku-Bello and what he calls his “makeshift tent” outside the White House fence. He sat in a wheelchair wearing a Rasta cap and Freedom Bus Riders t-shirt, surrounded by human-rights and earth-rights photos, posters, and mementos going back decades. He had a needle and thread and was darning a black pouch adorned with pink and white hearts.
Just beside him was a poster on which the number ‘40’ had the ‘0’ whited out and replaced with a ‘1’, thereby announcing, “41 YEARS 24/7 ANTI-NUCLEAR PEACE VIGIL. Surviving thru: Rain or Shine; thru Hurricanes; Sleet; Hail; Blizzards; Tornados; H1N1; Coronavirus; 3 BLM Closures. Holders of the 24-Hour Permit for the Black Lives Memorial Fence.”
Philipos told us that he’s been sitting there since 1984, manning the William Thomas Memorial Peace Vigil, which was established in 1981. He has volunteers that help him maintain the vigil day and night. But the Feds are waiting, he emphasized in an interview with Slate Plus. “They’re waiting for it to be abandoned by way of snowfall, blizzard, hurricane…That’s the way it can be taken away, by abandonment.”
To me that 4-by-4 foot area that Philipos legally occupies holds within it everything that the moneyed elite of the post-industrial world have had a hand in perpetuating, to the point of no return. Everywhere I looked in that small square I saw messages and images seeking justice for the earth, the “civilians of the planet,” for Peltier, for Indigenous, and Black and Brown people, for Palestinians, for the poor, for the countless victims of war and displacement, and yes, for Mumia Abu-Jamal and Julian Assange. They were there too.
We know that Mumia will be free. We just want to delay Mumia’s release as long as possible. — Maureen Faulkner, wife of Daniel Faulkner speaking at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5.
Mumia’s fight for justice has been going on since 1981, the year Philipos’ anti-nuclear peace vigil was established. He has been appealing for a new trial in the shooting of Philadelphia Police officer Daniel Faulkner since then. Just a couple of days ago I got a newsletter from Mumia supporters at Prison Radio, which read that “the current delays are a tactic designed to prevent justice and delay accountability… Fighting to keep Mumia in prison is all about limiting exposure. It is all about preserving the fiction that decades of mass incarceration prosecuted by former Philadelphia police chief and mayor Frank Rizzo and former governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell are not tainted by police and prosecutorial misconduct. The goal is to prevent the white hot spotlight on Philadelphia’s long sordid racist history.” Having had double bypass surgery in 2021, Mumia has a life-expectancy of 5 years. He will be back in court on October 19.
The United States uses the whole earth as a petri dish for its bottomless extractive and exploitative pursuits and leaves people like Brown, Peltier, Melaku-Bello, Abu-Jamal and Julian Assange, respectively, with a noose; 45 years behind bars and counting; a 4×4 not-to-be-abandoned liberated space; 41 years behind bars and counting; and a possible jail term of 175 years for exposing U.S. war crimes to the world.
“What they couldn’t tolerate was when Julian Assange was sent video footage which showed an Apache helicopter in Baghdad killing civilians. Ordinary people. That is the principal reason, the exposure of war crimes that caused outrage especially in the intelligence agencies of the United States. — Tariq Ali, AlJazeera, August 15.
Was it any coincidence that Assange was clutching a book titled ‘Gore Vidal: History of the National Security State’ in his hand as he was being physically dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London and into a police van in April, 2019? He was trying to send a message. Is it a coincidence that Melaku-Bello was sitting there like a cuddly Rasta Buddha repairing an old pouch? Maybe it was a subconscious message telling us that we need to repair the present and the past for a fairer, more just future.
Whether it’s criminalization of abolitionism or criminalization of abortion, it isn’t hard for one to connect the dots of time to see a pattern emerge. A pattern extinguishing any sparks of accountability for the status quo.
Death by hanging for being an abolitionist; 45 years and counting for being Indigenous; an open air jail cell for a non-violent civil disobedience vigil; 41 years and counting for being Black; and possibly 175 years for exposing war crimes. That’s American justice for you. And how many years does the state give the earth for exposing climate crimes? We’ll know in less than two years won’t we?
The Inflation Reduction Act is being hailed by the mainstream climate movement, Congress members, and the media as the most important climate bill in U.S. history. That’s a pretty low bar, and it says more about our government’s long record of failure on climate than it does about whether this law can prevent dangerous temperature increases in coming decades.
The lion’s share of spending in the IRA is directed toward producing new capacity for generating and distributing energy and for developing new technologies that consume energy. There is only small funding for environmental justice, affordable housing, and insulation. And it doesn’t mandate a reduction in use of fossil fuels. Indeed, rather than shutter gas- and coal-fired power plants, the government will reward them with subsidies or tax credits if they keep operating and capture the emissions. And rather than ban further drilling for oil and gas on federal lands, the bill guarantees that plenty of new oil and gas leases will be issued.
But wait! There’s more! In exchange for his essential “yes” vote on the IRA, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) extracted the promise of a second bill that would streamline the permitting of energy infrastructure projects, including oil and gas pipelines and coal mines. Manchin’s chief aim in this new bill was ensure completion of the Mountain Valley Gas Pipeline through his state of West Virginia. Once in use, the pipeline will be responsible for 90 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, while imperiling hundreds of streams and wetlands.
IRA boosters claim that the emissions prevented by the IRA will far outweigh the emissions that its pro-fossil-fuel measures will engender. That assertion rests on economic modelers’ speculative assumption that the new law will work through market forces to steeply reduce the use of fossil fuels. In fact, the IRA contains no provisions for a direct, surefire phase-out of fossil fuels; therefore, no one can guarantee that it will reduce emissions by 40 percent. Yes, our society is better off with the IRA having passed than we would be without its passage. But if we don’t find a way to snuff out fossil fuels, directly, on a crash schedule, the climate emergency will only intensify.
Why Climate’s Off the Stovetop
General excitement over the IRA has not dispelled a heightening sense of dread and discombobulation throughout our society. The weather’s going haywire. Representative government and human rights are under increasingly violent threat from extremists, many of them public officials. States are stripping away women’s right to bodily autonomy. The economy of the 1970s has returned, and systemic racism never left.
Humans can pay close attention to only so many crises simultaneously, so we perhaps should not be surprised that several surveys show climate change falling lower on the list of public concerns. To make matters worse, passage of the IRA may engender a dangerous new sense of complacency on climate: “Oh, good! That’s one problem solved!”
All of this prompted me to speak with some perceptive climate writers and activists who continue to urge that movements unite across issues to confront all of these crises—including climate—all at once, however daunting that prospect may be.
Aviva Chomsky is a professor of history at Salem State University in Massachusetts. She has written seven books, most recently Is Science Enough?: Forty Critical Questions about Climate Justice and Central America’s Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration, both from Beacon Press. When I asked her about the seemingly perverse, widespread apathy about climate, she said, “I think there’s still a strong sense that, oh, well, our institutions are going to take care of it. OK, maybe that’s the case with issues like abortion or gun violence that seem to have very clear and simple solutions that can be solved by our elected officials, if we just elect the right people.” But, she noted, greenhouse-gas emissions are deeply embedded in myriad ways throughout society and can’t be eliminated without a thoroughgoing transformation—and most politicians are allergic to that idea.
“To me, there’s no candidate who has an adequate platform on climate anywhere in the United States. So, as a voter, why should I rank climate as an important election issue? I’d be much more likely to vote for someone who’s going to protect abortion rights, because that’s something where I actually see there’s a difference between the Democrats and the Republicans.” With that kind of calculus driving opinion-poll responses, Chomsky says, “I don’t think it necessarily means that people don’t care about climate.”
(This difference in tractability between climate and other issues was illuminated a few days after Chomsky and I spoke, when my adopted home state, deep red Kansas, voted in a landslide to defeat an amendment to the state constitution that would have stripped away the right to an abortion. Needless to say, the probability of such a sudden, dramatic victory on eradication of fossil fuels is microscopic.)
I also spoke with Richard Heinberg, a senior fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute and the author of fourteen books, most recently Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival (New Society, 2021). “Our ability to act at scale,” he said, “is being hampered by all this other stuff. Suddenly all these crises are coming at us from all these different directions. So doing something really big and long term [about climate and our transgression of ecological limits] gets pushed not just to the back burner, but off the stovetop altogether.”
Heinberg said that in the 1970s, when some environmentalists were arguing that industrialized societies cannot be sustained over the long term without deep transformation, the environmental establishment’s response was, in effect, “Oh, well, we can’t really do all of that.” Therefore, he recalls, “Legislative efforts to fix the unsustainability of industrial society devolved down into little projects to target this area of pollution, or clean up that toxic waste site or whatever. I think the general idea was that all these little efforts would eventually add up to something major, which they really haven’t done.” Now, a half-century later, the political establishment remains stuck in “little efforts” mode.
Liz Karosick, a visual artist and climate activist with the group Extinction Rebellion in Washington, D.C. (XRDC), agrees that the urgency of fending off an array of political and human-rights disasters has, at least temporarily, kept climate in the background. “It feels like all of this is splintering us further in a lot of ways, because you have all of these specific problems that are intersectional and all feed back into one another. It’s like they’re just trying to keep dividing us. And that’s the last thing we need right now.”
We Don’t Have to Accept This
There could be a twist, though. The fact that we are seeing so much of what we value being imperiled all at once can be energizing. Says Karosick, “All of these threats are under the umbrella of an unjust system. It fundamentally has to be changed. And that’s why, with Extinction Rebellion, we’re disrupting business as usual.”
Chomsky also believes, based on her experience as a historian of Latin America, that cascading crises shouldn’t inevitably trigger despair and apathy. “Our culture of acceptance of capitalism,” she says, “just doesn’t exist in the same way in the formerly colonized countries; they see very clearly how much exploitation occurs in the capitalist system, whether it’s exploitation of labor, of land, of peasants, or of the natural world.” She believes that “the kinds of comforting myths about how capitalism works” that permeate our society just don’t work as well in regions like Latin America. And that opens up other, better routes to the future in those regions.
“How,” for example, she asks, “have Latin Americans united and brought about fundamental social change, either through armed revolution, or through the ballot box, or through some combination thereof? And why does the left seem so much stronger, even when they’re in much more dangerous, difficult circumstances than the left in the United States?”
Chomsky offers one answer: “In Latin America we see the real strength of peasant movements, indigenous movements, African-descended movements, peasant struggles for land against a corporate dominated economic model. You know, every Latin American revolution has had strong peasant participation. And every Latin American government has confronted the peasant struggle for land, which is a class struggle. And it’s a global struggle, because they’re struggling against not only local elites but also global corporations. That’s something we don’t have here in the U.S.”
Karosick thinks she may see a ray of light through the gloom, even in the U.S.: “At this year’s Juneteenth celebration in D.C., one of the organizers was talking about how before Covid, there was so much momentum. So many people working across organizations, something really building, and then Covid really just took the wind out of the sails. But it’s interesting—there’s now a general sense that these relationships are coming back together, across organizations.”
That same weekend, at the June 18 Poor People’s March on Washington, Karosick says, “You had all of these hundreds of groups coming together. And across the climate movement, specifically in Extinction Rebellion, we are joining with local residents and marginalized people who are being affected disproportionately by the climate crisis. There are definite opportunities to unite, and we’re definitely starting to sense that this is happening.”
In his recent writing, Heinberg has argued that in the affluent world, the ecological crisis is in part a result of what he terms deadly optimism. He described it to me this way: “We’ve now had seventy years or so of extreme optimism. Our public discourse has been dominated by the idea that we’re always going to enjoy ‘more, bigger, and faster’ because that’s good for business. But now we’ve reached the point where we can’t continue down that road. And a lot of bills are coming due from that era of excessive optimism—climate change, but lots of other things, too. So suddenly, we have a kind of pervasive pessimism sweeping society.”
For decades, Heinberg has been warning of what he’s now calling a “Great Unraveling.” In his book Power, he writes that in recent years, in his private conversations with scientists and activists, a common theme is that an unraveling looms in our near future. “We understand that a lot of our institutions are going to fail,” he told me. “We’re going into a difficult time and we’re going to have to adapt. But we have to be determined to exclude the worst possible outcomes.”
If, instead, we were to “just give up on doing whatever they can to make things better, if we were to spend all our effort only looking out for ourselves, the result would be a dystopian nightmare.” The best alternative to either deadly optimism or fatalistic pessimism, he says, is “sort of like what psychologists call ‘defensive pessimism.’” Those folks chose an extraordinarily unappealing term, so Heinberg has suggested alternatives, including “useful pessimism.” But whatever we call this stance, he suggests, “the motivating ideal . . . might be stated as ‘respecting limits and living well within them.’”
Chomsky also advocates for channeling pessimism constructively, and that, she believes, will require even more on-the-ground organizing: “I almost feel like we don’t even have enough of a critical mass in this country to engage in serious protest. We should be focusing on building that critical mass. In Witness for Peace, which I worked with a lot in Colombia, every time we had a protest or other activity, the question was, what’s the ask? In Latin America, street protest has been criminalized, yet massive street protests occur nonetheless. And they generally have very clear and coherent asks. And they’ve often been successful. If we achieve the critical mass, and if we have a coherent ask, we can do it, too.”
“Even though it looks grim, and it is grim for many already,” says Karosick, “every degree of warming we can prevent matters. So we can’t let up.” Pointing to a Yale University survey finding that 28 percent of voters would support nonviolent civil disobedience by climate groups, Karosnik said, “That’s huge. There is a sense that people are starting to get really frustrated with the government’s inability to do anything with this crisis, and are willing to push them harder. I think people are very aware of what the problem is,” and, she says, they’re coming to realize that “nonviolent civil disobedience is a mechanism to get the government to pay attention and to make change.”
Regarding movements like the Poor Peoples’ Campaign and Extinction Rebellion that are striving for critical mass and do have very clear demands for systemic change—even against what could be the longest of odds—Chomsky was reflective: “Yeah, I think we have no choice but to push harder despite everything, on two grounds. One, because even if it seems impossible, we’re making it impossible if we don’t do anything. And two, because we just have to. Even if there’s no hope of success, we still have to, if we’re to live with ourselves.”
CODEPINK Sidewalk Gallery of Congress, August 1st, 2022
The “Vote Yes” side screamed at us that we wanted to kill babies. Their skillfully branded mother-and-child logo and cynical three-word slogan “Value Them Both” were everywhere here in Salina, Kansas. Always the same cozy white-on-purple image and soothing words on yard signs and banners, as if they were My Pillow or Hobby Lobby. On weekends, they would occupy street corners. Just a half-dozen or so actual humans accompanied by a much larger number of stars-and-stripes flags (almost certainly made in China) flying in the crazy Kansas winds (which are quickly going climate-change crazier).
To our forced-birth crusaders, a woman, a fetus, and a live child are commodities, like wheat or soybeans. The higher the yield, the higher their value.
But that’s not all we witnessed here in Kansas in the months since a constitutional amendment that would have allowed the banning of abortions was plopped onto the August 2 primary ballot. Diverting our eyes from the fields of purple and white ‘Vote Yes’ eye-candy, we could see lots of ‘Vote No’ messaging. It was bold and personal, visual and colorful, creative and diverse.
We had an outpouring of signs, banners, voices, stories, costumes, and slogans. Everywhere you looked, it was different, and original. Each ‘Vote No’ rally on the sidewalks and streets had its own energy. Here in Salina, we saw an array of brilliant homemade signs:
Abort the patriarchy
Not your incubator
Mind your own uterus
It won’t stop at women!
Separate cooch and state
Free vasectomy!!! for men who vote yes
This body is not a political battleground
Vote yes to destroy constitutional rights
Forced birth? Sounds like an alien invasion to me!
Not voting for women’s rights is small-dick energy
Vaginas brought you into the world, and vaginas will vote you out!
and my favorite one: We are not livestock!!
At one of our ‘Vote No’ rallies, I heard a women shout at us from her car that “Killin’ babies is irresponsible.” Agreed, but the premise of her statement was a delusion—a talking point that Republican operatives first ejaculated into America’s highly fertile evangelical movement in the 1980s.
Life does not begin at conception. But in the U.S., violence does. To treat a woman’s body like it’s a high-yielding 160 acres of Kansas farmland is irresponsible. And it’s violent. To not give a hoot about the health and well-being of a born human is violent. To criminalize miscarriage is violent; to make a woman feel so afraid that she would rather tie her tubes than bring a child into this unjust world is violent. To have a U.S. Senator as cruel and ruthless as Roger Marshall—Kansas’ mini-Trump, who likes to call himself “Doc” but believes in neither science nor democracy nor good health care for all—is violent.
But we showed ‘em, not with violence and Old Glory and branding, but with peace and color, and with our bodies and voices. We showed ‘em with two words, “Trust Women.” That was the motto of Dr. George Tiller, a Wichita, Kansas abortion provider who was assassinated by a forced-birth extremist in 2009.
On another momentous August 2, thirty-two years ago, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the United States launched Operation Desert Storm. Activist friends Janice Norlin, David Norlin, and Stan Cox rose up against that war; this was back when I still lived in India. They have been organizing and protesting United States’ illegal wars and regime-change interventions since the 1980s. But from Central America to the Gulf War to the forever-wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to systemic racism to the latest assault on the rights of the half of our population who can be compelled to give birth, nothing much had changed for the better here in Kansas. Until now.
As we got closer to election day here in Salina, there were more frequent rallies, and the honks and solidarity shouts from passing cars got louder and longer. Not just thumbs-ups. People were hanging out of windows and leaping up through sun roofs. We thought to ourselves, “We might have a fighting chance to defeat this thing.” But we did not anticipate this. Never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined this landslide victory, not only in Kansas as a whole, but even here in little ol’ redder-than-red Saline County, where “Vote No” passed 55-45. Kansas voters sent out a clear message: We are not barnyard animals.
Stan and I, and Janice and David, have protested one goddamn unjust law and policy after another for decades, fighting the same fights over and over again, and losing. But no, not this time. Not on this August 2. We did it. We won, and won big.
Art matters, not so much on walls indoors, but on the streets and sidewalks, in full public view. With that in mind, in 2018, I established a peaceful space of community art-making and dissent called Sidewalk Museum of Congress, located in front of the office of Kansas’ then-1st District Congress member, Roger Marshall, in Salina, Kansas. Over time, it came to be a place for free expression and for the peace community to gather spontaneously and interact with the general public. Now, four years later, when so-called American democracy is being hollowed out, one U.S. policy victim and one climate-chaotic day at a time, CODEPINK, Kansas is replanting seeds of justice for the victims of US empire, greed, patriarchy and fanaticism, in a new location and under a new name Sidewalk Gallery of Congress. So, who says Kansas is flat? Come, join us on the sidewalk, and let’s continue to plant pink-seeds of justice together.
On Juneteenth weekend, tens of thousands of people walked up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the U.S. Capitol as part of the epically titled Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls. (Priti Gulati Cox and I traveled via Amtrak from Kansas to join in.) Although we were following the footsteps of a mob that had stormed the Capitol seventeen months earlier, this march embodied the polar opposite worldview. At the rally ending the march, Poor People’s Campaign co-chair Rev. William J. Barber II made that clear, saying that the event was not a violent insurrection but rather “a resurrection” of people power against violence.
Like its namesake led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign is working to end the violence being inflicted every day by a soulless economic-political system. The night before the march, at a somber, tearful vigil in front of the Lincoln Memorial, marchers gathered to mourn the victims of the past two horrific years, including more than a million Americans dead of Covid-19, along with countless more deaths from poverty, systemic racism, militarism, and ecological degradation. Rev. Barber solemnly declared this tide of death, mostly preventable, to be a case of “policy murder” that must be stopped.
A day earlier, the campaign’s other co-chair, Rev. Liz Theoharis, also decried the violence being inflicted on Americans, telling members of Congress that
Any nation that chooses not to lift 140 million people out of poverty and low incomes, any nation that chooses to disenfranchise voters, to withstand the greatest attack on voting rights since right after the Civil War, any nation that allows the poor to be hurt first and worst by ecological devastation and the denial of healthcare . . . is issuing a declaration of war on the poor.
The decisions that tumbled out of the Supreme Court soon after Juneteenth also qualify as “policy murder.” By cramping the government’s ability to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions, a six-justice majority set a precedent that will lead to countless more deaths from heat, fire, flood, and storms. By striking down firearms regulations in New York, they hamstrung efforts to stem the tide of gun violence. And by snatching away the half-century-old right to an abortion, they rendered millions of women vulnerable to grievous harm, bodily and otherwise.
These decisions foretell that the Court will likely do further violence by eliminating many other fundamental rights of individuals and striking down regulatory laws crucial to the public’s well-being. The six reactionary justices are immune to the will of the people and can be thwarted only by kicking or keeping their enablers out of Congress at the polls this fall.
“Show Up Armed”
The Poor People’s Campaign aims to mobilize poor and low-income voters from all races, ethnicities, and faiths to defy violence in all of these forms. So it’s doubly dreadful that this fall, voters, as well as election officials, are likely to face a heightened threat of violence at the polls.
Last month, the House January 6 committee hearings highlighted the abuse now being endured by the people who keep the electoral system going. Perhaps most appalling was the testimony of Georgia election workers Wandrea’ “Shaye” Moss and her mother Ruby Freeman. When Donald Trump falsely accused them by name of scanning fake ballots in 2020, they were bombarded with death threats, many of them racist. Moss had to change her appearance, go into hiding, and work remotely. She finally left her job in April and is still suffering harassment.
Election workers across the country, fearing for their safety, are resigning in droves. Often, they are being replaced by people who are willing to subvert the vote. A nationwide survey found that one in six election officials has been personally threatened, and one in three knows a fellow official who resigned because of threats.
The election-year metaphor “battleground states” is threatening to turn grimly literal. I was shocked to learn that today only seven states and the District of Columbia ban guns from polling places. With the rise in violent rhetoric and gun violence that’s been occurring since the 2020 election, voting sites and vote-counting centers are bracing for increased violence in November. Officials are worried because of folks like Mike Detmer, a contender for the Michigan state senate in the August 2 Republican primary. He told a meeting of prospective poll workers in January, “The ideal thing is to do this peaceful, that’s ideal, but the American people at some point in time, if we can’t change the tide, need to be prepared to lock and load. So, if you ask what we can do, show up armed.”
In a panoramic, chilling July 6 article, Rachel Kleinfeld, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace laid out how the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and other violent “militias have been embraced by GOP leaders at the national, state, and local level,” including in Michigan, Colorado, Oregon, Texas, California, Arizona, Wyoming, Florida, and Nevada. Having studied the rise of party-linked militias in Lebanon, Iraq, Nigeria, Colombia, and other countries, and the bloody consequences, Kleinfeld warns that “Even if Trump passes from the scene, the embrace of violence and intimidation as a political tactic by a faction of the GOP will cause violence of all types to rise—against all Americans.”
As scary as all of this sounds, it’s unlikely that Republicans will try to take power solely through force. If our side loses elections in 2022 because we have low turnouts, it will more likely be attributable to a collective sense of powerlessness than a fear of violence. Accordingly, the Poor People’s Campaign has kicked off a nationwide, four-month-long effort to register and energize low-income communities to vote “in historic numbers for our ancestors, for our children, and for the generations to come whose lives and planet are under threat today.”
A big turnout in November 2022 by America’s pro-justice, pro-Earth majority is indeed essential to prevent the nation from drifting further toward fascism. While electoral victories alone can’t resolve our predicament—the past two years have taught us that—they can buy time necessary for a national movement to coalesce and regain the path toward multiracial, pluralistic democracy. The Poor People’s Campaign could spark such a movement. Almost 400 “mobilizing partners” from the mainstream and typically apolitical to the deeply radical came together for the June 18 rally to address a spectrum of crucial issues (Priti and I were there with CODEPINK, the women-led group working to end U.S. wars and militarism.)
“Expressing Themselves with Two Tons of Metal”
Activists for poor and low-income communities are all too accustomed to the violence that is routinely inflicted by racist and right-wing elements—and, of course, by law enforcement. So, it’s not only election-related violence that must be overcome; nonviolent protest in the public square will increasingly be met with violent backlash from the extreme right and repression from the state.
Approximately 6 percent of respondents to a national poll taken by the Public Religion Research Institute in April 2022 lamented the increasing diversity of America’s population and also agreed with this statement: “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” Taking the poll’s margin of error into account, the results suggest that this is the position of 10 to 20 million Americans. Some of these people are already demonstrating their willingness to commit violence against nonviolent people whom they consider the enemy. They include the U-Haul truck full of Patriot Front thugs who were apprehended before they could attack a Pride event in Idaho and the lone racist gunman who massacred ten Black shoppers at a supermarket in Buffalo.
Because the June 18 Poor People’s march and rally had a permit, D.C. police completely blocked off a long stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue. Marchers and rally-goers were free to exercise their constitutional rights on a vast open field of hot asphalt. I thought back to May and June of 2018, on the fiftieth anniversary of the original Poor People’s March, when Priti and I had joined the campaign in a couple of rallies and civil disobedience actions in Topeka, Kansas. Actions included blocking traffic at major intersections near the state capitol. The campaign had not obtained a permit, but police swooped in to reroute cars and trucks anyway. Dozens of us lay in the crosswalks for hours until police finally got us up and issued traffic citations. The many drivers whom we inconvenienced were, for the most part, very patient, some even supportive. Only a lone pickup driver got a bit aggressive.
It’s hard to imagine things playing out that way these days. Starting in 2020, when Americans surged into the streets after police killed George Floyd, protesters have been facing much higher risk to life and limb. Last year, an analysis by the Boston Globe found that between May 2020, and September, 2021, U.S. motorists slammed into groups of protesters at least 139 times, causing 3 deaths and at least 100 injuries. The assaults continue. “You’re going to have people coming in and expressing themselves with two tons of metal on wheels,” a transportation security expert told the Globe. “That’s part of the landscape now.”
Just last month in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a man plowedhis pickup into several women protesting the Supreme Court’s overturn of the Roe vs. Wade decision. He drove over and broke one woman’s ankle. Iowa, like Florida and Oklahoma, passed a law in the wake of the 2020 protests heightening penalties for protesters while immunizing drivers who run into or over protesters—if they claim to have been fleeing in fright. Police did not immediately charge the Cedar Rapids assailant. Meanwhile, police across the country violently attacked groups of people who dared turn out to protest the Court’s abortion decision.
Legal experts worry that the Supreme Court’s strikedown of New York’s gun law will also chill nonviolent protest. When protesters or counter-protesters carry guns, demonstrations are about six times more likely to turn violent. That intimidating prospect discourages turnout. Yet the gun-toter at a protest scene, like the vehicle driver, is getting increasingly favorable treatment. The defense team for Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two men as they were protesting in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 2020, argued illogically but successfully that he acted in self-defense. Rittenhouse feared, they said, that if he did not shoot the protesters, there was a chance that one of them would snatch his gun away and kill him. This dangerous illogic—that my gun makes you a deadly threat—is often used to protect cops who shoot unarmed people, and now it has been applied to white, right-wing, civilian vigilantes as well.
Long Odds Call for Longer Vision
A pro-Earth, pro-democracy, pro-economic justice, anti-racist, anti-war transformation was already a long shot long before the rise of MAGA world, and the chief impediments haven’t changed. For climate, it’s the system’s insistence on unlimited economic growth. For Black lives and voting rights, it’s the elected and unelected public officials who continue to benefit from a racist, undemocratic system. For closing the vast economic gap between the few haves and the many have-nots, it’s the haves, with their massive political power.
Today, those obstacles may appear insurmountable. So why do the Poor People’s Campaign and other movements keep pushing against these longest of odds, even as the threat of violent retaliation escalates? Why don’t they just figure out how to adapt to life in an unacceptable system? They press on because long odds don’t equal impossibility. Introducing a must-see gallery of “48 protest photographs that changed the world,” in the July 2 Guardian, George Monbiot writes,
Protest is not, as governments like ours seek to portray it, a political luxury. It is the bedrock of democracy. Without it, few of the democratic rights we enjoy would exist: the universal franchise; civil rights; equality before the law; legal same-sex relationships; progressive taxation; fair conditions of employment; public services and a social safety net. . . And we will continue to come out in defiance, as people have done for centuries, even when facing state violence and repression. Everything we value depends on it.
At a time when rights hard-won in past struggles are being wrested away from us, we can draw strength from the knowledge that if people-power has prevailed in so many such struggles before, it can prevail again.